Just four years ago, Cicely Tyson made history as the first Black female recipient of an honorary Oscar, which was given in recognition of her six decades of immeasurably influential acting work. Now, the academy’s board of governors have demonstrated their commitment to continue showing appreciation toward Black women in film by announcing Euzhan Palcy as one of this year’s honorary awardees. The innovative director-writer-producer, whose professional career dates back 40 years, follows Sidney Poitier, Spike Lee, and Charles Burnett as the fourth Black filmmaker to receive this distinction, and stands as the fifth female one to do so after Lillian Gish, Agnès Varda, Lina Wertmüller, and Elaine May.
Along with Michael J. Fox, Diane Warren, and Peter Weir, Palcy is set to be recognized at the upcoming 13th annual Governors Awards. The 64-year-old’s tribute comes in acknowledgment of her status as “a pioneering filmmaker whose groundbreaking significance in international cinema is cemented in film history.” In a career of firsts, it is only fitting that she is the one opening this door for all Black women who strive to express their worldviews through the creation of narrative features.
Palcy grew up on the island of Martinique in the French West Indies, where she developed an eloquent writer’s voice and a passion for visual storytelling. Her career beginnings as a local TV station employee gave her access to the tools she needed to produce her art, and her first project ended up being the 1975 telefilm “The Messenger.” She then created her first short, “The Devil’s Workshop” (1982), before making her feature debut with “Sugar Cane Alley” (1983).
Palcy’s directing work in “Sugar Cane Alley” earned her a Venice Film Festival prize and a César Award, both in the category of Best First Film. She was the first Black recipient of either award as well as the first woman to win the latter. She went on to set more records with her next film, “A Dry White Season” (1989), as she became the first Black woman to both direct a Hollywood movie and lead an actor (Marlon Brando) to an Oscar nomination. Brando sought no compensation for his supporting performance in the film because he was so deeply moved by Palcy’s noble desire to bring awareness to the issue of apartheid in South Africa.
Since the release of her third full-length film, “Siméon,” in 1992, Palcy has created several special TV programs, including the Disney-backed telefilm “Ruby Bridges” (1998) and the Showtime feature “The Killing Yard” (2001). She has also proven herself a devoted humanitarian and a tireless supporter of aspiring young filmmakers, with her impressive example serving as more than enough inspiration for anyone seeking to make a statement through visual art.
An honorary Oscar is given “to honor extraordinary distinction in lifetime achievement, exceptional contributions to the state of motion picture arts and sciences, or for outstanding service to the academy.” At least one of these awards has been conferred during or prior to all but 10 of the 94 Oscars ceremonies. Since 2009, they have been presented at an individual ceremony that takes place several months before the same year’s Oscars. Palcy and her fellow honorees will collect their trophies on November 19, 2022.
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