Instances of Grace

Sugar Cane Alley (1983). Directed by Euzhan Palcy. With Garry Cadenat, Darling Légitimus, Douta Seck

Festival de Cannes took note of Associate Curator Anne Morra and Assistant Curator Ron Magliozzi’s study and celebration of Euzhan Palcy by honoring this filmmaker on May 14th.  Cannes screened Sugar Cane Alley (1983) which received a César (César Awards, France) and Silver Lion (Venice Film Festival) for Best First Work.  Sugar Cane Alley had made a splash at Cannes eighteen years ago.

Last evening’s London weather in NYC was opposite of what Martinique offers its tourists.  Despite grey skies and rain pouring like lined streaks in a lithograph, NYC continued to shine indoors.  In Euzhan Palcy’s honor, MoMA hosted a Cocktail Reception sponsored by the Martinique Tourism Authority.  Situated at the Cullman Building, tropical hues of red and yellow accents decorated the space via video panels and posters while waiters enticed special fans with mostly seafood appetizers.  A champagne mixed concoction that tasted fruity and hints of liquor was offered generously.  Fashionable dressed and late in arrival, Euzhan Palcy descended the stairs in splendor.  Appliqués of fabric shimmered against a gorgeous muted silver jacket that meshed with the purples and subtle orange tints in the dress.  Her firm posture and stoic regale face patiently surveyed the scene and heard introductions by Anne and Ron followed by a representative from the Martinique Tourism.  Musician Mino Cinelu entertained with beats and vocal elements before announcements were made that Sugar Cane Alley (originally titled Rue cases nègres) was about to start in Titus Theater 2.

Ambitious and meticulous, Martinique (French colony in the Caribbean) born producer, writer, and filmmaker Euzhan Palcy retained literary works for adaptation early on and understood an important facet about France intellectual property.  Unlike in the United States where producers and studios make final decisions, directors in France do not need a sign-off from the money backers.  Palcy also rewrote the screenplay several times before her education at the Sorbonne in Paris and Louis Lumiere School of Cinema in Noisy-le-Grand.  She emphasized during the Q&A that followed MoMA’s program of Sugar Cane Alley that due to her gender and race, she strove to know everything.  This way when asking for a certain sequence or shot, she can confidently dismiss a naysayer who claimed her conception was not technically possible.  Through her tenacity and brilliance, French New Wave director François Truffaut took notice ushering in a mentor relationship.  Palcy labels Truffaut as her French Godfather.  She grants that title “godfather” or “godmother” to artists and thinkers who inspire her projects and zest for social issues (i.e., Aimé Césaire is her “spiritual godfather” & Robert Redford her “American Godfather”).  Imperialism is a given entitlement of the United States and since our violent secession from England years ago, thoughts and resentments about colonialism are not embedded in the fabric of our collective unconscious.  Palcy takes her familiarity of colonial-imperial relations and unapologetically structures her films in these settings.  It all began with her first feature Sugar Cane Alley.

Opening the film, a young boy Jose (Garry Cadenat) gets a stern warning from his grandmother about keeping his clothes clean.  Quickly children accompany Jose’s docile, kind face.  Kids fill the frame and allow their antics to betray the universal truth about youngsters when elders are away.  They will play.  In pandemonium they break his grandmother’s dish which is priceless.  It was an artifact from his mother no longer living.  The sentimental sting runs tandem with the whipping Jose receives from Ma Tine (Darling Légitimus).  His grandmother works the sugar cane fields past an appropriate age in the beating sun.  In a defeatist scene, the workers collect their daily pay which mocks any wage laws.  Legally, the workers cannot be physically beaten, but financially they can be mistreated.  Audiences don’t discern Jose’s perceptibility and intelligence until he speaks in class and later in an essay he recounts the death of his sage friend Medouze (Douta Seck) who was a link to the slave days.  Palcy could have harmed this film by forcing drama as is reflex in inferior filmmakers.  Her moments of sadness do not punctuate the narrative, but easily move into the characters’ hours as verifiable as real life.  There cannot be grand despair and self-pity.  The inhabitants must return to the fields or if lucky, their educational studies.  Education represents “the key” as one teacher explains for opportunities.  Ma Tine wills herself for Jose to have this path to freedom.  Because of her skill, Palcy is not didactically browbeating.  She eases her social points smoothly, and reincarnates Joseph Zobel’s  La Rue Cases-Nègres (1950) unto celluloid.  This film is earnestly a gift to those who spend time in her world.

One wonders what her thoughts had been when Hollywood vied for her.  Imperialism of another variety?  Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer distributed her second feature A Dry White Season (1989).  Marlon Brando’s passion for the subject matter impelled support and participation in the film.  Palcy remains committed to championing outlier individuals and communities that rarely get screen time and not for any good reason other than funding.

Make sure to visit MoMA to sample this filmmaker.  Her films are not an easy find.

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