Euzhan Palcy Has a Face the Camera Loves but Finds the View Better Behind the Lens

updated 10/16/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/16/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Inside Euzhan Palcy's clothing-strewn Los Angeles apartment there's nothing to suggest that this is the stateside nest of one of film's startling new discoveries. With her tight black pants and billowing white shirt, Palcy, 32, could be taken for Hollywood's ingenue du jour. But make no mistake: While her face may look as if it belongs in front of a camera, Palcy is being heralded for her work behind the lens as the director of A Dry White Season, a searing indictment of apartheid.

As she talks, the Martinique-born director slashes the air with her hand for emphasis, her Nefertiti helmet of braids swinging to the cadence of her French-tinged voice. It's easy to see the passion that fueled her five-year labor of love and drew none other than Marlon Brando into her orbit and onto the screen for the first time in nine years. Bright, fiery and funny, Palcy is single-minded in her efforts to get her powerful message across in her films. "Some people make movies for money or glory and will take any subject people offer them. But I cannot do that," she says. "I need to feel the story and make it mine."

When Palcy first read Andre Brink's 1979 novel, once banned in South Africa, she was determined to bring it to the screen. The facts that she had only one film credit to her name and that she was black and female made it triply hard for her to sell the project to Hollywood. But after suffering through two studio changes and four rewrites, she found an ally in Paula Weinstein, a producer at MGM. "She is the most hardworking person I've ever met," says Weinstein. "She is intimidated by no one."

It was Palcy's fearlessness that helped her attract Brando as well as Donald Sutherland, Susan Sarandon and Zakes Mokae to the film, which follows the breakup of two South African families—one black, one white—in the aftermath of the 1976 Soweto uprising. The role of a cynical South African lawyer is pivotal to the movie, and Palcy knew she needed to cast "somebody powerful, somebody with charisma and somebody with the right politics." Landing Brando for the role was surprisingly easy. He agreed to read the script, Palcy says, "and a few days later, called and said, 'I'll do it and I'll do it for free.' " (Brando later accepted union scale—$4,000—instead of his usual $I.5 million per day.) "When people walk out of the theater, they remember all Brando's lines. That's why I wanted him for the role."

If today Palcy is being hailed for her Brando coup, only five years ago she had her first brush with American racism. While en route to Robert Redford's film festival in Sundance, Utah, to screen her first film, Sugar Cane Alley, Palcy had to pass through customs at LAX. An agent, who appeared to Palcy to be singling out black people for inspection, pulled her aside. "When I told her I was invited by Robert Redford, she laughed at me. When I told her I couldn't miss my plane, she told me, 'Shut up,' " says Palcy, still smarting at the memory. "For the first time I hated somebody."

Euzhan's (the name means "life and purity" in Greek) strong sense of pride was forged while growing up in Fort de France, Martinique. She was the fourth of six children born to a pineapple factory personnel manager, Léon Palcy, and his wife, Romauld, the daughter of a prominent family that disapproved of the match and disowned her after the marriage. "They cut my mother off," Palcy said. "It was a burden for my father, and he worked very hard to give us everything."

Palcy's talent and determination made an early debut, and at age 10 she was directing her older sister and four brothers in after-dinner plays. By the age of 12, Palcy was composing songs and setting her own poems to music. "As a child, I always wanted to be the last one to take a bath because I knew I could close the door and spend hours just having my bath and singing," she says.

Palcy moved to Paris in 1977 to attend the Sorbonne and the Vaugirard film school, paying her tuition with money she made from Martinique television projects and other film work. She also recorded two albums of children's songs. While at school, she befriended one of Francois Truffaut's daughters, and later the director himself. He coached Palcy in the making of Sugar Cane Alley, which was funded by a grant from the French government. The film, which portrays a black orphan coming of age in Martinique, won honors at two European film festivals in 1983.

Now that Hollywood has taken notice, Palcy is returning to her second home, in the Neuilly section of Paris, near the Champs Elysées. She says the effort of pulling together A Dry White Season has exhausted her and overwhelmed every aspect of her personal life, and she wants time to regroup. "I need to get my energy back and be high again," she said. When she has settled, she plans to tend to her garden and weigh offers from two European producers. She'd like her next movie to be a comedy, but one in which she combines a message with the mirth: "Even if people spend two hours laughing and having a good time, I believe you make them think about life."

—Irene Lacher, Jack Kelley in Los Angeles

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