How Ava DuVernay's 'Queen Sugar' Is Boosting Female Filmmakers
"Television is where I'm seeing brave storytelling," says the director as she explains why she chose to follow up 2014's Oscar-nominated 'Selma' with a cable drama on OWN (and Oprah's influence on her decision).
Ava DuVernay can't stop fiddling with the lights. She's in a production trailer on the New Orleans set of Queen Sugar — her new family drama for OWN — waiting for a flash thunderstorm to pass so she can finish shooting the last scene for the 13th and final episode of the show's first season. But the lighting in the trailer has her noticeably annoyed. "This is awful," she says, flipping off the fluorescent overheads and switching on a couple of vanity lamps. "Just horrible." She looks up. "This isn't bothering you?"
These days, DuVernay wears so many hats — writer, producer, distributor, activist — it's easy to forget that she is first and foremost a director. Even for a print interview, the lighting must be just so.
Queen Sugar, about siblings who inherit a sugarcane farm in contemporary Louisiana — one of the only shows on television helmed entirely by female directors — is something of an unexpected follow-up for a filmmaker of DuVernay's stature. After all, her most recent major project, 2014's civil rights movement film Selma, was nominated for a best picture Oscar (a first for a film directed by a black woman) as well as a Golden Globe (the same) and made the former publicist — who once pitched movies for Steven Spielberg and Michael Mann — an in-demand filmmaker. Once you reach those heights, a basic cable drama (on a network better known for Tyler Perry soaps) starring three relatively unknown actors (Rutina Wesley, Dawn-Lyen Gardner and Kofi Siriboe) hardly seems the logical next step. But then, it's hard to say no to Oprah Winfrey.
"She was the only person I ever had to convince to come to Maui," recalls Winfrey of DuVernay. After production had wrapped on Selma, the film's executive producer and supporting actress invited her director to take a break at her Hawaiian vacation home. Left to her own devices, DuVernay would have dived right into the editing bay. "I know that if you don't give yourself time to be with yourself, then you end up imploding," says Winfrey. "I've been in that imploded stage." Before long, the two friends were sitting on the porch of her tropical farmhouse. That's when Winfrey slyly slipped DuVernay a copy of Natalie Baszile's 2014 novel Queen Sugar, hoping it might appeal to DuVernay for a small-screen adaptation. "Coming out of Selma, I just wanted people in the here and now," says DuVernay of the book's pull. "I saw a lot of echoes between the novel and my own life."
Of course, DuVernay does have big-screen projects in the works, too. After passing on a directing offer for Marvel's Black Panther tentpole — "It just wasn't the right alchemy for me," she says — she signed on for Disney's long-gestating spin on the young adult classic A Wrinkle in Time. The fantasy, which centers on a young girl traversing the universe in search of her lost father, will make DuVernay the first woman of color to direct a film with a budget north of $100 million. And shortly after Queen Sugar's Sept. 6 premiere, the director will release The 13th, a documentary about America's mass incarceration rates (it opens at the New York Film Festival before streaming on Netflix). And then she's back to Queen Sugar, which was granted a preemptive second season renewal in early August.
DuVernay on the set of OWN's Queen Sugar.
Still, DuVernay is no stranger to episodic television. In fact, she credits her first TV job, a 2013 episode of ABC's Scandal, as a turning point in her career. Says Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes, who caught wind of DuVernay's work after her 2012 Sundance win for feature debut Middle of Nowhere: "I really wanted to have women directors and directors of color, really just different people doing our shows. Because if you only hired people who directed television before, that's really just a giant list of white men."
From there, DuVernay recalls, offers began flooding in. "So I know what one episode of television can do for someone who hasn't had it before," she says. The medium's power — to change viewers' attitudes as well as launch new careers — is one of the reasons DuVernay decided to focus her energy there rather than jump right into her next film, as other hot new directors would. "Television is where I'm seeing brave storytelling," she says. "Certainly I'm seeing the most inclusive storytelling."
It's a far more inclusive medium behind the camera, as well, which is how Queen Sugar ended up being helmed entirely by women, most of whom never had directed for TV before. The show already is turning into something of a Hollywood pipeline: Six of its novice directors have booked TV gigs off their experience on the show (see sidebar). And it's not the first time DuVernay has gone to bat for female filmmakers. She founded independent distributor Array in 2010 to get films made by women and people of color in front of bigger audiences. "It's paramount to me and the people who are like me that their films get seen," she says. "The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag doesn't end when you guys stop reporting on it."
Not surprisingly, the directors DuVernay has hired for Queen Sugar are an intensely loyal and highly motivated lot. "People tell me this show — a female-led and minority-led show, on camera, behind the camera and in the writers room — is a unicorn," says Tina Mabry, who has directed two episodes (and before that released her 2009 feature, Mississippi Damned, through Array). "But for me, the goal now is that this not be a unicorn. Let's tear off the damn horn and make it a horse."
DuVernay is more cautious when talking about how her first TV show will be received by audiences. In a climate where melodramas like Empire, Scandal and Power thrive by ending each episode with a cliffhanger, she likens the slower burn of Queen Sugar to Mad Men and Six Feet Under. "I don't know how this is going to be received in the context of current shows with African-American protagonists," she says, having finally found agreeable lighting and now fiddling with the controls of the production trailer's wheezing air-conditioning unit. "We're just watching these women, and that's fantastic. But will that be allowed for black characters?"
Winfrey thinks she knows the answer. "I'm telling you," she promises, "black Twitter is gonna blow up."
This story first appeared in the Aug. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.