In 1989, Euzhan Palcy became the first black female filmmaker to direct a studio movie with the South Africa-set apartheid thriller “A Dry White Season,” starring Donald Sutherland, Susan Sarandon and Marlon Brando.
“Dry White Season” was initially at Warner Bros., but the studio ditched it, fearing that Universal had already cornered the market on apartheid movies by releasing "Cry Freedom” a few years before. So Palcy pitched the project to MGM’s Alan Ladd Jr.
“And they gave me everything I asked for,” she says about MGM. “I will never forget that.”
Nearly 30 years later, “A Dry White Season” has been digitally restored and released as a Criterion Blu-ray. Palcy, who lives in Paris, spoke by phone about the story behind a Hollywood milestone.
Palcy grew up on the island of Martinique where, as far as she knew, there were no filmmakers. But she used to regularly attend a village theater that showed Hollywood movies.
“I used to go to the movies as often as I could, and black faces, black characters, were totally absent,” Palcy says. “And very rarely, when we had a black character, a black actor, it would always be in a very degrading part. That would make me very sad.”
When she was 13, her mother gave her the novel “Sugar Cane Alley,” a semi-autobiographical work by Martinican author Joseph Zobel that would later become Palcy’s celebrated first film. “I had a culture shock, because at school we never talked about our culture,” she recalls.
“My desire for becoming a filmmaker came out of my love for film, and anger [about] what I would see. I couldn’t accept that that art that I loved so much would hurt me so much — by my people being totally absent.”
Though becoming a film director didn’t seem realistic, it became Palcy’s obsession. “I prayed to God every night, I’m not kidding. After the family prayers, before going to bed, I would stay a little bit longer on my knees, and I would make a little secret prayer to God to make me grow up fast, just to be able to make a film.”
She left Martinique for Paris, where she studied literature and film and worked on the script for “Sugar Cane Alley.” Through a friend, she made a connection with Francois Truffaut and the legendary French New Wave auteur became a mentor as she completed her film debut. The film ended up winning the Silver Lion at the 1983 Venice Film Festival, and the French César Award for first feature film, and earned rave reviews from Roger Ebert and the New York Times.
The success of “Sugar Cane Alley” meant that studios took an interest in bankrolling Palcy’s follow-up project. She wanted to adapt Alice Walker's "The Color Purple," but after hearing that Steven Spielberg already owned the rights, she decided to focus on South Africa. Her original intent was to explore apartheid entirely from the point of view of black characters, but quickly realized that financing such a project wasn’t an option in Hollywood.
So Palcy opted for the next best thing. “When I came across the book ‘A Dry White Season’ [by Andre Brink], I saw immediately what I could do,” Palcy says, “because [it’s] about the awakening of a white man, an Afrikaner. He saw the light, and decided to fight his own brothers in the name of justice. I decided to make the adaptation a story of two families – one black and one white.” Though the film was shot in Zimbabwe, Palcy traveled undercover to Soweto to research the details.
The lead Afrikaner roles in “A Dry White Season” were played by Hollywood stars: Sutherland, Sarandon and, coming out of retirement after a decade-long hiatus, Brando. But Palcy stipulated that the black characters had to be portrayed by black South Africans, rather than African Americans. “We had to give those people a voice. Remember, when I’m making that movie, Nelson Mandela is still in jail, and the Special Branch was killing people like flies. I was ready to make that movie at any cost, but if I do that, I want to make a real movie about the situation.”
Still, the existence of respected South African performers like Winston Ntshona and Zakes Mokae did not prevent the studio from marketing it as another “white savior” story. The original American poster featured only Sutherland, Sarandon and Brando.
Despite its packaging, “A Dry White Season” is an unusually powerful rendering of the costs of principled dissent – as well as a crackerjack thriller. In Palcy’s hands, the film is especially attuned to racism as an institutional force, rather than the product of individual racists. (Sutherland’s hero is a history teacher who passes down apartheid mythology to a new generation.)
Brando plays a human rights attorney working to expose police brutality; his big moment arrives in a climactic courtroom scene, but tellingly, the scene arrives in the middle of the film rather than toward the end, as if to emphasize that in such a corrupted society, courts cannot provide a path to justice. No matter how eloquently he argues, the advocate can’t win.
The film’s success included strong reviews and an Oscar nomination for Brando, but in the years that followed, Palcy was unable to get another Hollywood project off the ground.
Palcy says many studios wanted to meet with her, and acknowledges that she turned down more than 200 scripts. “But they would not touch my [own] stories because they were about black people. They kept saying to me — to my face, but very nicely, not to insult me — that ‘black is not bankable.’”
“I decided, OK, I cannot accept to direct the movies that Hollywood will ask me to direct. I kept struggling and pushing my own projects because I knew that they were good.”
Of one such passion project, focused on black female aviation pioneer Bessie Coleman, a studio executive friend urged Palcy: “Don’t waste your time. Please move on, and put it in the drawer until the time is right. Those guys are not ready for that – nobody will do it, Euzhan.”
Instead, she moved into television, where she says she was given creative freedom to direct meaningful stories about black life. “Ruby Bridges,” about the first African American child to desegregate an all-white school in the South, was made for Disney, and “The Killing Yard,” about the 1971 Attica prison uprising, was a Showtime original.
Over the past three decades, this pioneering director has seen Hollywood open the doors – at least slightly – to new forms of representation.
“It’s been very slow. The change was just on the surface, for many years. But it’s becoming better now, with all the platforms, the Netflix and the Amazon,” she says. Two filmmakers who have released films via Netflix, Ava DuVernay and Dee Rees, have both spoken reverently of Palcy’s work, and recognized her as a trailblazer. Palcy says she has four TV projects in development, two of which are comedies.