“I told Ava DuVernay, a dear friend,” says Yuzan Palsey, “‘Ava — you call me an angel. You call me a queen. But you know what? Being a pioneer is hard. It’s hard.’ “
Palsy would have known. At 64, the Martinique-born director – a trailblazer whose first feature, 1983, won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival Sugarcane AlleyLater in 1989 he directed Marlon Brando to an Oscar nomination Dry white season – Decades have passed since he saw his dream plans fall apart.
“Leads are black,” Palsey explains, sipping a smoothie on the sunny terrace of a Culver City rental house. (Her permanent home is in Paris.) “And sure [protagonists] Black and female like Bessie Coleman. They didn’t like that. Now everyone is talking about Bessie Coleman.
Palsey discovered Coleman’s story in 1991. She was the first African American woman to hold a civilian pilot’s license and flew in dangerous air shows as Brave Bessie; She died in a plane crash in 1926. No one wanted to touch it because it was a black woman’s story, and it was a period piece and whatever,” Palsey says. “I was very disappointed and very hurt. I could not eat. When I returned home to Paris, I cried.
To be sure, Palsy has long had her champions in Hollywood — she cites Robert Redford, who she suggested was her “godfather” at Sundance. And after apartheid she got offers Dry white seasonIncluding a film about George Jackson, a Black Panther activist who was shot and killed during an escape attempt at San Quentin in 1971 – sparking the Attica prison riot.
“Meryl Streep was attached to star and wanted me to direct the film,” Palsey says. “But when I read the script, I was very disappointed.” He felt that the screenplay took on fundamental messages about race and that America’s penal system was flawed. “And I said, ‘No, not again. Not again. Not again.’ He was so upset, my agent, he didn’t talk to me for two months. Streep never did a movie.
Frustrated by the studio system, Palsey chose to mentor aspiring filmmakers “in Africa, in Haiti, in the Caribbean, even here in the US” (among her findings was Molly Kane, an emerging Senegalese filmmaker, who made a short film with her that landed a 2011 Cannes premiere.) Young BIPOC filmmakers They are happy with the strides being made.
“Very honestly there is no anger. No bitterness. I am very happy because I always say that I have no ego. I am a pioneer. I paved the way, but with my blood,” he says.
Finally, Hollywood Palsy is paying its dues. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will honor him at the 13th Governors Awards on November 19. He received his Oscar just one day after receiving France’s prestigious Society of Dramatic Authors and Composers Medal of Honor. Honorary awards will be presented to Diane Warren and Peter Weir, Michael J. Fox will receive the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.
“This is a miracle. Really,” Palsey says, clearly overwhelmed by the wave of international recognition. Next: Bessie Coleman waiting. “I mean, even if I don’t have an Oscar, I’m ready for it,” she says. “I’m going to go back and I’m going to make that movie.”
More from below The Hollywood Reporter’A conversation with Honorary Oscar winner Palsey:
A big congratulations to you for this wonderful honor. I’m curious: do you cringe when you see projects like this? hidden persons Getting ready — when you faced a lot of resistance to Hollywood films with black female characters?
In 1991, I discovered the story of Bessie Coleman. I spent years fighting with the studio. No one wanted to touch it because it was a black woman’s story, and it was a period piece and whatever. He didn’t want to do it. And I was very disappointed and very hurt.
I cried a lot in the evening. And I said, “Why is that? Why does the color of someone’s skin determine their right to be on screen? Or the right to express yourself? I was very sad. But to answer your question, when I see that young generation coming and making their films, quite frankly, I’m not angry. No bitterness. I was happy. very happy Because I always say I have no ego. I’m here, I do. I am a pioneer. I made the way, but with my blood, and no one helped me.
Dry white season Obviously, it was very well received. And Brando was nominated for an Oscar for the film. So wonderful. But what happened after that? What kind of offers have you received?
I wanted to do Bessie Coleman. I wanted to make a film about Toussaint Louverture, a famous Haitian hero. I wanted to make a film about World War II. I have a lot. And I wanted to make a film about a biracial love story set in 1864 Baltimore.
So all the great things I wanted to do, I was told no to, because all my characters were black. And I said, “What did you expect? You called me to work with you. You love Sugarcane Alley. When you talk about my first film, you cry and you want me to work with you. And I came. And now you don’t want my job, and you want my talent to do your job. And I couldn’t stand it. I thought, “This is so unfair.” So I decided, I said, “No, I have to go. I can’t do that. “
Were there any actual projects where they said “please do this” and you said no?
People still don’t understand what happened. Why was I silent? Why did I disappear? But I’m still around. I am waiting for the right time and the right people. For example, they came to me with a project, they proposed Meryl Streep to be the lead. This is the story of George Jackson. He was in jail. They said he killed a white policeman and he was claiming his innocence.
They killed him in prison. And that created that rebellion in Attica. That really created it. Meryl Streep wanted me to direct that film. So my agent called me and said, “I’m going to send you that script.” I was very disappointed when I read the script. And I said, “No, not again. Not again. Not again.” Meryl Streep is such an amazing actress. I said, “Maybe she doesn’t know, really.” Maybe she thought she was helping the cause by saying yes to that story. But she doesn’t know that the script wasn’t a reflection of reality. There were so many examples like that. And I said, “No. , no, no, stop.”
When do you think that started to change? What is the turning point?
I would say that a real change happened to me after George Floyd was killed. And then with the whole movement, Black Lives Matter. People, I think, were as shocked as I was. I never thought in my life that I would see white people on the street next to black people with their arms over their stomachs like this: “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.”
my god And I say, “Right!” I was very happy. And that gave me even more hope. All this provoked a change in the platform. The platform, that’s very important, because they started to realize that Netflix and every other kind of platform can’t sustain what Hollywood has created forever. And I saw the situation slowly changing, you see? And I said, “It’s time, it’s me; It’s the right time, the moment I’ve been waiting for, and I’m ready now.
This year has been a very special year for me because in June the French Writers’ Association awarded me a medal of honor. I am the second woman to get it. And 24 hours later I got a call from the president of the Academy saying, “Oh, Ms. Palsey, it’s a great honor to announce that you have an honorary Oscar.” And I couldn’t believe it. And three weeks ago, they are calling me to receive another award in France: 100 women of culture.
Finally. And I said, “Oh, what’s happening to me? God’s laughing at me now, and everything. And I’m so happy and I’m ready for it. I’ve got some great plans.”
So are you going to continue directing?
Absolutely. do you know If there’s one thing I’m absolutely sure, sure, sure about, it’s that God put me on this earth for one reason: to make movies.
It wasn’t Hollywood that got me out. Yes they did. They silenced me because they didn’t want my projects. And I found it unfair, I withdrew. I said, “When the time comes, I’ll be back.”
And what does this Oscar mean to you now?
I wish I could have the language to say. This is a very great difference. Everyone wanted an Oscar – except Brando, who turned it down. But that’s Brando.
A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.