The creator of Queen Sugar slows down the action in her OWN series, but not her career momentum. In the wake of her Oscar nomination, Ava DuVernay is working nonstop — and sharing that work with many who she believes should be valued and heard.
The first scene is like nothing you’ve seen on television.
The camera glides over the cascading dreadlocks and dark brown skin of a woman, Nova, as she wakes up next to a sleeping man. In an intimate exchange almost devoid of words, Nova gets up, her naked lover embraces her and then starts… helping her on with her clothes. They kiss goodbye on a balcony overlooking a New Orleans street at dawn.
Welcome to Queen Sugar, where the action is unexpected, the pace is languid and the shots cinematic. “I love that we have moments to really sink into her hair, her tattoos,” says Rutina Wesley, who plays Nova. “You really get to know Nova in those first five minutes, and see why she is the confident, unapologetic woman that she is.”
Not to mention beautiful. “I can’t remember a time I’ve seen a dark-skinned African-American actress blocked that close up in a scene like that,” says Wesley, who previously starred in True Blood.
“And how beautiful is it to watch a man with the woman he loves as he dresses her. I don’t think we’ve seen that. Usually it’s people ripping off clothes, not putting them on.”
That scene has been in the mind of creator– executive producer Ava DuVernay for years. “I’m not interested in the sex act in any of my films,” says the director (Selma, 13TH). “I’m interested in the edges of that.”
As the episode unwinds, we learn that Nova’s white lover, Calvin (Greg Vaughan), is a married police officer, while Nova is, among many other roles, a journalist, herbalist (including medical marijuana) and community activist.
In turn, we see Nova’s brother, Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe), watching his young son, Blue (Ethan Hutchison), on a playground, before taking a quick break to rob a nearby store, thus setting up his character’s conflicted drives.
Across the country, their half-sister, Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), is living the high life in Los Angeles with her NBA star husband, before scandal burns her family.
A crisis with their father (Glynn Turman), who lives on the family’s sugarcane farm in Louisiana, calls the three of them together. The story weaves through the family, encompassing their matriarchal Aunt Vi (Tina Lifford), who took custody of Blue while Ralph Angel served time in prison.
Based on Natalie Baszile’s 2014 novel of the same name, Queen Sugar marks DuVernay’s first TV series. Its second season begins on OWN on June 21. The prolific filmmaker had long wanted to tell more expansive stories on television, but it took a nudge from close friend Oprah Winfrey to take on the book. Several nudges, in fact.
Winfrey was a producer on Selma and acted in it as well. After completing the film, DuVernay went to recuperate at Winfrey’s ranch in Maui. Winfrey wanted her to read the Baszile book, and she wasn’t subtle about it. “I had the book by her bed” in the guest cottage, Winfrey says. “I had the book in the kitchen, I had the book in the little dining room, I had the book on the porch, I had the book everywhere. So I think she found the book.”
DuVernay finally read it, then wrote a three-page synopsis for a series on the flight home. Winfrey immediately approved the project for OWN, serving as an executive producer. “It’s not lost on me how rare that is, and how wonderful that is,” DuVernay says of the mercifully simple greenlight process.
But it took her a while to find the story she wanted to tell. Her first draft hewed too closely to the book without expanding on it. “I gave it to Oprah, and she said, ‘Oh. I thought you were going to do more,’” DuVernay recalls. The second draft went too far the other way. “It was out there. She was like, ‘This doesn’t really feel like you.’” DuVernay decided to give it one more try, “and I just wrote the kind of show that I would like to see on television.” The third one was just right.
The book contained about two episodes’ worth of action. DuVernay expanded the story to allow for seasons, and even created Nova from whole cloth. The character has struck a nerve with fans. “I had no idea there were that many Novas out there,” Wesley says, laughing. “I commend Ava for writing a character like that so strongly, and not shying away from all her flaws — or her strengths.”
Shying away is not something DuVernay is inclined to do. She has always loved film and sought to be as close to the action on set as possible. She worked for years in film publicity before realizing she could do what she saw the directors doing. Soon she was making her own movies.
After her feature Middle of Nowhere premiered at Sundance in 2012, she became the first black woman to win the best director award in the history of the festival. But her career didn’t quite take the same path as that of her male indie colleagues.
“While my friend Colin Trevorrow [who was nominated at Sundance for Safety Not Guaranteed] got the call from Steven Spielberg to direct Jurassic World, I was very happy to get the call from Shondaland’s Tom Verica to direct an episode of Scandal, which was my favorite show at the time,” DuVernay says. It was her first foray into TV directing. “To work with Shonda Rhimes was a really formative experience.”
She’s paying that forward: a slate of women directed Queen Sugar’s first season along with her. Experienced filmmakers all, many had never directed television before. “It’s no fun to be the only woman in the room — it’s no fun to be the only person of color in the room. And that’s how most of us have to spend our careers if you’re a director.”
Her approach extended to the rest of the crew, which meant “hiring writers who didn’t have tons of experience in television, making sure that the writers’ room was majority women, majority people of color, making sure our editors were majority women,” she says.
“Our production crew looked like the United Nations: our DP is a black man, his second in command is a black woman, we have a Latino cinematographer, black man first AD, woman first AD, Latina colorist — all of the things that you don’t see. The kind of stuff I like to create is partly the people I choose — making sure that they’re reflecting the wider world.”
She chooses them for who they are as people, as much as for what they do. “Once you get good people in the mix, and they’re seeing themselves, and they’re seeing that they’re valued and heard, there begins to be a nice energy that embeds itself in the work,” she says.
Wesley adds: “It’s great that she also works with people who she vibes with, and who she thinks will vibe well together. That’s why she continues to be so successful, because she’s clear about what she wants, but she’s also collaborative with it.”
Winfrey, who plays the role of Mrs. Which in DuVernay’s upcoming Disney feature, A Wrinkle in Time, admires the director’s leadership skills. “The word is capital M-A-R-V-E-L with three exclamation points. I MARVEL!!! at her ability to master the hundreds of people” and tons of machinery that populated the Wrinkle set.
Here’s another first: Wrinkle makes DuVernay the first African-American woman to direct a film with a budget over $100 million. But in the midst of the big-budget action, she still notices every detail. “If something’s out of place, Ava’s the first one to notice,” Winfrey adds, “and also to fix it. She’s hands-on for every single part of the production. Nothing’s too small and nothing’s too big for her to do.”
Plus, “She knows everyone’s name,” Wesley says, “from our producers down to the catering and crew,” a claim borne out by DuVernay’s Instagram photos. (Her handle is the apt @directher.) “Some showrunners act like some members of the crew, the bottom of the line, are invisible. When you’re around Ava, you feel pretty special. You’re not invisible to her.”
When DuVernay began writing Queen Sugar, she was already directing the documentary 13TH for Netflix, and she kept working on both projects simultaneously. 13TH explores the many horrific elements that have fed into the criminalization of generations of African Americans since the passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, in 1865.
The film was released initially in theaters and garnered an Oscar nomination — the first for a black woman in the documentary-feature category.
Many of the issues 13TH addresses also permeate Queen Sugar. In addition to the obstacles Ralph Angel confronts as a former prisoner, the show follows the case of Too Sweet (Isaac White), a teenager imprisoned on false pretenses. The storyline is all too common in his vulnerable demographic.
“A lot of stuff that we talk about, nobody wants to touch that material,” says Wesley, whose character takes up Too Sweet’s cause. “Ava knows how to put the information and issues out there without making audience members feel like, ‘Oh goodness, here we go again.’ It’s the reverse — they’re completely engaged, because they get it. I don’t know how she does that.”
It’s a tough tone to achieve, DuVernay notes. “It definitely has soapy elements that are embedded in the piece, to make sure that we attract the audience that we want to attract. There are viewers who are malnourished in terms of African-American drama on television.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with soapy shows, she adds. “But I think what we’re missing are characters that are nearer the depth of characters you would see on a Six Feet Under, a Parenthood or a Sopranos, where, yes — those kinds of big, fantastic elements are going on — but there are also some important things being said consistently.”
She estimates the first season achieved about 70 percent of the tone she’s going for, “but in general, I’m satisfied with the audience’s response to these characters and the kinds of stories that we’re telling, that they’re still feeling entertained, and also like they’re being fed something other than fast food, if you will.”
It’s more like a jambalaya: rich, hearty, specific to its region but enjoyed anywhere. The show quickly drew strong critical and fan support.
“People feel at home when they watch us, and I think that’s the biggest reward,” Wesley says. “We’re reminding people of their grandmothers and aunts and sisters and cousins and wives.” For Winfrey, “There’s a commonality in the human experience that happens at the kitchen table, regardless of where you come from. There’s a familiarity with the show that transcends background and red states and blue states and where you grew up,” she says.
“But I think particularly for African Americans who are watching, we have been in Vi’s kitchen, we know the orange Fanta soda on the counter, we are familiar with the microwave on the kitchen table. That’s the beauty of the storytelling: you get to see yourself.”
As production begins on the second season, DuVernay is still shooting A Wrinkle in Time. She talks by phone on the way to the Los Angeles film set; a few days earlier she returned from shooting in New Zealand in time to attend the Independent Spirit Awards and the Oscars as a nominee with 13TH.
“Last season was insane,” she says, noting she was involved in every aspect of the series. This year she’s going to be a little less hands-on — but only because she already has her hands full.
She’s writing the script for the HBO film Battle of Versailles, about a seminal moment in fashion history. She also remains involved with the film collective ARRAY, which she founded in 2010 to distribute and support work by women and people of color.
Winfrey has tried to get DuVernay to slow down and take time for herself, to no avail. She remembers hearing that DuVernay had agreed to make a short film for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture.
The museum, which opened last year, screens August 28: A Day in the Life of a People daily; the 22-minute film examines six significant events in African-American history that occurred that day.
“When she took that on, I just said, ‘Well I don’t know how to help you,’” Winfrey recalls. “She just can’t say no.”
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 5, 2017