Sidelined for decades by a film industry that refused to fund films starring Black actors, director Euzhan Palcy made a triumphant return to Hollywood on Saturday, accepting an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement at the Academy’s Governors awards.
Palcy, the first Black woman to direct a film for a major Hollywood studio, was introduced by Viola Davis and praised by Ava DuVernay. She addressed a film industry that had finally accepted that, as she put it: “Black and female is bankable.”
“I was so tired of being told I was a pioneer,” Palcy said. “I was so tired of hearing praise for being the first of too many firsts.”
The annual Governors awards, now in its 13th year, is a chance for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to correct past mistakes and oversights by presenting special Oscars for lifetime achievement, while also giving A-list actors and Oscar contenders a chance to network ahead of the coming year’s award votes.
This year’s lifetime award winners included songwriter Diane Warren, who had been an Academy Award nominee for best original song 13 times since 1987 for songs such as Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now, and I Don’t Want To Miss a Thing, but never took home the Oscar, and Australian director Peter Weir, who directed Witness, Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Back to the Future star Michael J Fox received a humanitarian award for his decades of advocacy and fundraising for research into Parkinson’s disease.
Fox made jokes about what it was like to be “80s famous” and talked about Parkinson’s disease as “the gift that keeps on taking”. After his diagnosis aged just 29, and being told he only had ten more years to work, he first kept his experience of the disease a secret, then eventually went public, using his celebrity and sense of humour to make depictions of Parkinson’s more mainstream.
After being repeatedly told by public health experts that “the science was ahead of the money,” Fox said, he has raised $1.5bn for research towards a cure for Parkinson’s.
Cher said Warren, a songwriter who has collaborated with everyone from Beyoncé and Lady Gaga to Celine Dion and Jennifer Hudson, and whose songs have appeared in 100 films, was a quirky and fiercely dedicated artist who once followed her into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in order to play her a song.
“Mom, thanks – I finally found a man,” Warren quipped, holding her Oscar. “I’ve waited a long fucking time for him.”
In filmed tributes, both Harrison Ford and Colin Farrell begged Weir, a contributor to the Australian New Wave who directed art film classics such as Picnic at Hanging Rock, and then crossed over into making big Hollywood hits, to consider making another film with them.
In his speech, Weir celebrated the freedom of being a young Australian film-maker in the 1970s. “We knew nothing. but we were determined. We had no older generation that we could sit at the feet of,” he said. “There was no one to tell you you were wrong.”
But it was Palcy, 64, who was the night’s star, viewing her award as an opportunity to finally make more of the films that she had been blocked from making for decades.
As a young film-maker, Palcy, who was born in Martinique, was championed by François Truffaut and Robert Redford, and convinced Marlon Brando to come out of retirement to direct him in A Dry White Season in 1989, a role that earned him his final Oscar nomination.
Her breakthrough film, Sugar Cane Alley, about field workers in colonial Martinique made her the first Black and first female director to win a Silver Lion at the Venice film festival (in 1983) and the first to win a César award, France’s Oscar.
A Dry White Season was her second big feature, a drama set in South Africa during apartheid, showing the radicalisation of a suburban white father after he starts to seek justice for his Black gardener and his son. It was the first film directed by a Black woman funded by a major Hollywood studio, and when he got out of prison Nelson Mandela asked to meet with her because of his appreciation of the film.
But over the next decades, Palcy made only a handful of films and documentaries. She was often asked, “why for a long time I stepped back from the camera I loved.”
“I stepped back so I could truly stand up and stand tall,” she said. “I kept my silence because I was exhausted … I had lost my willingness to hear those words: ‘Black is not bankable, female is not bankable. Black and female is not bankable.’”
In previous interviews, Palcy described having to turn down well-meaning scripts – such as a story about the Attica prison uprising that had Meryl Streep attached – that presented inaccurate narratives about race.
She also said that her own film ideas were repeatedly rejected by studio executives for being “too black”. “They were very matter of fact: they’d ask: ‘Can’t the lead be white?’” she told the Guardian in 2019. “I was pitching a story about a black freedom fighter and they asked me if he could be white. Incredible things like that.”
In her speech, Palcy talked about the frustration of her lost years. “I was not behind the camera, doing what God put me on this earth to do: aim my camera, my miraculous weapon, as I call it, to bring our collective humanity into focus on the screen,” she said. “With my camera I don’t shoot, I heal.”
Palcy expressed her gratitude for the Black female film-makers who had continued to champion and share her work, among them Gina Prince-Bythewood, director of The Woman King, and Julie Dash, director of Daughters of the Dust.
In an emotional tribute, Davis hailed Palcy’s determination “to wait for the work that was worthy” of her.
“As a black woman artist, I feel like I’m always defending my womanhood and blackness,” Davis said. Palcy refused to do that, she said: “You did not defend your blackness. You did not defend your womanhood. You used it as warrior fuel.”
DuVernay said in a tribute video that she hoped Palcy would continue to make more films.
In her speech, Palcy congratulated the Academy “for helping to lead the charge to change our industry and for opening the doors that were closed to the ideas and visions that I championed for so long.” She said: “It encourages me to raise my voice again, to offer you movies of all genres that I always wanted to make in my own way, without having my voice censored or silenced.”
Among her guests at the post-awards ceremony were two young activists she has mentored, Manuel Frederick and Andrew Divine, and two “brilliant female students” from schools in Martinique. Palcy said in her speech that she wanted the young women to be able to tell other kids back home what their time in Hollywood was like.
Salomé Portout Vovol, 14, and Erinne Goudot, 17, said their experience of Palcy’s Oscar award was not easy to put into words. “I think tonight gave me hope,” said Goudot, who is interested in a career as an actor. “In Martinique, we tend to think we have less opportunities.”