A few weeks ago a couple of gentlemen from Australia contacted me to ask if I would do their podcast "Hell is for Hyphenates” http://www.hellisforhyphenates.com/. Lee Zachariah and Paul Anthony Nelson, the hosts, have a little twist to their format: I wasn’t invited to talk about myself, instead I had to choose another filmmaker I wanted to discuss.
It didn’t take me long to reply with my choice: Euzhan Palcy http://www.euzhanpalcy.co/Home.html
I didn’t learn about Euzhan here in Hollywood like I should have given her resume. It was during my illegal VPN cruising to European TV territories that I came across her work. A French/German channel aired her mini-series The Brides of Bourbon Island.
What impressed me even more than the show itself was the little “making-of” reel they showed right after. Euzhan Palcy stroke me instantly as a natural director. I wondered “what is it that makes her a natural”? She wasn’t yelling or ruling over a hundred members of cast & crew with a strong hand, there weren’t even moments that showcased her “decisiveness”.
Instead the short reel portrayed a woman leading extensive rehearsals before the start of the production with a calm confidence that made her entire cast feel safe. Mother hen comes to mind, or a lioness surrounded by her cubs.
That’s the funny thing about discrimination against women directors, if anybody was “born” for this, often described as parental job, it was women not men. Directing was never supposed to be a job for which ruthless egomaniacs qualified more than others, on the contrary, it’s a profession that requires a gentle leadership that does not intrude on the overall creative environment. A good director should allow creative contribution from all involved and keep the dialogue open throughout the production, while at the same time holding on to one coherent vision and manage to make his or her days.
Roger Ebert said in 2001: "Euzhan Palcy strikes me as proof that great directors can come from anywhere but they must know they are directors, and trust that they are great.”
I would add that only in a perfect, non-discriminating world would this type of director, the one who knows she’s born for it, also get to pursue her passion. But in the real world Euzhan could not simply show up, prove she's great and then have a career. She needed mentors. It was French director François Truffaut who helped Euzhan get her first feature film Sugar Cane Alley made. Then it was Robert Redford who, after seeing her work, hand picked her for the Sundance Lab. And finally, impressed with the script she chose for her first Hollywood studio film, the legend himself Marlon Brando came out of retirement and agreed to appear in her movie.
Three big men decided to lift one director up and onto their stage -- or as we call it: The glass ceiling.
Why did this noble act die out? I can’t remember the last time we heard of any genre or drama director helping someone from an underrepresented group. Only comedy has a few (not enough) good men left apparently, as my friend Monika Bartyzel reveals in her article about Hollywood mentors: http://theweek.com/article/index/259723/girls-on-film-aspiring-female-filmmakers-need-male-mentors-too
Of course there are many examples of A-list directors helping young guys break into the business, that’s when you hear the trailer narrator say: “Big shot director presents a movie made by young male protege. Because if there’s nothing you can buy or do for yourself anymore, helping someone who looks and acts just like you is the next best thing.”
A perfect example of how little Hollywood cares about a diverse representation of storytellers is the fact that they didn’t hold on to Euzhan Palcy with all their might. See, the general public doesn’t realize how much Hollywood can and will do, if they think a filmmaker is worthy. But for those who know movie facts and history, you know what I mean.
No such offers were extended to Euzhan Palcy and there are only so many Ruby Bridges movies you can make. I respect Euzhan even more for not playing Hollywood’s game and turning down a lot of the scripts that did come her way. Even though I have never spoken to her personally or read this about her, I get the sense that at some point she said: “Fuck you Hollywood, I will not be your token black woman on your token annual black movie”.
Good for her, bad for humanity. Every story she doesn’t tell is our loss.
Follow @cinemaviscera and @leezachariah on Twitter to find out when the podcast airs. ;-)