- Euzhan Palcy:Creative Dissent, Artistic Reckoning
The desire to communicate with others is what inspires me, looking for things that are hidden, emotions, images, sounds. Sometimes things are considered taboo, and with my camera, I bring them to light. . . . I'm French, yes, but before being French, I'm African Caribbean. Because of the themes that I'm choosing, my stories are talking about love, about struggle, about life, about hope, about dreams, and being a Black filmmaker . . .—Euzhan Palcy, Infiniti in Black
Euzhan Palcy strikes me as proof that great directors can come from anywhere—but they must know they are great directors and trust they are great.—Roger Ebert
What follows derives in part from an interview, conducted in New York City on December 2, 2010, with the acclaimed filmmaker, Euzhan Palcy.1 Although the genesis of this essay dates back to our first encounter in Paris, France, in November 2009 and subsequent interactions, this particular conversation was our first in the United States and fortuitously came on the heels of critical meetings in which she had been engaged about a retrospective of her work at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) on May 18-30, 2011.2 In fact, as [End Page 116] MoMA recently shared, "[t]he Euzhan Palcy retrospective is the first for a 'Black woman filmmaker' at MoMA."3 This recognition, one of numerous awards and honors of which Palcy is already the recipient, anticipates her latest project, a biopic of the legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. The controversial American Idol and Grammy Award-winning singer, Fantasia Barrino, was daringly handpicked by Palcy to play the lead.
Palcy's career spans decades, and 2010 proved particularly rewarding, a year that saw the digital remastering and international rerelease of her chef d'oeuvre, Sugar Cane Alley (Rue Cases-Nègres, 1983)4 as well as the long-awaited DVD release in France of her Parcours de Dissidents (2006), a heart-wrenching, yet inspirational, documentary about the nearly forgotten role of the French Caribbean opposition movement against Nazi-occupied Vichy France (1940-44). Similar to much of French Black history, this important and seemingly ironic stance by French Antillean teenagers (boys and girls) who answered General Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970)'s call to defend the "French homeland"—persons who were also colonial subjects at the time—remains largely unknown. Palcy's determination to breathe life into Parcours would ultimately compel Nicholas Sarkozy, President of the Republic, to acknowledge their contributions, albeit sixty-four years later.
Her films, if not the entirety of Palcy's career, illustrate that this pioneering artist is not simply a filmmaker but also as an activist, that is, one who has sought to exercise her craft in the interest of social justice and institutional memory. This I witnessed firsthand when she agreed to be the "Marraine," or honored guest, of a somewhat sui generis film festival on the Black presence (actually the lack thereof) in French cinema—"France Noire/Black France"—an event that I co-organized with T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting and colleagues in Paris in May 2010.5 Questions focused, then on the filmmaker's biography, the plight of Black actors and filmmakers, particularly in France, her last two projects as well as her souvenirs of an underacknowledged legend in (Black French) cinema and theatre, her dear friend Jenny Alpha,6 who joined the ancestors on September 8, 2010, when she was one hundred years young. The interview was in English, with a hint of French.
Euzhan Palcy: A Biography in Motion
On November 8, 2010, in the opulent nineteenth-century theater and venue of the French Academy Awards, located just off the banks of the River Seine (le Theatre du Chatelet), Euzhan Palcy was honored at the fifth anniversary of the Afro-Caribbean Arts Awards7 with their highest recognition (le prix d'honneur) for her life achievements.
It is not without a certain sense of appropriateness and timing that this ceremony, modeled after the BET Awards in United States and the MOBO [End Page 117]
Click for larger view
View full resolution