Emotions in Life and in the Films of Euzhan Palcy
By Alice Bernstein
Here I continue my discussion of the great subject of emotions, in relation to films by Euzhan Palcy who was born in 1958 in the West Indies in the French-speaking island of Martinique. Along with winning many awards for her films, she was honored in 1997 when a theatre in France, “Cinema Euzhan Palcy,” was named for her. In 2000, Martinique named a film school after her. In 2001 she directed The Killing Yard (Paramount/Showtime) about the Attica prison uprising, which starred Alan Alda and Morris Chestnut. Her work also includes comedy, action, thrillers, and an animated feature.
Earlier I discussed Ms. Palcy's 1984 film, Sugar Cane Alley, about poor black sugar cane workers in Martinique and their quest for a better life, which is now a classic. It pleases me very much to continue writing about her work in relation to what I'm grateful to have learned about emotions in life and in art from Aesthetic Realism, the education founded by the American poet and philosopher Eli Siegel (1902-78). Our emotions, he taught, will either arise from respect: wanting to know and be fair to the world and people; or from contempt: “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.”
Aesthetic Realism explains that respect is the source of art and all true emotion, while contempt is the cause of every injustice from the ordinary way a child can act deaf to his mother's calls or a woman can lash out sarcastically, to the international horrors of racism and war. I love studying the principle: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites,” because we can learn how to be like art.
As a wife, my desire to manage my husband, David, have him do what I wanted without respecting his feelings, made for sad, bitter emotions in both of us. I feel so fortunate to have learned in lessons I was honored to have with Eli Siegel, and now in magnificent classes taught by Class Chairman Ellen Reiss, to see David's feelings and those of all people, as real as my own. I know firsthand that when a person's desire for contempt is criticized and their desire for respect is encouraged as Aesthetic Realism makes possible, that person is freer, happier, kinder. This is what has happened in my marriage of 44 years. It is a beautiful, amazing fact that people can learn how to have emotions in life that make for respect and enormous pleasure and pride.
Euzhan Palcy's powerful film A Dry White Season debuted in 1989 and made the vicious contempt of apartheid real to the world. She risked her life to interview and portray black South Africans about what they endured from their perspective, something never before on film. Black South African actors appear on screen for the first time: Zakes Mokae, Thoko Ntshinga, Winston Ntshona.
When Hollywood withheld monetary backing for this film, Ms. Palcy's passion stirred people: “I wanted audiences to feel the same rage I felt…they must take a stand.” Donald Sutherland and Susan Sarandon took huge pay cuts and Marlon Brando ended a 9-year absence from film to work for minimum wage. Brando's portrayal of a human rights lawyer was tremendous and earned him an Academy Award nomination.
A Dry White Season embodies good will – the desire to know and be fair to people. Good will, Eli Siegel explained in 1970, had become a world force ending the profit system because the contempt on which it is based no longer works. Apartheid in South Africa was felled by the force of good will, of ethics. A Dry White Season was impelled by that force and also sparked it in others by sustaining the global pressures that ended apartheid and led to the presidency of Nelson Mandela.
I respect Euzhan Palcy very much for her art and her desire to have people respect persons different from themselves. And I hope very much she can learn from Aesthetic Realism, as I am grateful I have, that the contempt which causes racism is in every person; it is in her. Her hope to understand this and her pain and confusion at not being able to, can be seen in many interviews.
In 1989 she told Le Monde : “Racism in Europe doesn't exist – at the same time it exists.” And while her films gave abundant evidence to the contrary, she still asserted “Blacks are not racists.” Another time she said: “I come from a country where racial problems don't exist. You can see in my face that I'm a mixture of all races: black, white, Asian, so how can I be racist?”
Contempt, Eli Siegel explained, is as easy as falling off a log; it is ordinary and pervasive. In Sugar Cane Alley Ms. Palcy illustrated contempt in poor Martinican children who ate meat and taunted others who ate only fruit; in a beautiful black woman who ordered her mulatto son not to play with “those black children”; and in the fake superiority of French-speaking West Indians towards Africans who don't speak French.
The drive for contempt ran me as a girl when I was determined to punish my mother after she yelled at me. Though she implored my forgiveness, I acted spiteful, mean, and indifferent. These ordinary forms of contempt when left uncriticized, can lead to the horrific forms that make headlines, including torturing and killing people. Aesthetic Realism is the knowledge that liberates people from contempt; it is the education that can end racism forever. The thrilling, practical alternative to contempt is in art, including the cinema which Euzhan Palcy is so powerfully fair to.
Tremendously moving scenes in A Dry White Season depict the 1976 Soweto Massacre in which 4,000 school children were gunned down by police for demonstrating against their inferior education. We see throngs of children carrying signs, marching through the streets, rhythmically chanting. As they move like a great wave, we feel the earth itself rising up against injustice; and we hear young voices sing NKosi Sikeleli Afrika, “God Bless Africa” – their faces show pride and fear, passion and sweetness.
A policeman's smug voice orders tear gas to be fired; we hear gunshots, dogs barking, helicopters, screams, moans. The soldiers are, as Mr. Siegel described contempt, “lofty sculpture as others are running from a fire…glazed in coldness” – an emotion which I once felt represented me. Fleeing boys and girls fall dead. We feel so much for these courageous children, and because of how the film is made we hate cruelty more than ever and love justice more than ever.
“Ruby Bridges – A Real American Hero”
In 1998 Euzhan Palcy directed the Disney television movie Ruby Bridges. Chaz Monet portrays the young girl who, in 1960 with the support of her family, courageously became the first black child to attend an all-white elementary school in New Orleans . This film stirringly recreates the daily march the little girl faced for a year, with angry crowds jeering, to be the only child in a classroom. It was deeply moving to see a person of six facing prejudice and fierce hostility, and nevertheless going after knowledge with dignity, sweetness, determination – a theme in Palcy's work.
Aesthetic Realism teaches that every person wants to be like art, to put opposites together, and is the education which provides the way to do this. I think Ms. Palcy would love knowing that we can learn from the cinema how to be the people we hope to be. Aesthetic Realism deserves to be studied and loved because it enables us, in a choice between contempt and respect, to gladly choose respect, our greatest success and pride. This scientific, kind education is taught in consultations to individuals, including by telephone worldwide.
To learn more, contact the not-for-profit Aesthetic Realism Foundation, 141 Greene Street, New York, NY 10012 , (212) 777-4490, www.AestheticRealism.org