Euzhan Palcy holds a major place in film history. A pioneering writer, producer, and director hailing from the French West Indies, Palcy was the very first Black female director to have a film produced by a major Hollywood studio.
In her esteemed career, she has directed everything from independent dramas to musicals. In addition to narrative feature films, Palcy has also directed documentaries, nearly all of which have gone on to receive widespread acclaim.
Now, Palcy is set to be recognized along with three other honorees at this year’s Governors Awards. The ceremony, which is set to take place on Saturday, Nov. 19 in Los Angeles, will give the Academy’s Board of Governors the opportunity to honor Palcy for all of the noteworthy directorial achievements of her filmmaking career.
In honor of her recognition at this year’s Governors Awards, A.frame presents six essential films from Palcy’s career that demand to be seen.
Sugar Cane Alley marked Palcy’s feature film directorial debut. Based on a semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by Joseph Zobel, this 1983 historical drama follows a young boy in Martinique as he works, with the help of his loved ones, to avoid falling into the same labor traps as many of his fellow Africans on the Caribbean island. While the film adopts its protagonist’s lighter, more innocent perspective, it still manages to paint an honest depiction of the harshness of life under French colonial rule during the early 1930s.
Coming six years after the release of Sugar Cane Alley, this film only further elevated Palcy’s place in the international filmmaking scene. Based on André Brink's novel of the same name, this political thriller set during apartheid in South Africa in 1976 follows a white, middle-class teacher (Donald Sutherland) who agrees to help in the search of a Black gardener’s son. When it is discovered that a corrupt policeman is responsible for killing the son, a human rights attorney (Marlon Brando) is brought on to try the case. For his performance in A Dry White Season, Brando received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor; this was the eighth and final Oscar nomination of Brando's renowned acting career.
Venturing into new cinematic territory yet again with this 1992 French fantasy musical, Palcy fills the film with energy and palpable passion. Mixing supernatural elements with an array of specifically drawn characters and places, Siméon follows its eponymous music teacher (Jean-Claude Duverger) as he works from beyond the grave to try to accomplish his lifelong dream of raising international awareness of his West Indian island’s music scene.
Palcy brought her directorial skills to this feature-length installment of The Wonderful World of Disney, delivering an impactful film as a result. Titled Ruby Bridges after the real-life historical figure, this 1998 TV movie follows its eponymous heroine (played by Chaz Monet) after she is selected in 1960 to be one of the first Black students to attend a previously all-white school in New Orleans, Louisiana. For the film's screenplay, Toni Ann Johnson went on to win the 1998 Humanitas Award.
Three years after the release of Ruby Bridges, Palcy brought her distinct perspective to this similarly powerful TV movie. The Killing Yard is a historical drama that follows Shango Bahati Kakawama (played by Morris Chestnut), an Black man who is wrongly indicted for murder as part of a political attempt to cover up the disturbing true details of the infamous 1971 Attica prison riots. Alan Alda plays the attorney who defends him.
This insightful 2006 documentary shines a well-deserved light on a group of mid-century soldiers who repeatedly risked their lives in order to fight for what they believed in. Parcours de Dissidents (The Journey of the Dissidents) tells the true story of the members of the 1st Free French Division, who not only left the French Caribbean islands in order to show their support for General Charles de Gaulle’s opposition to Marshal Philippe Pétain and the entire authoritarian government of Vichy France, but who also went on to train in the United States and fight in North Africa, Italy, and France in World War II.