She rubbed shoulders with Césaire and Mandela, directed Marlon Brando, received César and Oscar and continues the fight for equality and the representation of black people: cinema has not finished with a pioneer, the Martinican director Euzhan Palcy. More recognized in Hollywood, where last year she received an honorary Oscar for her entire career, she is enjoying a second youth at the age of 65 in France, where the Center Pompidou in Paris is devoting a first retrospective to her.
His films are his struggles. Starting with Rue Cases-Nègres (1983), which revealed West Indian post-colonial society to millions of spectators, and A White and Dry Season (1989), filmed to denounce the racist Apartheid regime then in force in Africa from South. “When I was a kid, black men and women did not exist in the cinema, or in very negative and degrading roles,” recalls the filmmaker, during an interview with AFP.
“I couldn’t stand it, it was a total humiliation. I didn't identify with these characters. I arrived at the cinema with this anger, which I wanted to be creative,” she continues. It is the birth of a vocation for someone who still remembers the punishments for those who spoke Creole in the playground and now lives between the United States, Paris and Martinique.
First rematch with Rue Cases-Nègres. Adapted from his bedside book, by Joseph Zobel, it features a little boy in Martinique in the 1930s. A world that is unlike anything that filmmakers have been able to show so far. A triumph in theaters, the film remains cult: “People tell me they have seen it five times, ten times…” smiles Euzhan Palcy. “My films are from a period but they don’t age because I put a lot of emotion into them,” she emphasizes.
“Rehabilitate the image of the black man in cinema”, to change the real world: “With a film, we can create a revolution”, wants to believe the director. At the time, the revolution went through Hollywood, “which contributed enormously to this negative image”.
A meeting with Robert Redford and she invited herself to the United States, to impose her project of adaptation of André Brink, A White and Dry Season, and “wake up the world”. “At the time, I was crazy. And I still am!” laughs Euzhan Palcy, who based his film on a clandestine investigation in Soweto in the midst of Apartheid.
She will be the first black filmmaker produced by a major studio (MGM) and the only director to direct Marlon Brando, who offers her stamp. “In the United States, I got what I wanted because, not being black American, I had no disputes” with white leaders in the industry, says Euzhan Palcy. Who specifies “having refused lots of projects” to only do what she wanted.
She is still full of filming projects even if her recent films are more confidential, notably on the West Indian resistance fighters or on Aimé Césaire. She admires the “cantor of negritude” and herself claims the term “negress”, “a word so beautiful, so poetic which has been dragged through the mud”.
From today's America, where her film Ruby Bridges (1998) against school segregation found itself in the sights of ultraconservatives, she prefers to remember white people's awareness of the fate reserved for black communities after the George Floyd affair in 2020. And the progression of diversity on screen.
In Paris, his career was able to inspire a new generation of black artists like Maïmouna Doucouré, Alice Diop, Jean-Pascal Zadi and Aïssa Maïga. “Often, I had the impression that things were changing and I became disillusioned,” she warns, angry that “things are not moving fast enough.”
His native island remains. “For years, for our compatriots, we were “the beautiful cuddly toys” (...) People had the image of acras, ti-punch, music and dance. They knew nothing about our history,” she sighs. “When I make films, I tell myself that people will discover the West Indies as they are, not imagined or fantasized.”