“At the end of the small hours these countries whose past is uninscribed on any stone, these roads without memory, these winds without a log. Does that matter? We shall speak. We shall sing. We shall shout. Full voice, great voice, you shall be our good and guide.”
Aimé Césaire conveys the colonialists' need to keep African history from their canon in Cahier d'un retour au pays natal. This is Négritude’s provenance, the philosophical, cultural and political revolution of Black consciousness that Césaire co-founded. Black history resounds and survives internally, verbally, before it is accurately accounted for from the outside. A protégé of Césaire, filmmaker Euzhan Palcy unearths suppressed Black voices and logs them to film canon. For A Dry White Season (1989), she interviewed the victims and combatants of the Special Branch (the unit of the South African police that lethally destabilized anti-apartheid groups) while undercover in Soweto and Zimbabwe before the negotiations to end apartheid. The Special Branch was assassinating figureheads of the ANC (African National Congress) at sunup across the globe during this time; Palcy faced real consequences if found out, but persisted in her search for the history subdued. Later, she put oral accounts to record again in her three-part documentary series Aimé Césaire: A Voice for History (2007) and paid tribute to her fellow Martinican mentor and “spiritual Grandfather.”
A Dry White Season, the novel, by white author André Brink, portrays an Afrikaner, Ben Du Toit, coming to the realities of apartheid. The film sees Du Toit’s white halcyon punctured, but Palcy balanced his perspective with the Ngubenes, a Black family ravaged by the Special Branch. The film splits its time between reeducating Du Toit, a white male come to avail the cause, and the Ngubenes’ resistance; but Du Toit’s support remains ancillary, and Stanley (Zakes Mokae), a cabbie in the day and “a mean Black cat in the night,” keeps Du Toit’s privilege and motives in check. The white savior’s awakening doesn’t come in an instant, here it comes in long and never quite in full. Palcy’s research filled the gaps of Brink’s white perspective on apartheid and the end result is a fair and vigilant look at its whole.
Even Palcy’s fantastical, burning bouquet over Zouk music, 1992’s Siméon (criminally inaccessible), springs from history, art, and culture. The film was tonic to the trauma she endured fulfilling the half of A Dry White Season André Brink couldn’t. The inspiration for Siméon came to her all at once and she projected everything she’d come to know and love through its prism. Growing up in Martinique, Palcy saw film and media weaponized against her and Black people the world over. She didn’t see herself or her history on screen, she saw African Americans brutalized during the civil rights movement and Black experiences disparaged through white filtration. As young as ten years old, she knew she had to use film to regenerate the stories it maligns. For her first feature, Sugar Cane Alley (1983), she told the story of an exceptional boy from 1930s Martinique who earns a partial scholarship in the capital. With this debut, Palcy became the first Black director to win a César and Silver Lion, and with her subsequent film, A Dry White Season, the first Black woman produced by a major Hollywood studio and to direct an actor (Marlon Brando, who left retirement for the role) to an Oscar nomination.
Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d'un retour au pays natal takes curious form in its English translations. Reduced to Return to My Native Land by the publisher Archipelago Books, Wesleyan University Press elected the more inclusive Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, and Bloodaxe Books added the possessive “my”: Notebook of a Return to My Native Land. The variation of “my” and “the,” a symptom of Césaire’s vacillating emic, etic, is ultimately no disagreement, but one and the same. These editions share too, without exception, white translators; the translator’s note that opens the Archipelago Books edition acknowledges seven people they consulted in its translation, all white, its frontispiece of a Black male visage separated from the body, scrawl indistinct from its scars, drawn by its white translator John Berger, the charcoal Black Martinicans in between, by white artist Peter De Francia, eschewing the original works of Afro-Cuban artist Wilfredo Lam. On the other hand, in adapting a white author’s novel, Palcy made pointed efforts to consult white members of the ANC for her undercover research in Zimbabwe.
Clayton Eshelman and Annete Smith (Wesleyan University Press edition) translate a famous line from Césaire’s poem, “My mouth shall be the mouth of those calamities that have no mouth, my voice the freedom of those who break down in the prison holes of despair.” At the end of our conversation, Euzhan Palcy translates this line herself verbally, from memory, with more resonance.
Palcy talked to us about making A Dry White Season in the heat of apartheid, how she approached the reeducation of its white protagonist Ben Du Toit, and how she vies to take real Black history and experience from mouth to hard record.
NOTEBOOK: You’re in Paris at the moment?
EUZHAN PALCY: Yes, I’m in Paris, I just finished a rewrite on one of my scripts.
NOTEBOOK: Can you talk about it?
PALCY: Well, all I can say is that it’s a comedy. I share my life between two countries, France and the States, so I have projects in both places. It’s a French comedy. I think that people need to laugh a little bit with everything going on, something to feel better. I have two for the States and two for here. [laughs] Four comedies. Two comedy dramas and two comedies.
NOTEBOOK: I just watched Siméon, which I loved, and which is often funny.
PALCY: When I started my career out with Sugar Cane Alley, A Dry White Season, and a movie I made about Attica, The Killing Yard, people tried to put me in a box like I was a militant, like I only do death movies! But I told them, “You don’t know me! Don’t try to put me in a box because you will fail!” I’m not that. First of all, I’m Caribbean [laughs], we deal with all kinds of stuff: comedy, drama, life is all of these, so my work is like that too. That’s why after A Dry White Season I can do a film like Siméon, and I have many more to come.
NOTEBOOK: Did a studio bring the novel A Dry White Season to you? And what were some of the things you knew you immediately had to change in adapting it?
PALCY: Well, actually, they never presented it to me. Some people think that, but that never happened. It’s me. I came with the book in my bag. [laughs] They called me because of the success of Sugar Cane Alley. The movie was a success all over the world, so the studio did what it does all the time, wherever you are, whatever your color: if you make success, they want you.
So, Lucy Fisher at Warner Bros. called me to work with them. But I did not want to go because I knew the way of working was very different. A very simple thing like a final cut: you don’t get it. Very few filmmakers have final cut in the States. But in France, it’s something that belongs to the director by law. I didn’t feel like I would fit in, that it was for me. I was very reluctant, until the person that became another one of my godfathers, Robert Redford, invited me to Sundance to represent France. When I went there, he asked me what I was going to do next and I showed him the letters from Warner Bros. Lucy Fisher was in charge of production at the time. Redford told me, “Test the waters, go and try it! You’re a strong woman, you know what you want and what you don’t want. If you don’t like it go home, but don’t close the door.” So he called his office and he put me on the plane to L.A. to see Lucy Fisher. [laughs]
She didn’t know I had a project, so she did what she usually did, which is that she offered me a lot of the movies that were sitting in her drawers. I said, “No. No. No. No. I don’t want it. I don’t want it.” It’s so funny, I remember she was very disappointed. Then it was like, boop! A lightbulb had gone off in her head. I told her, “I don’t recognize myself in any of these things.” She had a moment like, “Ah, okay! I realize what’s going on." She was a smart girl. Then she said, “I know something you won’t turn down.” I said, “Okay, try me.” [laughs] And she asked, “What about Malcolm X?”
PALCY: I’m telling you. That was back in the ‘80s, 85. I said, “It’s still no.” Then she couldn’t understand, “I don’t understand, why?” I didn’t give her the full reason why, but I gave her half of it. I knew at the time that it was a controversial subject in the States. The Black community had their vision of Malcolm X and the white community and Hollywood had their vision of Malcolm X. [laughs] All Black people knew what was going on in the States, in Africa, the Caribbean, in Europe, we knew about Malcolm X’s story. There was no internet, but we knew. I did not want to tell Lucy, “I will not be able to give my vision of this character and I do not want to be used to portray a vision that I don’t share.” Instead I said, “No. I believe this story should be told by an African-American.
“This is legitimate,” I told her. “I would see this as a betrayal if I took this away from them. You have people who could do it.” And she was almost depressed that I wouldn’t do anything she put on the table! Then I said, “But you haven’t asked me if I had anything.” So she said, “Oh. Touché!”
I threw the book on the table for her. “I want to do that. If you want us to work together, let's do that.” Actually, when she was sending me those letters to France I had written back to her that there was another book I wanted to do, and it was The Color Purple. She sent a telegram saying, “Well, that’s too bad because we already have somebody working on it.” She didn’t tell me Spielberg! No, she said “somebody!” So we left it there. When I showed her [A Dry White Season] she said, “I don’t know the writer, André Brink.” She kept me in town for about a week while she read the book. She sent for me, and we had lunch with a group of producers that had deals with Warner Bros. at that time. She asked me to tell them my vision and I did. All of them started crying around the table. “You are such a good storyteller! We can see the movie!” They were excited and I was too. After that she told me, “I get that we have a deal here.” So they negotiated a deal with David Putnam and started to develop the project with me. But David became head of Columbia Pictures so a new producer had to be found. Out of the producers suggested to me I chose Paula Weinstein. Then Cry Freedom (1987) came out, the Richard Attenborough film.
We were casting the movie at that point. The head of Warner Bros. said, “Look, we can’t have this, there’s already another movie about this.” I was so depressed. [laughs] I never wanted to come to Hollywood! The project meant so much to me. I decided to become a filmmaker when I was ten years old and there were a couple of things that I always wanted to do. First, I wanted to do Sugar Cane Alley, tell the story of my people; then I wanted to do a movie about South Africa; and I wanted to do a movie about that very important and famous freedom fighter Toussaint Louverture.
They put my story in a drawer and you know how it is when they do that, it’s hell to take it out. They made so many films about Vietnam and you can’t do two movies about South Africa? It’s not the same story. Why is it too much? I was stuck because they developed the script with me, so now they owned the script! They would not let it go. It was a battle, a battle, a battle. But I had faith, and I was able to get the project back with some people’s help, famous people who put the pressure on them.
NOTEBOOK: Was Marlon Brando involved at this point?
PALCY: Not yet. When they shelved the project, I already had my dream cast in mind. We were finally able to take the project from them, bring them the check they were asking for. They felt so ashamed with all of the pressure on them that they had to let it go. They asked for a check of such an amount because I think they thought we wouldn’t be able to get the money. It was a lot of money, the development money. I think they wanted to believe they were good guys by offering it back without expecting us to actually be able to come up the money they demanded.
We had a conversation with their "next-door neighbor," MGM’s Alan [Ladd] Jr., who said okay. “We’ll do it, we love it.” He gave us the check, Paula gave it to Warner Bros., and they couldn’t believe it but stuck to their word. They weren’t happy about it, but they let it go. Lucy Fisher was devastated because she loved the project and really wanted to make it with me.
Because I had brought Brando and 80 percent of the cast, when I came back with my other projects, [laughs] I thought the studios’ doors would be open now. I was wrong.
NOTEBOOK: A Dry White Season is dealing with the reeducation of a white male character, sort of tip toeing a white savior trope with Ben Du Toit (Donald Sutherland). In most films, this awakening happens in an instant and without looking back. Here it’s handled carefully, by the end of the film we have a sense that Du Toit had much to learn and of how protracted it would have been for him to fully undo the lies he’s internalized. I imagine he differs greatly in the source material, and that you had to re-navigate a lot of this reeducation yourself.
PALCY: The incredible writer, André Brink, was a teacher in South Africa, an Afrikaner. That’s why the character was a teacher. This is something that almost nobody knows about, I don’t think I’ve ever talked about it with any journalist, but André Brink was a very famous novelist who always wrote against apartheid. Every novel that he wrote was a bestseller. That guy’s pencil was blessed. [laughs] He wanted to learn. He visited France, he went to Sorbonne, in Paris, where many people from many countries do as they will. He was very surprised to see, at Sorbonne, Black people and white people hugging each other, laughing together, going to restaurants together. He came from a country where that was absolutely forbidden. It was a crime. Everyone there was talking about a famous Black poet, Aimé Césaire. Césaire was one of the founders of the Négritude movement, he inspired Maya Angelou to become a poet, she talks about him in my documentary series [Aimé Césaire: A Voice for History] along with Toni Morrison. So André Brink asked the people [at Sorbonne] where he could find a book by Césaire. They told him to go to Présence Africaine, a publisher in Paris where all the Black writers would go, and that had African editors. So he went there and he bought everything he could find by Césaire. [laughs] Then he went to the Luxembourg Garden and sat on a bench there to read. He read and read and read. Césaire opened his eyes. When he came to study at Sorbonne, he had in mind to stay in France and not go back to South Africa. He couldn’t stand what was going on there. Césaire used to say, “The real fight, the real struggle should be made in the country. When you can do it from inside, then you can do it from outside. But if you can’t do it from inside, you can’t do it from the outside.” Brink realized that he was right, so he decided to go back home to South Africa after he finished his studies. He couldn’t be on the streets, but he could unite states to fight with his pencil, and that’s what he did.
In 2008, years after I did A Dry White Season, I invited him to Martinique to meet with Césaire. It was his dream to meet that guy.
Brink once wrote that he was “born on a bench in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris.” [laughs] So I met with him in Paris, because I was looking to talk to South African people traveling to France because everything at the time was so secretive. When I met with him, way before I came to the States or met with Redford, I was sleeping with the book but didn’t have the rights. He said yes to meeting with me. I thought, “How on earth am I going to convince him?” I’m sure thousands of people might have asked him for the rights. But I said to hell with that. I’m going to be who I am, speak with my heart and tell him, “You wrote that book for one person, me.” [laughs] “I want you to let me do it!” You know what? When I sat in front of him, that man, who was very sad, said with his little voice, “I have something to tell you. I’m a teacher, you know, and I’ve been showing, secretly, your masterpiece, Sugar Cane Alley, to all my students.”
So I said, “Oh my god! This is great! I don’t have to beg!” [laughs] And he said, “When I found out you wanted to meet me [about the rights] I immediately said yes. I wanted to meet the person who did Sugar Cane Alley.” And I was dying to meet the person who wrote A Dry White Season.
I conceded, “I don’t have the money, all I have is my heart and strong desire to make a movie about apartheid!” He said, “Definitely. Yes,” gave me a letter and everything. Then he told me, “But I have to warn you, I won’t be able to communicate with you. Don’t send anything to me because my phone is tapped, they follow me, open my mail and I don’t want to put you in danger.” Because they don’t play, those guys are tough. And then he said, “I trust you. The woman who did Sugar Cane Alley cannot betray my work.”
“Your book is about a man who comes from blindness to consciousness,” a white man, which is good: that a white person wrote about one of his brothers and then he talked to others. “But if I make this movie, I intend to make it the story of two families, one Black, one white. I want to show what’s happening with Black families, Black folks,” I told him. And in a white family, in that system, when a member of that community sees the light, and in the name of his/her human dignity decides to fight against apartheid. That’s exactly what the white folks did when they saw the video of George Floyd. They were right in the middle of Covid-19. They had to put their masks on and go out and say, “Look what they are doing to a human being like me.” They saw a human being, a bad human being killing another human being. [White people] discovered the truth, how many had died like this. They never did anything, they never felt concerned, they moved on with their life, but all of a sudden the veil was lifted; they saw the truth.
That’s what happens to Ben Du Toit, and he couldn’t turn a blind eye anymore. I wanted to show how his community would destroy his life for betraying them. Brink told me, “I started to write the story of the South African journalist Stephen Biko,” who was killed like they did George Floyd, “and halfway through I asked myself, ‘What am I doing? This is wrong. I should be telling the story of a white man, an Afrikaner like me who saw the truth and decided to do the right thing. In doing so I’ll be reaching out to, not only white South Africans, but also other whites across the planet. It will open their minds and eyes and they will understand that they have to take a stand against it.’”
I wanted to make sure that Afrikaners and any white folks who never questioned anything, or felt that life was normal and never cared, who see this movie and look at Ben Du Toit identify themselves with him, I wanted them to learn something and do something. The casting of this character was crucial for me. The first person I met while I was at the Sundance Lab was Paul Newman, and Paul wanted it badly. I still have pictures of him on my set from when I was shooting a scene of the Sundance Lab movie. He was there with Karl Malden to watch me work. His agent called, I’m telling you, five times. He really wanted to portray Ben Du Toit. I have utmost respect for him, but I couldn’t say yes to Paul. If I said yes to Paul it would have become all about him. I was afraid that people would not identify themselves with the character and only see Paul Newman. When I said no, people said, “You are stupid! Get Paul Newman, your movie will be a hit.” No, no, I wanted Donald Sutherland, he’s a great actor, he’s not a big star like Newman, but he’s absolutely Ben Du Toit.
The shooting script is my script. Colin Whelan has credit, he did a first draft, but it was thrown out and I had to redo it. The studio signed a deal with me and I did a full rewrite of the script. I had to be very careful in the writing. I’ll tell you, the children in the book who were white were bad. [laughs] They were absolutely bad. They hated their father for joining the Black community and going to the other side. The wife left him in the book, the daughter betrayed him to the police. That still happens in the movie, but the big difference is that in the book she did that to punish him. The boy was not with him, the mother took him and he was completely unconscious, just like a baby. But I went to South Africa undercover, I went to Zimbabwe and met with a community of white South Africans who were working with the ANC secretly, some of whom were arrested and beat up in jail. When they were released, they went to Zimbabwe. I went there to talk to them, and they gave me a lot of information. I told them I wanted to be fair. I wanted to portray these white folks who had the courage, like those who have it in the George Floyd situation, to take a stand and put their life on the line, if that’s the right expression in English, in the name of justice, freedom and respect.
I had to pay a tribute to them and the few white students that were with them in the demonstration with the Black kids. I had to write that the boy would stay with his dad. There’s that scene on the bench between them, after the boy is beaten up and the kids call his father a kaffir lover and a communist at school. The boy says, “I know the police killed Jonathan and Gordon,” and the father asks him a very simple question, “And do you know why?” The boy says, “I’m not sure that I understand why, but I know it’s wrong.” This scene isn't in the book. And in the end, you see the little boy delivering the papers with Stanley (Zakes Mokae). That’s my work. The killing of Stolz (Jürgen Prochnow) is also not in the book. I wanted that little boy to represent the future of the white community in South Africa. The new South Africa, after apartheid, already going with Black people.
So yes, to answer your question [laughs], I had to do a lot of research and work with the dialogue, be careful with the tempos and movements of challenging [Ben Du Toit] in the way we did. When he tells Emily (Thoko Ntshinga), “Don’t give up hope,” Stanley says, “Hope is a white word lanie [“white man” in Bantu]! It’s not hope we need.” [laughs] And when Du Toit asks Stanley what lanie means, Stanley grinningly replies, “That’s enough for one day, man!” [laughs] These are my words, ones I came to after talking to Black South African people. So it was important for me to have a head of a studio who understood how important it was for me, a Black filmmaker, and for the world, the future and today, to have Black South African actors portraying themselves in the movie, to give them their own voice.
I have one more thing to tell you, because I’m sure you have plenty of questions to ask. I always make a movie for today and tomorrow. I always project myself in the future. And I say that very humbly. I repeat what people say and what I see. Every work I did is a classic. A Dry White Season, Sugar Cane Alley, Ruby Bridges, The Killing Yard…, these deal with human values so they don’t age. Universal. I’m very honest about it.
NOTEBOOK: What was it like filming in Zimbabwe just prior to the negotiations to end apartheid? Did you see resistance there?
PALCY: When I went to Soweto I went undercover with a fake name. I told everyone that I was a singer recording an album, looking for beautiful South African voices like Ladysmith Black Mambazo and stuff like that. It was a dear friend and doctor of Nelson Mandela, N’Tato Motlana, who organized everything for me. They used to call him the “Soweto doctor.” When they beat up the kids and destroyed their bodies, he was the one who brought them back to life. People just loved him. He said, “You know, they might kill you.” And I said, “I don’t care. If I don’t make a film about South Africa and don’t stand by the truth I don’t deserve to be called a filmmaker, a Black filmmaker.” So, in South Africa no one knew but the few that I selected to tell me their stories. I interviewed many people, mothers who lost their children during the uprising, men, women, and children who were tortured… Without N’Tato, I wouldn’t have been able to tell the real story as it appears in the film.
The government didn’t see anything. When I left, I had to put the tape in my panties. [laughs] I didn’t want any trouble for [those I talked to] or myself. When I did all of this, I did it at the height of apartheid. It was during the time that the Special Branch was killing people like flies, not only in the country, but outside the country. They killed the head of the ANC in every country with an ANC office. They were on an unapologetic international mission to suppress resistance to the apartheid regime. In Paris, the one they killed was a woman named Dulcie September. She was shot dead in front of her office early morning. Hours after that killing, I’m in Soweto doing my research. When I do things from my heart, I don’t do them halfway.
This is why I've wanted to make films since I was ten years old. It was really painful for me. I was sick of seeing Black folks denigrated on screen. Or, when I was growing up, I wanted to see what was happening to Black people in America. Nobody’s ever asked me, “Why did you make all those films about America?” I’m not African American! My mission however is to do stories about my people wherever they reside. I did Ruby Bridges about desegregation of schools in New Orleans, I did The Killing Yard (re: the aftermath of the 1975 Attica prison uprising) where 60 black inmates were set to be executed when they were innocent. And by the way, The Killing Yard is about police brutality, the cover ups, the corruption, the lies…
That was 2001, and unfortunately the big event for the premiere in New York was scheduled on September 11—19 years later, my friend, the same things are recurring. Police brutality. I have another project about police brutality, and it’s an African-American story again. It’s set in Baltimore and Germany in 1864. It’s a two-part limited series. I could have made many French films, but it was very important for me to talk about this. I did it ahead of a lot of the filmmakers that are out there today. So I had to do that. I had to talk about it.
NOTEBOOK: Did MGM try to make Ben Du Toit more likable or make his transition easier?
PALCY: [laughs] I’ll tell you what, not with MGM! They let me do my movie! This I promise you. MGM let me make the movie I wanted to. They even told me, “You’ll go on the road to sell the movie. We don’t want anyone else. No actors. You know it by heart.” When we did a test screening, where people [see the film and] make comments like, “It’s too violent,” and the studio chops your movie up, 87% of the audience gave it an excellent rating. Many of them said it was very violent, but that the violence was necessary to tell the story.
They did not cut one frame from my movie. Not even the ending. In the printed press, the American press, they all had the same question, “What did you mean by that ending? Are you saying Black people should take up arms and kill white folks?” Why do they think that that’s what I’m trying to say? No. I never said that. I’m saying if you don’t take a stand and tell your white friends and colleagues to denounce apartheid and help people open their eyes to stop it, this is what will happen. It’s just a warning.
NOTEBOOK: You push in on a freeze frame of Stanley’s face and intercut it with flashes of the police murders just before he enacts his retribution.
PALCY: You needed to see what was going on in his head. That’s why I stop the image! Freeze the image! So the audience can see what is going on in his head! He killed that guy, not because [Captain Stolz] killed Emily, no, for everybody!
NOTEBOOK: In the courtroom sequence, the camera is always looking down from above on the defense, on Marlon Brando. Despite his massive camera presence, he’s made weak. The witness stands stand taller than the rest and the way the courtroom is designed in general gives its own imbalance away.
PALCY: I’m glad—this is the first time anybody picked that up. You remember what he said to Ben Du Toit? “Every time I’ve won a case they changed the law. I’m going to take the case, just to show you that you are blind.” He fought hard but he knew that he wouldn’t win. Then the camera will go down, you remember that shot where I’m on his back? Large! [laughs] I had a vision of [Brando’s] large back when he’s challenging Stolz. Then he turns and you see his handsome profile, [laughs] you go back to him, and then he turns and we are tracking back away from him because he’s very powerful in that moment. He’s in charge, he’s giving into him, and he doesn’t play with him. In this, you see that the arrogance of Captain Stolz is nothing in front of this huge guy. Stolz is a monster.
NOTEBOOK: Do you stick closely to a shot list?
PALCY: I spend time at my locations. If I can't, because they have to build the set, I work with a model. Two weeks prior to shooting, on the more complicated scenes, I go on location and work with the actors. Before the shooting I have a little bible in quotations—[laughs] because nothing is forever—on my camera angles and everything. I give it to my D.P. and everybody [on the crew]. They have that every day. Sometimes I change my mind and I’ll add a new page. But I prep my stuff so that we don’t waste time on set. When we get there, I don’t deal with the technique anymore unless I have a new idea, then I’ll work with my D.P., my camera crew and my first A.D. Otherwise I focus on the acting. Oh yeah, I take care of my actors. I love to direct the actors.
NOTEBOOK: There are a lot of behind the scenes photos of you looking through the viewfinder and it seems like you’re doing more than just checking the frame in them. Do you operate the camera yourself sometimes?
PALCY: Aaron, I’m telling you, I have a D.P. degree from the most famous film school in France, Louis Lumière film school. I’m one of the first females to get that degree. When I work in France, they all know where I came from and you will always see my eye in the camera. [laughs] There are a lot of pictures of me looking at the frame, I design the film. I have to do that.
NOTEBOOK: I keep harping about Siméon, but it’s so beautiful and the visual language is so different from all of your other films, most other films.
PALCY: After I did A Dry White Season, allow me the language, I was so fucked up. I was so sad. I was destroyed by what I saw. All this horrible reality, it was too gruesome. There was a video of some Afrikaners that found out about a mixed couple living some place, they break into their house, and how do you say it, the thing you cut trees with?
NOTEBOOK: A chainsaw?
PALCY: They used that to cut them in pieces. I saw so much stuff, my god… And people told me so many stories about what happened to their children. In the book, André Brink has nothing about the killing or torture. He talks about the torture, but he couldn’t describe it because he never saw it. He never went to Soweto because he was a white man. That’s why I made Ben Du Toit go to Soweto, I put him in the back of the car. He went there and saw Gordon’s body. I had to have that in my movie.
I’ll be honest with you, I cried for days and days and days when the video of George Floyd came out. Everything I saw doing A Dry White Season came back to me. Aaron, I spent a year and a half, two years in tears after doing that movie. I was so devastated, I was sick. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep quietly. I was obsessed with all of these images. I’d cry anytime I saw anyone Black on the television, or, in the streets of Paris, anytime I saw a Black person walking towards me, the whole thing would come back and I would start crying. So when I saw the video of George Floyd, everything came back to me. I cried. I cried. I cried for days. I couldn’t talk, people posted things and were talking about it, but I couldn’t. I knew I had to do something to get out of it. After A Dry White Season, how did I cure myself? With Siméon. That movie was my therapy. I’m a musician, I love music, I did this to bring my flame, my music, back. If you are sad, you see Siméon and you come back to life. Tell me if I’m wrong. Dancing, laughing and fun.
The same thing happened when I saw the video of George Floyd. I was miserable, but one morning I woke up and knew I had to do something. I had two pictures in my head. I’m not a painter, but I can see the painting. I called two friends of mine, one who did the poster for Siméon, Mr. Xerty. I worked closely with him to do the artwork he did for Siméon. And I called another one, Miguel Marajo, from Martinique. I said, “I want you to close your eyes and I’ll describe what I see. Can you record what I’m saying to you and put it on the canvas for me?” And he did. And I called that one “Justice.” The other one was “George Floyd, A Martyr for Freedom and Justice,” a collage with the other people that they killed. In the background you have blue skies with birds, the blue pushing away the gray in the sky. Hope is coming. Because you have all of these people, Black, white, taking a stand and saying it’s wrong. The other one is totally different, and we will reveal it pretty soon.
Siméon came to me one day. My friend Francis Ford Coppola invited me to come visit him on the set of The Godfather Part III. He said, “If this will change your spirits, come!” When I was in the plane there the magic happened. I saw images, I heard the sound and I took everything in the plane I could, the paper towels, the bags you use when you feel like vomiting, and I wrote and wrote and wrote. That’s how the idea of Siméon came to me and how I used it as therapy to get back to my normal self. The paintings helped me with George Floyd, and now I can talk about it without crying, without being sick.
NOTEBOOK: There’s obviously a distinction between the connection, access, and empathy to Black people that a Black filmmaker can nurture and a white or non-Black filmmaker’s ability to. The difference is palpable, there’s a great relief in experiencing it. That’s usually talked about as important to documentaries, but it’s as important to your narrative work.
PALCY: At an early age, I learned how powerful images are. Who has been writing our stories? White folks. They’ve distorted our stories and our history. Our communication was mostly oral communication. It was very important for me to be able to make documentaries, to give people a voice, not just make fiction or to fictionalize life. be it a comedy, drama, an action-packed movie—I love action!–thriller, whatever the genre, there’s always undistorted history. There’s another series I wrote that I love and I hope they do one day—suspense, thriller, whatever the genre, you will always have history. I talk about us. I talked about history with Césaire. Every time I do a masterclass I tell [the students] that they can create a "revolution" with films. It was important for me to do documentary films as a Black filmmaker because you have the real people there. You feel them, you give them a voice. They talk and you have the truth coming out of their mouths. It’s a way for me, as a filmmaker, a documentarian, to be able to eternalize our history. You don’t lie when you do a documentary film, you deal with the truth. Nobody told me my history, my people's history, at school. I learned it by digging and looking for it. I learned it from my grandmother, the old people I was questioning all the time when I was a child, because I was thirsty, starving, to find out who we are. Where did we come from? Why don’t they love us? Why do they hate us, the white folks, in most countries? And what did we do to them?
That was a question I used to ask when I was a child. I couldn’t stand it anymore. And when I was watching all the beatings and killings of African-Americans during the civil rights movement I’d cry and ask, “Why are they doing that? What did they do wrong?” I couldn’t stand it. I realized very immediately, at a young age, that I had to make films, because my grandmother used to tell me, “You have five minutes to complain, but one minute to take action. Okay, you’re complaining. Tell me how, if you had the opportunity to, you would change it?” And she also used to say, “If they put a fence in front of you, run and jump over it.” I couldn't go in the street and scream—I would lose my head. All I had to do was pray to God every night and ask him to make me go faster and become a filmmaker. People have said I disappeared. I didn’t disappear. I’ve been here, fighting to make the movies I’ve wanted to make. But they wouldn’t give me the funds because we were not bankable, we didn’t deserve the big screen, no one was interested in our stories because we are Black. People don’t know how many movies I’ve turned down.
I’m a mixed blood person, I have African blood, European blood, Asian blood, but the one that I cherish most is the African one, because it is the one that is the most degraded, most insulted on the screen and all walks of life; it’s the one I will kill and die for without any hatred for anybody. I cannot hate anybody. I understood early on I must take my camera to restore the roots and heal the wounds of history, bring life back. In doing so, I would show our people who we are, because we’ve been told so long by others who we are. We believed it. Many others swallowed that, believed it. For years I was in the States on the road, preaching, talking to Black folks to have more solidarity to do things. But they’d be staring at this French Caribbean woman going, “What’s she talking about?” They didn't care! [laughs] It was as if I was coming to their country to tell them to wake up, “Lets go! Let’s tell our stories! Let's put our money where our mouth is!” The Black stars? You think they will help? Hell no. They were not into helping, they were just fighting to make their living, they were in their own struggle to be there. You think they’d be generous, “I’ll give you my name and be the star of your movie.” I never got that. They’d say to me, “Oh, that sounds great. Oh, that’s fantastic.” But then when I’d call them their agent would tell them not to do it. I can tell you that happened with Morgan Freeman and that’s not the only one.
It happened with Lawrence Fishburne as well, for a piece I was producing called Tar Baby, by Toni Morrison. People don’t know anything about my life, my years in the States fighting to do Bessie Coleman. And now I’m doing it. All this to say I’ve been fighting for years to put Black people on screen. I’m very happy about what’s happening today. I knew that it would happen, and I was waiting and waiting for the moment and it’s right here now. I feel so reenergized, so ready for it. All I need is the funding then let me do what I do. I love that Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox song “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves." [laughs] I remember when I was fighting to make Sugar Cane Alley, I was saying, “Like the song, ‘Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves,’ Black folks have to do it for themselves too!” Years ago, the Black Caucus welcomed me and I told them, “Guys, put your money where your mouth is. You’ve got money. There are a lot of Black people who are rich. Why are we waiting on the white man to put money there? They don’t want to do it, so just do it yourself!” But I guess I was ahead of my time.
NOTEBOOK: Is there hope today?
PALCY: They took George Floyd’s life. He’s a martyr. But I’m sure, wherever he is now, he has a big smile on his face. He might not regret that it happened for his people. The future will tell me, but when I saw Black people, white people, Latinx people, Asian people, all together like just people on their bellies in the street screaming, “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” And saw the whole world doing the gesture Colin Kaepernick did that cost him his job, when I saw some policemen, and not just policemen, but the bosses going down on one knee, I’m telling you Aaron, I said to myself, “All the fight I put on, all the frustration I went through when I was facing people who were telling me that because the leads of my films were Black or female that they weren’t bankable, therefore they wouldn’t produce them,” all of that anger and frustration was gone, wiped out. I’ve never been that happy after so much crying. Today, I’m just happy I am there to see it. I knew it would happen, but I was praying I’d be there. [laughs] It did happen, and it happens still. I’m so proud of those people, the whole world, do you believe this? The whole world. So, thank you brother Floyd, they stole your life, but your life was not taken in vain. You saved your people and you changed the world. You changed the world. I want to believe that it will be for the best.
My first godfather was Aimé Césaire. He taught me everything I know politically, philosophically, my history. He said something that I will try to translate to you, “My mouth will be the mouth of those misfortunes that have no mouth, my voice the freedom of those sagging in the dungeon of despair.”