The seminal Hollywood movie on apartheid South Africa and its pioneering black female director

By Nadia Neophytou

When Euzhan Palcy released the second film she’d ever made, A Dry White Season, in 1989, she wrote herself into the history of filmmaking, becoming the first black female filmmaker to helm a studio movie—one with big name actors and a budget to go along with it. It should have heralded a new era in her life, as a filmmaker of note, but it’s only now, 30 years later, that she looks set to return to her love of cinema.

A Dry White Season, based on the book by the late, best-selling South African author Andre Brink, played at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month, before it plays again next month, as part of a retrospective the festival created to celebrate the Martinique-born filmmaker’s work. London’s Barbican Cinema and HOME, Manchester, England’s center for international contemporary art, have also announced they’re bringing Palcy’s work to the big screen next month too.

It’s a spotlight Palcy is glad to see shining on a film she felt compelled to make, watching the apartheid situation in South Africa worsen from afar, growing up on the French Caribbean island. “It is the most fantastic gift, to see how the film has impacted people, even still today,” she says thirty years later. “It still has such a relevance, if you look at what’s happening in the US right now, with the shootings and killing that are going on.”

Susan Sarandon as journalist Melanie Bruwer in A Dry White Season

Indeed it’s a story very specific to South Africans, about a white well-to-do Afrikaans family man who comes to an awakening, through the murders of his black gardener and his family, that being disapproving of unjust racist laws in principle is nothing without action. But its passionate appeal for social justice, even in the face of resistance, rings true universally. “It’s a Hollywood production but it’s not a Hollywood film, it’s a Euzhan Palcy film,” says Palcy.“Paul Newman asked me five times if he could play the lead role.” Marlon Brando came out of retirement for the shoot.

After her debut feature, the independently-made Sugar Cane Alley, about poor Caribbean plantation workers, won dozens of awards, among them a Cesar and the Venice Film Festival’s Silver Lion (making her the first black woman to win), Palcy became in demand by Hollywood and the movie industry.

A nudge from Robert Redford sent her off to meet with a few producers, eventually landing Palcy at MGM, where she presented her ideas for the book A Dry White Season (Brink became the first Afrikaner writer to be banned by the government for writing it) to chairman Alan Ladd Jr. It wasn’t just studio bigwigs that came a-calling—the stars did, too. “Paul Newman asked me five times if he could play the lead role of Benjamin Du Toit,” says Palcy.

Read from source Quartz

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