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With 1989’s A Dry White Season, Euzhan Palcy became a pioneer: The Martinique-born filmmaker was the first Black woman to direct a studio film; the first Black director to make an Oscar-nominated film; and the only woman to direct Marlon Brando, who emerged from retirement to play a South African civil rights litigator, earning him his eighth and final Oscar nomination (the film’s sole nomination).
It was on the strength of her first movie, 1983’s Sugar Cane Alley, that Afrikaner author André Brink agreed to let Palcy adapt his novel about the crusade for justice of a white man (played in the film by Donald Sutherland) on behalf of a Black activist who is tortured to death by police. As research, Palcy, then 29, traveled undercover to Soweto to interview locals about their experiences.
“It was the height of apartheid,” Palcy tells The Hollywood Reporter. “They were killing people like flies. I did not sleep one night.”
She smuggled the audiotapes out of the country and incorporated the grim details into her script. Warner Bros. optioned the project but shelved it after Universal released the apartheid film Cry Freedom in 1987.
Recalls Palcy, now 63, “I told [then-Warners president] Terry Semel, ‘How many films about Vietnam have you produced? But one movie about apartheid is too much?'”
It was Alan Ladd Jr., chairman of MGM at the time, who bought the script from the rival studio and gave it the green light. “If the same movie was made today, I’m pretty sure it would have had 20 nominations,” says Palcy, who directed her last American film, The Killing Yard, in 2001. “That’s the terrible thing about being a pioneer.”
This story first appeared in the May 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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