Euzhan Palcy makes other filmmakers seem like they’re spending their time with wasteful acts. Other filmmakers use the camera for fetishistic and ethnographic reasons, but instead, Palcy evokes the black perspective. In her films, black protagonists or their allies engage in the act of seeing oppression’s after effects. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a grim experience, since it also involves seeing black people’s potential power. TIFF is mounting a short but necessary retrospective of her work, the first time in this country. Audiences who normally have access of her work through faded bootlegs can now see her films properly.
The first black woman to direct a film for a major studio has to start out somewhere. And Palcy starts out with a significant achievement in film, with the very exciting Sugar Cane Alley. The film has enough plot lines for five movies but has the dimension and coherence of one. It follows Jose (Garry Cadenat), who understandably lives in the bubble that is a child’s world. A world that has verdant Martinique as its backdrop.
Jose’s kid world brings comparisons to Truffaut’s work, but this feels more mature. Most coming of age films make their protagonists either active or passive. But in adapting Joseph Zobel’s novel she shows that life has both act of self an acts of God. He specifically grapples with his present as a grandson of a field worker (Darling Legitimus). This film is a treatise on history, family, and of unpredictable social structures. Palcy’s worldview makes black progress possible but not without its real hurdles.
The black experience is also essential in Palcy’s work. She takes that ethos as she moves beyond telling stories from her home country of Martinique. Her most famous work, A Dry White Season, has Ben du Toit (Donald Sutherland) opening his eyes to Apartheid’s cruelty. This also comes as part of a wave of 1980s era films grappling with South Africa’s recent and tumultuous history. Much of the conversation around this film surrounds the publicity coming with casting and Oscar nomination of Marlon Brando. Brando takes credit for co-directing the film but its focus on the education of black children makes this uniquely hers.
We can also that through line of activist education in the last film in this short but nonetheless essential retrospective. Although sure, activism is a minor thread in Simeon, about the titular ghostly teacher (Jean-Claude Duverger) and his last student. Its wackiness might not always age well, but it speaks of Palcy’s ambition in working with and blending some genres. There’s a versatility in this musical fantasy, its practical effects again blending with its contemporary yet immersive version of Martinique. The memorable musical numbers here, as they should, have enough life in it to make you dance in your seats.
For more information on Poet of Relation: The Essential Euzhan Palcy go to https://tiff.net/calendar?series=euzhan-palcy&list.
- Rated: PG, R
- Genre: Drama, fantasy, History, Music, Thriller
- Directed by: Euzhan Palcy
- Starring: Darling Légitimus, Donald Sutherland, Garry Cadenat, Jean-Claude Duverger
- Produced by: Alix Régis, Euzhan Palcy, Jean-Luc Ormières, Paula Weinstein, Tim Hampton
- Written by: Colin Welland, Euzhan Palcy, Jean-Pierre Rumeau, Joseph Zobel
- Studio: Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication, NEF Diffusion, Sundance Productions