If you've been looking for a TV show that explores race, crime, and family drama, all set against the gorgeous backdrop of rural Louisiana, your good friend Ava DuVernay has something for you.
September 6 and 7 mark the two-day premiere of Queen Sugar, a new show on the Oprah Winfrey Network created and executive-produced by groundbreaking director and IRL Barbie Ava Duvernay. The story follows the members of a black family as they deal with their recent inheritance of a vast sugarcane farm.
Early reviews praise Queen Sugar for exploring juicy family drama without succumbing to stereotypical soapiness. The filmmakers have taken their time unraveling the interweaving stories of a highly accomplished CEO (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) managing her husband's NBA career as he becomes involved in a sex scandal, her herbalist investigative journalist sister (Rutina Wesley), and their brother (Kofi Siriboe), who's been out of jail for six months and has been struggling to provide for his son and his son's addict mother. Queen Sugar may be a slow burn, but it never loses momentum, a testament to the skill and talent of the cast as well as the team of filmmakers.
Queen Sugar is a great example of television that embraces and normalizes marginalized voices in front of the camera as well as behind it. What makes this series so special is that DuVernay has assembled a team of seven female directors, many of whom are making their first foray into television, to helm the 13 episodes of its first season. Queen Sugar has acted as an intimate seminar, a workshop of sorts, for some of the most talented filmmakers of the independent world to make their well-deserved crossovers into television.
“It is such a challenge to get your foot in the door with TV directing, regardless of how long you’ve been making films and how scrappy you are with money and time,” Kat Candler—who directed episodes eight and nine of Queen Sugar—told me over the phone. Candler’s films have screened at Sundance, SXSW, and the Dallas International Film Festival, among other festivals.
Tanya Hamilton, who directed the sixth episode, expressed similar frustration with trying to break into TV. “I had come to L.A. two years ago with the express intention of doing television, and it had been a hard hill to climb and to hold my head high as I climbed it,” she told me over the phone. Hamilton is also a decorated filmmaker, having taken home awards from the Berlin International Film Festival and the Black Reel Awards, and scoring nominations from several other festivals. “Ava did this tremendous thing, which was to get me right over the hill,” Hamilton said.
It’s jarring to see just how locked out of the mainstream entertainment industry women and women of color are, even when they are the darlings of the indie world. The roster of directors DuVernay assembled consists of women who are talented, passionate, and who know what the hell they’re doing, making the fact that they have been unable to break into television and the general immense gender gap in directorial position more frustrating than ever.
DuVernay has been pretty transparent about living up to her trailblazing reputation and using her hard-earned clout to bring opportunities to her equally hard-working female peers, telling the Hollywood Reporter, “It's paramount to me and the people who are like me that their films get seen.” Despite DuVernay’s achievements, which include being the first woman of color to direct a film with a budget over $100 million, there’s still a long way to go to address the lack of female and minority representation, and it all comes down to one thing.
“We just never had the opportunity,” said Tina Mabry, another renowned indie filmmaker who worked as a producer, writer, and director on the show. Her debut feature film Mississippi Damned won top accolades at Chicago International Film, Outfest Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival, and the American Black Film Festival. “And that is something that Ava provided all of us with. That opportunity to actually showcase the skill that she knew we already had but had not gotten the chance to due to our industry, which struggles with inclusiveness,” she told me.
“What I loved about Queen Sugar, beyond the fact that I walked through the door and I saw people who looked like me, I felt that care had been taken to create a world that felt as inclusive as the rhetoric of what this thing was supposed to be,” Hamilton said. DuVernay also encouraged her directors to bring their independent film sensibilities to television.
“[Her approach was] ‘I want you guys to make art, I want you to make something beautiful and really bring yourselves to this,’” Candler said. “What better directive can you get from someone [than] to make art?”
Hamilton explained that, in addition to the more seasoned TV directors on Queen Sugar (like Neema Barnette, who has a few decades of experience) providing guidance, the overall teamwork that goes into making a television show was also very encouraging.
“Ava kind of deposited people along the way to really offer help if you needed it. In film, especially independent filmmaking, you’re the person carrying the boulder,” she said. “It’s on your back and you’re the rallying point for everything. Whereas in TV it’s all about the collaboration.”
Between their mutual support, strong storytelling, the backing of Oprah dang Winfrey, and Ava’s vision, a group of women who found it nearly impossible to get their foot in the door of the television world before are now finally booking the gigs they’ve always been qualified for.
“It’s really given all of us credibility and legitimacy to be in the room, even though we deserved to be in the room long before,” Candler told me. “But Queen Sugar is what made people really perk up.”
“I’ve heard people say that you’ll sit down with networks, and they’ll be like, ‘Oh yeah we can’t find any female directors,’” Mabry recounted. “And I’m like, ‘Really. They can’t find any?’" she said, chuckling at how ridiculous the notion was. “We are here.”