“Don’t count on me, I’m one person,” says Ava DuVernay, with a light shrug that suggests she’s sorry to disappoint. “That’s not change. That’s an anomaly.”
She’s back in New Orleans, where she has spent a sizable portion of her spring filming the first 13 episodes of the forthcoming cable series Queen Sugar — a present-day drama about a family of sugarcane farmers in Louisiana — and the conversation has turned to Hollywood’s “diversity” problem. It is a word that she bemoans but a subject on which she has become the industry’s reluctant expert ever since her star-making turn as the director of 2014 Academy Award nominee Selma. In the nearly two years since, the former publicist has been courted for (and passed on) a Marvel superhero movie, inspired a Barbie doll of her likeness and, in signing on to direct Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time, will become the first woman of color tapped to helm a $100 million live-action movie. She adds with the kind of steely confidence that has earned her a bevy of followers (197,000 of them on Twitter) and a platform that commands the industry’s attention: “The fact that the mainstream starts to gaze at this space doesn’t make it a moment. It makes it a moment for them.”
Rather than diversity, “inclusion” is the 43-year-old writer-director’s preferred term, and though she has seen no evidence of a sea change for the women and people of color thirsty for work and recognition in film and TV, she’s committed to making one happen. Hence DuVernay’s Selma follow-up is not another Oscar hopeful but rather a slow-burn television series, premiering Sept. 6, for her pal and Selma producer Oprah Winfrey, 62, and Winfrey’s 5-year-old OWN network. And Sugar is inclusive — from its largely unfamiliar black cast to the small army of TV newcomers, all of them female, behind the camera. Before making their first big pitch to the drama’s target demographic at Essence Fest on this sultry July afternoon, the collaborators sat down to discuss their hopes for a different kind of serialized storytelling, finding the right ways to finesse Black Lives Matter in entertainment and the misconception that on-air diversity is anywhere near a tipping point.
“Forward-thinking people and allies of this cause within the industry have the common sense to know that this is systemic,” says DuVernay. “There needs to be more done than applauding one or two people who make it through your door.”
Oprah, was it always your plan following Selma to lure Ava to OWN?
WINFREY I never, capital N-E-two-Vs-A-H, ask anybody for anything. The price you have to pay in return is never what I want to do. So it was really difficult for me to say, “Would you do this for me and for OWN?”
DUVERNAY I made it known in the industry that I wanted to do a show and was being approached by some of the notables that most people would want to do a show with, but when your friend owns a network, you know, it might be good to just go over there. (Laughter.)
Oprah originally was set for a recurring role on Queen Sugar, but she ultimately chose to appear on this summer’s OWN series Greenleaf instead. Is there room for Oprah on multiple OWN shows?
WINFREY Nuh-uh! There’s not room, nor time. I think my role on Greenleaf is going to be it for me for a while. I’m working on Henrietta Lacks [at HBO] and other things coming up. It’s funny, because Gayle [King] saw the first episode of Sugar, and she goes, “How come you didn’t play Aunt Vi?” Originally, I was going to. Then Greenleaf got done first.
DUVERNAY And Aunt Vi is in every episode. When you run a billion-dollar empire, you might not want to be a series regular.
Ava, Oprah will appear in your next project, A Wrinkle in Time, for Disney. In signing on to direct, you become the first woman of color to helm a $100 million live-action movie. How did that aspect factor into your decision-making process — both the significance of it and the weight of it?
DUVERNAY It doesn’t figure into my storytelling. The way I tell a story is the same at $100-plus million as it was for my first movie [I Will Follow], which was $50,000. I have more tools to do it and more planks to build the house now, but ultimately if the story is not solid, it doesn’t matter how much money you have. So the headlines don’t really impact what I’m doing in the room as I work with actors and my collaborators.
But whenever you are the first, as you know, there are many, many more eyes on you and your outcome. That doesn’t come with pressure?
DUVERNAY “Pressure” is the wrong word. I’m in a space where I’m able to do the things that I want to do and the start of that was doing it on my own and working independently without permission. Even though I have more folks, more money and more infrastructure around me now, I made a decision [long ago] to work from a place of protecting my own voice by collaborating with people who nurture and value that — and not trying to spend my time knocking on doors that were closed to me, begging people for things that put me at a disadvantage because they had it and I didn’t.
Do you feel there are doors that still are closed to you?
DUVERNAY No, no one’s going to stop me from doing what I want to do; I just have to figure out a way to do it that might not be the easy route that my counterparts who don’t look like me and identify as I do have. They have a bit of an easier time of it, an easier road, but it doesn’t mean I can’t do it. It may just take me a bit. Part of the challenge that I find when I enter these conversations with journalists is that [you’ve] thought about it in a way that society thinks about it: “the plight of the woman filmmaker,” “the plight of the black artist,” “the plight of whoever is on the outside.” But if you receive it and treat it as a plight, that starts to manifest in you and your work, and it affects your creativity.
Ava, you’ve expressed strong distaste for the term “diversity,” but Oprah has made use of it. How do you both characterize the concept now in terms of the overall conversation in the industry?
DUVERNAY We aren’t sitting around talking about diversity, just like we aren’t sitting around talking about being black or being women. We’re just being that.
WINFREY I will say that I stand corrected. I used to use the word “diversity” all the time. “We want more diverse stories, more diverse characters …” Now I really eliminated it from my vocabulary because I’ve learned from her that the word that most articulates what we’re looking for is what we want to be: included. It’s to have a seat at the table where the decisions are being made.
DUVERNAY That was your take on it.
WINFREY When Sidney Poitier came to my school [in South Africa], he gave a gift of 550 movies to the girls. He thought if you watch these 550 movies, they’ll be your education for life. He wrote to the girls that his dream for them was to be able to sit at the table of the future where the world’s decisions would be made. I realize now that what he was saying is to be included, to be valued as a person who has something to contribute.
As black artists, what responsibility do you feel to include the challenges facing the black community in your storytelling?
DUVERNAY You see integration of Black Lives Matter from the beginning of [Queen Sugar] because it is literally black lives having meaning and mattering in the everyday. With the Black Lives Matter movement, a lot of the focus is on the protest and dissent. I’m hoping to dismantle the public notion — for folks outside of the community — of what Black Lives Matter means. It’s really about saying that black lives matter, that humanity is the same when you go inside people’s homes.
“When you have 50 to 60 years of representation that’s prejudiced and very unnuanced in its view of race, it’s refreshing to finally see a reflection instead of an interpretation,” says DuVernay (center, with OWN’s Winfrey, second from right, and, from left, Queen Sugar stars Rutina Wesley, Dawn-Lyen Gardner and Kofi Siriboe). “I think people are excited.”
It is presented in policing and imprisonment, too.
DUVERNAY There are integrations in terms of the police aggression, echoes of prison and the formerly incarcerated. That is also part of the movement that we try to handle in a way that feels elegant and not hitting you over the head like, “Let’s do the rally scene!”
WINFREY Everybody gets caught up in the slogan and the hashtag and the protest. What we’re trying to do is get you to feel it. You get to feel it when Ralph Angel [Kofi Siriboe] is putting his son to bed, laying with him and reading a story. Intimacy and connection between a father and son? We’ve just not seen it [with black characters on series TV].
And you think we’ve not seen those scenes because the writers often are white?
DUVERNAY Yeah, they render it through their lens, so you will see that scene, and it will be with white people. All lives can’t matter to folks who are not us if you don’t know us, if you don’t understand [us]. I don’t make anything as education for anyone; I make it as a love letter to the characters: These are black people; this is a black family. It’s a window into that. The same way when I go see A Separation, an Iranian film about an Iranian family, or when I go to see a Korean film, it is a window into that world, and I see them, and I start to understand and value them. They begin to matter to me.
WINFREY In the early years of The Oprah Winfrey Show, I was doing an episode about single parenting. I had a black father on, and we had gone to his house and done a taped piece about him putting his two little girls to bed and reading to them. This was around 1989 to 1990, before email, and the white audience wrote letters saying, “I didn’t know black men did that.” That struck a nerve. Then I realized that the best way to show that black people are just like everybody else, or that gay people are just like everybody else, is not to do a show about gay people or black fathers raising their children [but] just to include them in a story about raising children. That’s how you normalize it and make it OK for everybody else.
Can black stories accurately be told by people who aren’t black?
DUVERNAY Artists should be free to create what we want. I believe there’s a special value in work that is a reflection of oneself as opposed to interpretation. When I see a film or a TV show about black people not written by someone who’s black, it’s an interpretation of that life.
WINFREY I think it depends upon your level of experience.
“It’s all about opportunity,” says Wesley, who came to Queen Sugar after most recently starring on HBO’s True Blood for seven seasons.
DUVERNAY Historically, black artists have not been able to interpret black life as robustly as we should, in terms of having it distributed, financed and shared. That’s why it’s a beautiful moment when you have black artists who are able to articulate and express their reflection as opposed to black folk only being able to watch an interpretation of our life.
Are there other projects that have you hopeful because they, too, have strived to and perhaps even been successful in starting to change the dialogue?
DUVERNAY Yeah, but you have to put it in context because when you count the work that has been generated by creators of color featuring protagonists of color, it’s a really, really small fraction of what’s on the air right now. With that said, you do see an increase in work that’s coming this year, and that’s coming off a year that has already had more than we’ve seen in a while. But it’s ridiculous when you say, “More than we’ve seen in a while,” and you’re talking about, like, seven shows. (Laughs.) It’s tragic … and the African-American part of the conversation is just a sliver of it; Latino representation is horrible, Asian Pacific Islander is worse, and Native American is criminal. So shame on all of us and the powers that be who allow that. It’s not right, and all we can do as artists is continue to push and ask the audiences who care about this to push as well.
Each year, you see these daring movies that do push from filmmakers like you or, more recently, Nate Parker, coming out of Sundance. They generate buzz and win awards, but what happens from there? Where does it typically fall apart?
DUVERNAY There’s a big difference between the independent film world and the Hollywood film world, and I don’t know that I understood that until I got into certain rooms and people’s faces go blank when you talk about Sundance. In the independent world, Sundance is the king of the hill, but there’s another realm of studio people and folks who just think, “That’s something over there,” and the two don’t necessarily connect. We’re seeing much more of it now, but the first folks who have been able to translate independent-film-world success into some mainstream success have not been women or folks of color. So they’re just two separate worlds [just as] mainstream Hollywood and black Hollywood are two different worlds. There are people I’ve brought up in rooms as possibilities for crew and cast, and they’re huge stars among African-Americans, and folks at studios have no idea who they are. But then I can’t tell you Latino stars or stars from China. It’s very segmented, and it’s unfortunate because talent and creative energy should be something that’s intersecting, and the more kinds and colors of people there are, the more robust these projects they’re offering will be. [Ed note: This interview was conducted before recent news events surrounding Parker’s acquittal on rape charges at Penn State.]
We recently saw strides made by the Academy to address the inequities in the Oscar race. Is it enough, and how will the discussion change this year?
DUVERNAY My experience with that world, through Selma, was what it was. [Selma scored a best picture nom, but DuVernay and her star, David Oyelowo, were snubbed.] It helped me understand what I value, and my times of greatest joy had nothing to do with any of that business; it had to do with the times that I shared the film with real people and with the people who walked up to me in airports and on the street to tell me what it meant to them and their families. As I went through the awards circuit, I found it was quite a contrast between that space where people congregate around films for reasons of story and not of business and accolades. So I’ll leave the analysis of [the Academy’s moves] to someone else and wish everyone well.
Looking around, who has you excited about the potential for change?
DUVERNAY I’m interested in seeing Issa Rae’s work [on HBO’s Insecure], Donald Glover’s work [on FX’s Atlanta], Justin Simien’s upcoming piece [a series adaptation of his film, Dear White People, for Netflix], Cheo Coker’s Luke Cage [on Netflix]. I’m interested in seeing artists whom I respect who are very focused on the Black Lives Matter moment, bringing that into storytelling in a way that really amplifies the beauty and the humanity of people of color, and does it without having to wave a big sign that says, “This is what we’re doing.”
Additional reporting by Lacey Rose.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.