“I don’t know how Shonda does it,” Ava DuVernay laughs. “She does it for multiple shows, and has for the last decade. This one wore me out.”
DuVernay is chatting the week before her new drama series Queen Sugar debuts on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network. She’s weary, maybe, after creating her first TV show—not to mention directing and writing several episodes, and having a hand in everything from the editing to the music composition. But she’s also in a great mood. Her birthday was just the day before.
“I’m one of those people who likes to make a big deal about my birthday,” she says, quickly clarifying: “Now I don’t make it all week. Those people are obnoxious. But one day to celebrate life is good with me.”
Given the advanced raves Queen Sugar has been receiving, it’s safe to say that DuVernay will have occasion to celebrate on many days in the near future. But that didn’t stop her from having a bone to pick with Shonda Rhimes—the legendary overlord of Shondaland: Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder, and The Catch—when she ran into the tireless TV goddess recently.
“I said, ‘What the heck!?’” DuVernay remembers. “She said, ‘I know. Nobody knows until you’re in it.’”
A former publicist who made a name for herself in the indie film world with her 2012 Sundance hit Middle of Nowhere, DuVernay arrived in a more major way with the success of 2014’s Martin Luther King Jr. biopic Selma. She became the one holding the lightning rod when the film spurred a rallying cry for inclusion and representation in Hollywood when, despite being nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, DuVernay and the film’s actors were all snubbed.
This year, it was announced that she will direct Disney’s adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time, making her the first woman of color to helm a film with a budget over $100 million. But Queen Sugar, which unfolds over 13 episodes and debuts Tuesday, is her first foray into series television.
It’s fitting that DuVernay brings up Shonda Rhimes. When Queen Sugar premieres, DuVernay will join the Scandal creator as dual shining beacons in the storm cloud that has become the cultural conversation about “diversity,” a word that has come to make both women cringe—Rhimes prefers “normalizing,” DuVernay likes “inclusion.”
Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Winfrey says that DuVernay has inspired her to start wiping the word from her 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.”
For DuVernay, all of this is a continuation of a conversation that she became heavily involved with when the Selma snubs kicked off two consecutive years in which not a single person of color was nominated for an acting award at the Oscars, inspiring activist April Reign’s #OscarsSoWhite hashtag and a movement to enact institutional change in the industry that would create more opportunity for underserved and underrepresented voices to be creators, performers, and storytellers.
Progress has been slow. But Queen Sugar seeks to change that.
Based on the novel by Natalie Baszile, it tells the story of the Bordelon family, the modern generation of a long line of sugarcane farmers in Louisiana. Nova (Rutina Wesley) is a journalist and healer. Her sister Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) lives in Los Angeles managing her NBA star husband’s career. Their brother Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe) is on parole, trying to raise his young son to avoid his mistakes.
When their father dies and and leaves them his 800-acre sugarcane farm, Queen Sugar becomes a portrait of grief, resentment, hope, and resilience.
While paced at a deliberate Southern drawl—all the while touching on criminal justice, police actions, and rape culture—the series transcends the idea of the emotional family drama, becoming something much more than that: a show that you feel. You feel its place. You feel its time. And, in this time in our country, you feel its tapestry of a black family, black life, that has meaning and that matters every day.
“There’s grief and there’s joy, and they really service each other,” DuVernay says, when asked if it’s difficult to be so immersed in a story so drenched in grief and pain.
“Moments of joy are more deeply felt when you know what the contrast is,” she says. “For me, that’s what I experienced in my life. Yesterday I celebrated a birthday and six months before I had a major loss in my life. The birthday was more deeply felt. Life is more deeply felt. I think that’s what I’m trying to portray in the show.”
More, at the insistence of DuVernay and with the support of Winfrey, Queen Sugar isn’t just a series that “normalizes” the experience of a Southern black family or “includes” a narrative of color in this golden age of television—doing both so effectively that maybe soon those words won’t require quotation marks as framing—but also carries that banner behind the camera.
DuVernay directed the first two episodes, and the rest of the season features an all-female directing team. The writer’s room was majority women and people of color. The editors were predominantly women.
“The crew itself looked like the freaking United Nations every time I went on set,” DuVernay says. The series’ leads, aside from True Blood’s Wesley, have never been series regulars before. “The cast of talent is I guess you would say quote unquote ‘untapped.’ But I hate that word because it just means they’re dope and nobody wanted to look at [them].”
Because DuVernay became the de facto spokesperson for this Hollywood conversation about representation, there are scrutinizing eyes on Queen Sugar. Oprah Winfrey is Oprah Winfrey, so the lending of her voice to any creator or cause is an important—and loud—megaphone that garners immediate attention. This partnership on this show, suffice it say, sends a message.
“I hope that people look at this collaboration and see possibilities and new ways of doing things,” DuVernay says. “That we support each other and push ourselves forward.”
The women she hired to direct the first season of Queen Sugar are women who DuVernay calls peers from the festival circuit. The reason she chose them, she says, is “because they’re filmmakers that I knew were dope, basically.” Then with a laugh: “There was a dopeness scale.”
All had made feature films before, but most had never been allowed—allowed by “the industry,” she says—to direct an episode of television. They’ve all tried, she says, taking meetings and sticking their foot in the door. “They had feature films debuting at Berlin, Venice, SXSW, Sundance, and told you can’t do an episode of TV. That’s how this works if you’re a lady. So it’s just ridiculous.”
She remembers when Shonda Rhimes gave her the opportunity to direct her first episode of television—an episode of Scandal—and how immediately afterward, offers came piling in for her to direct more. Having that one episode under her belt changed her career completely. That’s something she wanted to do for this group of talented directors with Queen Sugar.
Her goal is already being accomplished. According to DuVernay, Victoria Mahoney, who directed Episode 5, booked episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, American Crime, and two other network shows after Queen Sugar. Tina Mabry is directing Dear White People for Netflix. Salli Richardson-Whitfield booked WGN’s Underground.
“I’m telling people’s business out of school, but anyway: they’re booking,” she says. “Every studio, producers, called about these ladies. ‘Who’s good?’ ‘They’re all good.’ ‘Which one do we hire.’ I was like, ‘Hire them all.’ They all killed it and they’re all working now. Not just working now, but in demand.”
For Season Two, DuVernay plans to hire a whole new slate of women. Same should the series run to Season 10, or beyond.
“Queen Sugar will be a place that for an industry that doesn’t want to pay attention to the talent of women that’s right in front of them,” she says, “to take a shortcut and look at the directors who direct Queen Sugar each season and won’t have to do the math. Nobody wants to do their own math? We’ll do the math for you. We’ll give you the answer and you can take it from there.”