”I knew Brando would drive his directors crazy, but I didn’t care”: Euzhan Palcy looks back on her apartheid drama A Dry White Season

Euzhan Palcy had only made one film when she landed the job of directing Marlon Brando and Donald Sutherland in A Dry White Season, becoming the first Black woman to direct a Hollywood movie. Here she tells us how she posed as a singer to research the film in South Africa during apartheid.

Euzhan Palcy directing Marlon Brando during A Dry White Season (1989)David James/MGM

Martinique-born Euzhan Palcy has the distinction of being one of the few filmmakers from the Caribbean to have an international profile. Following her critically acclaimed 1983 debut Sugar Cane Alley (Rue Case Nègres), she became the first Black woman to direct a major Hollywood movie, the anti-apartheid drama, A Dry White Season, and has created an impressive body of work for big and small screen. 

Between the early 1990s and 2000s Palcy showed her versatility by making films such as Simeon (1992), a musical fairytale that features the legendary Martiniquan group Kassav, and documentaries such as Aimé Césaire: A Voice for History, on the trailblazing godfather of the ‘Négritude’ literary movement, and the mini-series The Brides of Bourbon Island (both 2007).  

Palcy’s work is consistently marked not just by themes of social justice but by a desire to give to her subjects, be they West Indians or South Africans, a voice far beyond any lazy stereotypes. Her scripting and characterisation are meticulously vivid so as to bring to the screen three-dimensional personalities who are able to greatly move audiences as well as inform them, politically. 

Throughout her career, she has endeavoured to depict the lives of people of colour in ways that are far more authentic, dignified and empowering than was the case in her childhood.  

Did you always want to be a director?

Euzhan Palcy: I was just 12 years old when I decided to be a filmmaker. I came across Sugar Cane Alley; my mother gave me the book and I knew that I wanted to make a film about it, even if we didn’t have any woman filmmakers in Martinique in the 1970s. When I became a teenager I knew that there were three movies I would kill to do: Sugar Cane Alley, a movie about South Africa and one about Toussaint L’Ouverture (one of the iconic leaders of the Haitian revolution.)

Sugar Cane Alley (1983)JMJ International Pictures

Sugar Cane Alley earned you great critical acclaim around the world. Did it open doors for you?

Robert Redford asked me to be the filmmaker representing France at the Screenwriters Lab of the Sundance Film Festival in 1983. That changed my life. They screened Sugar Cane Alley (about exploited Black plantation workers in Martinique) 10 times. A lot of people came. Paul Newman, Karl Malden and Mike Nichols were all there. And nobody wanted to do that movie in France, because it was talking about colonialism, racism and slavery. They didn’t want to cover any of those things.

How did you secure the rights to André Brink’s A Dry White Season, a key anti-apartheid text.

We met secretly in the south of France. I said to him, you wrote A Dry White Season for me! And he told me he had been showing Sugar Cane Alley secretly to his students, white students in South Africa for some time. It was all done behind closed doors. Two or three American producers had already begged him for the rights to the book, but he said no because he really wanted me to do it.

A Dry White Season (1989)David James/MGM

When making A Dry White Season what research did you do?

I was obsessed by the story. I was sick and tired of not seeing Black folks on the screen. The only time was in American movies, and they were stereotypes. I was so hurt by that. So as a filmmaker when I deal with history I want it to be as authentic as possible. I want people to be human beings and express all the emotion and for audiences to do something about what they see. I put all my soul and my truth into it. 

When I met André Brink he told me you will not be able to send me the script or talk on the phone because my mail is opened and my phone is tapped, and I am followed. But I had to go to South Africa, to go to Soweto. Brink couldn’t describe the torture of Black people in the book because he never went to Soweto. I wanted to know exactly what they did, so I could show it on screen. It was tough but necessary.

I was told “they might kill you.” I said I don’t care. I told my mother and father that if anything happens to me at least you’ll be able say I knew what I was doing. I had to do it as a filmmaker and as a Black filmmaker. So I posed as a singer! The authorities thought I was some famous American so they gave me a pass for whites to be able to stay in a hotel for whites.

Euzhan Palcy directing A Dry White Season (1989)David James/MGM

Tell me about working with Black South African actors and writers on A Dry White Season.

Well, the great actor Zakes Mokae knew things all too well. The apartheid regime killed his brother, his father went to search for him, and they killed him as well, just like in the movie. Zakes’s character Stanley is in the book, but I developed him. I also spent a lot of time with a South African writer, Lionel Ngakane. He moved to England, and spent many years in London. He was a good friend of June Givanni who brought Sugar Cane Alley to the BFI, and he saw it there. He wanted to meet me and he gave me lots of information about the language used by Black South Africans.  

The cast also has renowned North American and British actors such as Donald Sutherland and Janet Suzman, but the biggest name on the bill was Marlon Brando. How did you get him on board?

I had him in my head to portray the anti-apartheid lawyer for a long time. He was an activist. I knew that he was a monster as an actor and as a human being and he would drive his directors crazy. But I didn’t care. I met Jay Kanter, who was Marlon Brando’s agent; they were like brothers. Right in front of me he picked up the phone and called Marlon and he said he would call me. 

Weeks went by, no call. I went to France for a while then came back to America. The very moment I’m at my hotel Brando calls me. He started to speak French and I said to him if you watch my movie Sugar Cane Alley you’ll know exactly who I am. We organised a private screening, he watched the film and was moved to tears. 

I asked him to read the script of A Dry White Season. Three days later he called me back and said I’m doing it. He said I want to leave my footprint in the South African soil. I told him Hollywood studios don’t like to make political movies, so there is a very small budget. He said do you think I’m doing it for the money? You must be kidding. He said I’ll do it for free, but his money would go to five South African anti-apartheid associations. It was incredible.

A Dry White Season (1989)David James/MGM

The film is almost 40 years old. How do you feel about it today?

Every time I see it, I take a step back and say I can’t believe I was able to make that movie. I put all my life and everything into it. I was ready to die for it. I had to do it because it was so important, I was obsessed by it. When I look at it, I feel the same thing that the audience is feeling. There was a retrospective of my films at Beaubourg a few months ago, and people were crying. And I cry too. I still feel all the emotions.  

A Dry White Season is out now on BFI Blu-ray.