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Trailblazing director Euzhan Palcy returns for Oscar honor

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LOS ANGELES — Director Euzhan Palcy has made history more than a few times in her four decades in the movie business.

She was the first Black woman to direct a film produced by a major studio (MGM’s “A Dry White Season”), the first Black director of any gender to win the César Award in France, the first woman to win a Venice Silver Lion (for “Sugar Cane Alley”), the only woman to direct Marlon Brando and the first Black woman to direct an actor to an Oscar nomination (also Brando). She blazed trails for a generation of Black female filmmakers, from Ava DuVernay and Amma Asante to Regina Hall and Gina Prince-Bythewood, and most of the time it wasn’t easy or fun.

But she was driven by a conviction that she holds this day: “I was born to make movies.”

Now after some years away from the business, she is ready, at 64, to get behind the camera again. And what better way to start a comeback than with an Oscar? On Saturday, Palcy will get an honorary statuette at the annual Governors Awards gala, in recognition of her contributions to motion pictures. She’s being celebrated alongside Australian director Peter Weir, songwriter Diane Warren and actor Michael J. Fox, who is getting the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, at the untelevised event.

“I felt like this was the right time for me to show up again,” Palcy, from Paris, told The Associated Press. “I was ready.”

Palcy was born in Martinique, in the French West Indies, in 1958, and from age 10 had set her sights on filmmaking even though it seemed like no one who was doing it, successfully at least, looked like her. Her imagination was sparked by Marcel Camus’ “Black Orpheus” and the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang and. In the mid-70s, she left for Paris, where she studied at the Sorbonne and got a master’s degree in film from the prestigious Louis-Lumière College. There she was encouraged to keep pursuing filmmaking by François Truffaut.

But she couldn’t find anyone to give her money to make her first feature, “Sugar Cane Alley,” even after she got an important grant from the French Government that would typically pique the interest of financiers. The film would be an adaptation of Joseph Zobel’s semi-autobiographical novel about Martinique in the 1930s, the Africans working the sugar cane fields and their white owners.

“I had a degree from the most famous film school in France and it was not enough,” Palcy said. “I was still Black, I was still a woman, and I was still young.”

Still, she managed to make “Sugar Cane Alley” from nothing and it went on to be a great success, winning the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival and a César for best first work. The most important thing to her, though, was that it resonated with the people of Martinique who told her they’d never seen themselves on screen before.

“Most people point it out that I was a pioneer. They say it doesn’t make you happy? And it’s not that, but it’s hard, it’s hard to be a pioneer. People think it’s a big deal and it’s great, but nothing is there and you pick a road and you pave it. That requires a lot of tenacity, a lot of fight, a lot of struggle, a lot of tears.

“I love the metaphor of a woman who is pregnant and the pregnancy is so hard on her and it’s difficult to give birth to that baby. Then once she does, she’s exhausted. That’s the way I felt when ‘Sugar Cane Alley’ came out. I couldn’t even enjoy the success of that movie,” she said. “But it made me stronger and even more determined to fight for my stories.”

Hollywood took notice and the exciting new talent behind the camera. Robert Redford invited her out to do the Sundance Director’s Lab, in 1984, and would be a sounding board as more offers came in. Life, for a moment, was a whirlwind of courting and offers.

Warner Bros. executive Lucy Fisher flew her to Los Angeles and gave her a grand welcome to try to get her to make a film with them. Palcy asked about adapting “The Color Purple,” though was politely told that Steven Spielberg had already set his sights on that. She decided on “A Dry White Season.” The film almost fell apart, though, when Warner Bros. brass decided after Universal released “Cry Freedom” that two apartheid movies was too many. MGM stepped in to make it.

Palcy has always been steadfast in her vision. Paul Newman was desperate to be in the film, but she was set on Donald Sutherland. She also convinced Brando, who had been retired for nine years, to take a role. For that, he received his eighth and final Oscar nomination.

After that, though, Hollywood became a mixed bag. She made “Ruby Bridges” for the Wonderful World of Disney and “The Killing Yard,” a TV film about the Attica Prison riot. But then about a decade ago, she decided she had to leave. She’d heard no, and that Black films don’t sell, a few too many times. And she’d been asked to make a few too many films that didn’t speak to her.

“I thought, I cannot betray my ideals,” she said. “So I thought I’d go away and put my energy into helping young filmmakers so I didn’t waste my time. I was just waiting for the right time to come back.”

In the ensuing years, she’d receive many letters and emails from people asking her where she was and why she wasn’t making films. Some of her films have gotten a second life too: “A Dry White Season” got a Criterion restoration and “Ruby Bridges” started streaming on Disney+.

“My work is not for people from yesterday,” she said. “My work is for people from the new generation.”

Then earlier this year she had a feeling that the time to come back was now. Soon after, she got an honor in France and 24 hours later got the phone call about the honorary Oscar.

“I said, ‘My God, what is happening?’ It was worth the sadness and the struggle I had inside me for not being able to do my movies,” she said.

Now she just hopes that people don’t put her in a box, thinking she’s just a “political filmmaker.”

“I want to make all kinds of movies,” she said. “I can do any genre.”

Palcy does want to make one thing clear: Though she is forthright about the struggles and adversity she faced, she wants people to know that she is also a very positive person.

“It was not a complaint,” she said. “But if they ask me about it, I will be honest.”


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Book Review: Explosive debut novel ‘Fireworks Every Night’ is a bittersweet celebration of survival

“Fireworks Every Night” by Beth Raymer (Random House)

C.C.’s isn’t your typical rags-to-riches story. She remembers growing up in a single-wide with her older sister, stay-at-home mom and car-salesman dad. But she also remembers when they moved to Florida after everything in the car lot burned down — including their home — launching them into a comfortable middle-class life and a fresh start in a state her dad proudly brags has fireworks every night.

“Fireworks Every Night” is Beth Raymer’s debut novel, but not her first book. Following her 2010 memoir “Lay the Favorite,” she borrows from her life to create a deeply personal story of a dysfunctional family.

Having grown up in West Palm Beach, Raymer puts her local knowledge to use as her protagonist — a resident of Loxahatchee, Florida — rattles off the schools she plays basketball against, and how worn down or rich they are. She’s familiar with the Baker Act and who’s been institutionalized through its use. She knows all the neighborhoods and has eaten at Benny’s on the Beach.

If the gorgeous cover designed by Elizabeth A. D. Eno isn’t enough to draw you in, let the heartbreakingly determined main character and the promise of an earnest look at the skeletons in her closet convince you.

In adulthood, C.C. is engaged to a well-educated and absurdly wealthy man — a far cry from the childhood in which she learns what it means to fight for survival. Hopping between the two timelines in stark juxtaposition, the full picture of C.C.’s life emerges.

As kid-C.C.’s home life comes completely unraveled, the story morphs from tragicomedy to horror, revealing how her family fell apart and left her sister struggling with addiction, her mother chronically absent and her father homeless. All the while, adult-C.C. is juggling a host of modern stresses: the viability of having children, climate change, living in a world that makes it far too easy to compare yourself with the 8 billion others who inhabit it, and reconciling your self-worth with the balance in your bank account.

Raymer launches addiction, homelessness, neglect and poverty shamelessly into the lexicon, treating C.C. and her family with nothing less than respect.

A nature motif runs throughout the story, blurring the line between animal and human and calling into question what is “natural” in a world so unnaturally shaped by people. Animals play a quiet but pivotal role throughout “Fireworks Every Night,” shaping Raymer’s engrossing novel into a bittersweet celebration of the scrappy Americans who are finding a way to survive even as the elite push humans and animals alike out of their habitats.

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Book Review: ‘White House by the Sea’ tells storied Kennedy tale through family’s compound

“White House By the Sea: A Century of the Kennedys at Hyannis Port” by Kate Storey (Scribner)

The history of the Kennedy family is so well-chronicled — from the modern Camelot legend surrounding John F. Kennedy’s presidency to the series of tragedies that marked the family throughout the 20tb century — that it’s hard to imagine new ways to tell their story.

But Kate Storey does just that in “White House By the Sea: A Century of the Kennedys at Hyannis Port” — revisiting the family’s history through their time at the famed Kennedy compound on Cape Cod.

Storey, the senior features editor at Rolling Stone magazine, weaves a fascinating narrative about the Kennedy family using Hyannis Port as the backdrop. The book traces the family’s ties to the compound back to the 1920s, when Joseph Kennedy bought Malcolm Cottage, what became known as the Big House.

Many of the stories feel so familiar, from Joseph Kennedy Jr.’s death during World War II to John F. Kennedy Jr.’s fatal plane crash in 1999. The compound was also the setting for much happier occasions, including John F. Kennedy’s presidential acceptance speech and the wedding of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver.

Storey gives them a fresh look with new details and well-sourced reporting that opens up a traditionally private community — “what’s left of Camelot,” she writes.

Storey’s research gives the book a more intimate feel than many other histories of the Kennedy family, introducing figures that aren’t as well-known but played a key role in the family and its compound. Fittingly, it’s written in an accessible way that makes the book a welcome beach read.

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Fox News unveils primetime lineup with Jesse Watters in Tucker Carlson’s former time slot

Jesse Watters will fill the Fox News Channel time slot left vacant by the firing of Tucker Carlson, part of a dramatic revamp of the network’s evening lineup announced on Monday.

Greg Gutfeld’s late-night show that combines news and comedy will move up an hour to start at 10 p.m. Eastern, displacing Laura Ingraham. She’ll shift to 7 p.m., the hour that Watters has occupied. Sean Hannity will stay in his 9 p.m. time slot, Fox said. The new lineup debuts on July 17.

The announcement comes roughly two months after Fox News fired Carlson shortly after settling a defamation lawsuit with the voting machine maker Dominion Voting Systems on the eve of trial. The case, which centered on the network’s airing of false claims following the 2020 presidential election, exposed a trove of private messages sent between Fox hosts, including Hannity and Carlson, in which they criticized peers at the network.

Carlson has since begun doing occasional monologues for Twitter, although Fox is attempting to get him to stop the broadcasts.

Fox has seen its ratings tumble since Carlson exited. Carlson averaged 3.25 million viewers at 8 p.m. in the first three months of the year, and the string of guest hosts who replaced him the past two months usually reached under 2 million, making the network’s command more tenuous.

The lineup change signals that Fox is doubling down on its opinionated evening programming strategy, with three sharp-tongued men filling the prime-time hours. It’s something of a triumphant return for Watters, who got his start at the 8 p.m. hour, doing man-in-the-street interviews and other features for Bill O’Reilly before O’Reilly’s firing in 2017.

It also means double duty for Gutfeld and Watters, who are both panelists on “The Five” and will continue there. The late-afternoon political talk show has become Fox’s most popular program.

Keeping that show’s chemistry intact appeared to be a priority for Fox. Gutfeld said in a Wall Street Journal interview last week that he would no longer appear on “The Five” or do his late-night show if he were to get Carlson’s old time slot.

Trace Gallagher, who has worked at Fox since the network began in 1996, will host a news show at 11 p.m., filling the hour that Gutfeld is leaving vacant.

“The unique perspectives of Laura Ingraham, Jesse Watters, Sean Hannity, and Greg Gutfeld will ensure our viewers have access to unrivaled coverage from our best-in-class team for years to come,” Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott said in a statement.

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