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On June 16, 1976 nearly 20,000 young Black South Africans marched in a peaceful protest through the township of Soweto. They wanted to be taught in English instead of Afrikaans — the language spoken by a segment of South Africa’s white minority — as apartheid era law mandated, but they were met by heavily armed police who fired tear gas and live ammunition at the students, sparking what would become known as the Soweto Youth Uprising. Writer-director Euzhan Palcy recreated this tragic scene with hundreds of South African extras as the explosive start to her 1989 epic A Dry White Season. Starring Donald Sutherland, Susan Sarandon, Zakes Mokae and Marlon Brando, this historical drama-come-thriller tells the story of a group of Black and white South Africans who exposed the torture and mass killings of innocent Blacks by the South African police force’s “Special Branch.” Although marketed by MGM Studios as a “white savior” film, Palcy never loses sight of who the pivotal heroes of the movie are: Black South Africans that she portrays as freedom fighters and martyrs, but never victims.
Professionally, it’s been a great year for Palcy. The Toronto International Film Festival celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of A Dry White Season’s 1989 premiere at TIFF with a special screening and an October retrospective. Ava DuVernay’s inaugural Array 360 film series set Palcy’s debut film Sugar Cane Alley as its opening night feature, and there’s also an ongoing retrospective at the Barbican in London through October 26.
Sugar Cane Alley (Rue Cases Nègres) was a breakout hit at the Venice Film Festival in 1983 where it won a Palcy a Best First Feature award. An adaptation of Joseph Zobel’s novel, the film is set in the sugar cane fields of a shantytown on the Franco-Caribbean island Martinique, where Jose, a bright young pupil, lives with his stern but loving grandmother Amantine. For whip-smart Jose, school is his ticket out of poverty, but he also receives a parallel education at home from Amantine and father figures like the magical storyteller Medouze and the charming boat attendant Carmen.
It’s a film that lands as childlike without being childish, coherently blending innocence with raw truth. Its confident yet breezy cinematography lingers on the faces of characters, letting scenes unfold so patiently that Palcy’s choices could easily be dismissed as haphazard. (Jose’s delightful interactions with Medouze and his folktales is just one example of this.) Immersing us in Jose and Amantine’s world without explanation, she trusts the performances, plot, and her fledgling but already distinctly egalitarian point of view to payoff. Take a scene where Jose and other children get hilariously drunk and accidentally start a fire. That the children are left unsupervised because their parents can’t escape their backbreaking work in the sugar cane fields speaks to the ways that racial oppression shows up in their daily lives. Yet the attention paid to developing the young characters indirectly lightens the heaviness without backing away from the harsh realities of Black life in Martinique in 1930. Sugar Cane Alley is as heartwarming as it is solemn; a film that validates Jose’s experience as both economically poor and rich in community and culture.
Taking in the cinematic mastery in both Sugar Cane Alley and A Dry White Season, it’s hard to believe they were Palcy’s very first features. (While she’s written and directed several made-for-television movies, she’s only made three theatrically-released features in her 30+ year career.) But as TIFF Programmer Lydia Ogwang points out, the determined Palcy was not only making movies, she was laying the groundwork for what would come to be known as “Martiniquan cinema.” As Ogwang explains, “There were no existing Martiniquan filmmakers to speak of, much less a domestic filmmaking industry.”
In the case of A Dry White Season, which was released six years after Sugar Cane Alley in 1989, Palcy had intended to make a film that featured black South African characters. But she eventually realized that to get the Hollywood money she needed (she was in fact the first Black woman to direct a Hollywood studio-backed feature), she also needed “bankable” white stars. And so she adapted the eponymous novel by Andre Brinks, a white Afrikaner, while making sure the research from her extensive interviews with Black South Africans drove the film’s narrative.
A Dry White Season is not as easy to watch as Sugar Cane Alley, but it’s a movie about the terrors of apartheid, so why should it be? Sutherland delivers an affecting performance as an implosive Ben du Toit, a respected teacher, husband and father whose awakening to the horrors of apartheid upends his sheltered life and also inspires his young son Johan. When the son of du Toit’s longtime gardener Gordon, and eventually Gordon himself, go missing, the once complacent du Toit can no longer escape the fact that the South African police are torturing and killing innocent black South Africans with impunity. It’s a film that haunts as much as it inspires hope and proves Palcy’s ability to execute what looks and feels like a big budget film on a modest budget. And her ability to facilitate Oscar-worthy performances from child actors emerges as a common thread between her first two features and one of her unique talents as a filmmaker.
Like the subjects of her films, Palcy’s career and cinematic vision are equal parts daring and brave. Having fought for three decades to tell stories she truly believed in while working within a Hollywood system that often didn’t see Black films as “bankable,” now in her sixties she has several finished scripts ready for production and a few projects currently in development. One can only hope that the industry obstacles that once limited her trajectory are a thing of the distant past.
Hidden Figures: Euzhan Palcy continues at the Barbican in London through October 26. The series is presented in partnership with HOME, Manchester.