By Darlene Donloe
The popular family drama, Queen Sugar, which debuted on the OWN Network in 2016, has quickly become a fan favorite.
The Ava Duvernay (Selma) created, directed and executive produced series about three Bordelon siblings and the family farm they inherit after their father’s passing, will debut its second season with a two-night opener at 10 p.m., June 20-21.
Set in Louisiana, Queen Sugar returns with the siblings still struggling to move forward. This season Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner, Unforgettable) relocates to Saint Josephine, LA to help run the family business. As the only black female sugarcane mill owner, she must fight to regain her independence while rebuilding her relationships with her estranged siblings. Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe, Girls Trip) struggles to transform from a formerly incarcerated single father to a landowner in the eyes of his family as he works to restore his relationship with his son’s mother. Nova (Rutina Wesley, True Blood), a journalist and activist finds herself torn between her activism and her desire to be loved. Together, they must learn to rely on one another as they navigate their tenuous bonds as family.
|Oprah Winfrey, Dawn Lyen-Gardner, Kofi Siriboe and Ava DuVernay|
The support cast includes Tina Lifford (Parenthood) as the siblings’ free-spirited Aunt Violet; Omar J. Dorsey (Ray Donovan, Selma) as Violet’s much younger boyfriend Hollywood Desonier; Dondré T. Whitfield (Mistresses) as trusted Bordelon family friend Remy Newell; Timon Kyle Durrett (Single Ladies) as Charley’s estranged husband and pro basketball player Davis West; Nicholas L. Ashe (The Lion King - National Tour) as Charley and Davis’ teenage son, Micah; Ethan Hutchison (The Path) as Ralph Angel’s son, Blue; and Bianca Lawson (Rogue) as Darla, Blue’s mother who battles drug addiction. Additionally, guest star Henry G. Sanders (Rocky Balboa) recurs as Prosper Denton, a farmer and longtime friend of the late Bordelon family patriarch, Ernest (Glynn Turman).
Queen Sugar is produced for OWN by Warner Horizon Scripted Television. The executive producers are Ava DuVernay, Oprah Winfrey and Monica Macer. The series is based on the book by Natalie Baszile.
I recently caught up with Ava DuVernay at a press conference at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills to talk about the upcoming season.
Q: What did you learn making season one that helped you shape season two?
AD: Well, everything was-- season one we were fresh out of the womb so really trying to learn each other, the ways in which we like to work together. And then, exploring these characters, exploring the world, setting everything up. Season two feels like we have our footing. We’re a toddler. We’re walking around, you know what I mean, we’re touching things. We can express ourselves a little more freely, I feel. But it’s been a real pleasure to kind of be editing these episodes. And the confidence that’s coming across in the performances and how that’s grown from season one is really apparent. So yeah, that’s what I’m seeing. How are you feeling about it? For me, I find myself thinking a lot about Charley and Nova because I feel like Charley. I’m half Charley and half Nova. You know, little things that you’ve done like there’s an episode coming up in this season when you’re in a parking lot and you drop down and just kind of break down. The other day I felt like I wanted to do that. And I said, let me just go watch Dawn do it and keep myself together. But just the release that comes from watching those two women who I feel are different sides of me, and different sides of a lot of women going through their daily trials and triumphs. Yeah. The answer to the question is we're finding our way and it’s feeling good.
Q: It’s pretty clear about halfway through the season and continuing out to the rest of the first season that there was a tone of addressing some of the injustice of the past and addressing some of the hurt and rage that many in the black community feel. How did you address touching on these very sensitive and very inflammatory topics in a way that is going to appeal to the audience without freaking anybody out?
AD: There’s a whole conversation about the Bordelon legacy and what happened on the land. And the actual fact that for these characters and their backstory they know exactly which white people in their community owned their family in these small spaces, which is true in these smaller towns across the country. And so we explored that. And they had a real conversation where they took out a map. They were like this is where the slave shack was. They talked about it in a way that I had never seen done on television in a contemporary setting. So you’re right, we’re trying to kind of be really explicit with our intentions about playing with and unpacking race and culture, but do it in a way that’s wrapped in contemporary romance and beautiful people and interpersonal relationships while we also have this large kind of cultural historical context over it. So that’s the daily balance in what we’re constantly trying to do. I love stuff like you see “Underground” it’s all historical cultural context. You know, something like “Empire” which is just very contemporary and there’s culture there as well. We’re trying to do both in some ways. And so it’s an exploration because we’re kind of-- in not unchartered territory but it’s definitely something that’s not a well-beaten path.
Q: You recently retweeted some video from Jessica Chastain. She was at Cannes Film Festival talking about the lack of women telling women stories and women being portrayed authentically. And the fact that you retweeted that and the fact that Queen Sugar is the example of what that looks like having all female directors, executive producers. Tell me how you feel about that?
AD: I mean I was proud of her for speaking out in an international space where it was obviously an intimidating environment. So I think it’s fantastic. I was even prouder of the fact that we stand as one of the very rare examples of the exact opposite of what she’s talking about. Jessica Chastain at the Cannes Film Festival this year talked about there being a marginalization of women’s lives told without exploitation, just the regular every day beauty of our lives through the perspective of a woman filmmaker or woman artist. And I retweeted her to champion that but also I wanted to say, look over here. Look at what it can be, how wonderful it can be. So thank you for recognizing that. Yeah, we’re in our second season, another season of all women directors. I’m proud that other shows have followed suit. I'm proud of Melissa at Jessica Jones following suit and some other shows starting to really step into the gap and say we will have balance. I’m happy that Ryan Murphy is kind of trying to lead the charge into terms of equity and there being a balanced number of men and women. You know, I’ve tried to, with Oprah’s blessing and Warner Horizon’s blessing, kind of over index and go the other direction. I always say if Game of Thrones can have three seasons of all male directors, why can’t we have three seasons of all women directors? I mean if they can do it, why can’t we do it? And you only do that because you can and you want to. Right? You only say we will not have women’s voices here. We will only center the man’s perspective, in terms of the creators of the show because we want and we want to. And so on the other side of things we’re going to center women because we can and we want to. And we're a network owned by a woman, so it makes it easier.
|Kofi Siriboe, Rutina Wesley and Dawn-Lyen Gardner|
Q: Is there a formula in picking these female directors? What do you look for? What's the criteria? Is there some sort of school of thought that they follow just to be able to direct the series?
AD: Yeah, well, I’ll ask the actors to weigh in on how we kind of keep things uniform. But every television show has different directors that are coming in. So you as a pilot director, as a series creator and as producers you have a certain set of-- a certain world, a certain ambiance, a certain rules of what the characters will or will not do, certain things that the camera does or doesn’t do that you apply to each episode. So that's every television show on air. In terms of the women that I’m looking for I started out looking at women who had at least directed one film. So a great majority of our women from the first season have at least on film under their belt. Can you believe that these women had directed a film that had played at film festivals around the world, many of them had won festivals around the world that couldn’t get hired in Hollywood for one episode of television? Like on any network they would not be allowed in the door. So all of the women in our season one, every single one of the women has gone on to be heavily booked. I got a call from a really well-known television show just last week asking, “We had a drop out, we had someone drop out as a director, can you refer us to one of your season one directors?” I got on the phone and tried. None of the season one directors are available. Not one of them. They’re completely booked. I called Victoria Mahoney. I was like this is a pretty good show. She’s like, “It sounds good. I’m booked until February 2018.” I was like word. This is great. They’re doing American Crime, Underground and Greenleaf. Victoria Mahoney is directing a pilot right now. In the TV director world the pilots are the biggest things you could do. Did you know this? If you direct the pilot-- that’s why it’s so crucial that women get in but women when you direct the pilot, you decide the world. Your casting, you’re saying, he’s going to wear this. You’re saying, the door of the house is going to look like this. You make all of the decisions. You’re the world creator. And when you direct the pilot, the thing I love about it is, you direct the pilot, if it’s season seven of that show and it’s re-airing in China 10 years from now you get a check, even if you didn’t direct the pilot. That’s why it’s so crucial that women start to get into this space. You created the world. So wherever that show goes, no matter if somebody directs it ten years from not and it’s playing in syndication in another country it’s a part of the world you created and you get a piece of it because you made it. So anyway, a number of those women are directing pilots. They’re doing great things. I don’t remember the question but it’s fantastic.
Q: So there’s obviously a great deal of trust between you and Oprah and I think that’s been on display since you guys worked on Selma. You’ve spoken in interviews about how meaningful it was that she respected your choices as a director. Monica Macer has come on as show-runner for this season. Can you talk about what it was about Monica that made you feel safe saying okay, great I can hand the reins to her? What was it that allowed you to sort of have that faith in her?
AD: Well, we have producers that run the room, run the writer’s room. So we also had a really wonderful woman in season one named Melissa Carter who is now on a show called-- Famous in Love. And she’s now running the room at Famous in Love. Monica who had just gotten off of Nashville runs our room in season two. Kat Candler who is our producing director runs the set in New Orleans. So we have our writer’s room in L.A. Our set in New Orleans. Both of those have a producer over them, Paul Garnes my longtime producer who produced Selma with me and Middle of Nowhere. So it’s a structure. And with all of the people it’s just important to find folks who share the vision. We have a wonderful woman Christie Hooks who runs all of post production, a black woman, one of the few black women post production supervisors who is one of our producers who handles everything, color. She oversees all of the Meshell Ndegeocello music, the source, anything that’s the finishing after the footage comes back to L.A. So it’s a really intricate process. And it’s picking people who just have-- who are like-minded who share the vision. And so it’s a team, a family of producers, but Monica is joining us this season. She’s lovely and she’s joined by a couple of writers who got promoted to producer last year - Anthony Sparks and Jason Wilborn, two brothers who-- not real brothers, but black men who are writers. So it’s an intricate web and family of producers. And it’s hard to hand your baby off but it’s easier when it’s family. You know, sometimes you’ve got to hand your baby off to family and say take care of it and so that’s what we’ve done. This time for me-- last year I was very involved in all of the writing, very much on the set, directing shows and editing and doing all of the post per shows. Now, because I’m also directing A Wrinkle in Time I’m approving the scripts and approving all of the casting but I really get my hands into the edit. So Oprah allows me to have the final cut on the episodes. So the final thing that you see on air is a collaboration of our vision for it.
Q: Ava you spoke earlier about when you direct a pilot, you have the opportunity to create the world. What decisions were you considering when creating the Queen Sugar world?
AD: Well, the cool thing is yes, there’s-- the great thing about director is you get to have people who-- this is horrible to say but paid friends. Right? So friends. Just I like to sit around and talk about nerd things. Right? So I can sit down and a costume designer actually has to sit down with me and just-- I say, let’s just talk about clothes. And then we just talk about clothes like friends and we come up with ideas. It’s the same thing when you’re-- not that you’re a paid friend. You’re my real friend too. You’re my real friend too. But when we first sit down we just geeked out over the characters to decide what are the things that we cared about, the little things. Dawn is great at the details, the little things that she thought about for Charley. For Ralph Angel we were creating a character we hadn’t even seen before. I’ve never even seen him on television before. And so to try to figure out who he was and how he walked and what he cared about and how was he going to rob the store? When you say the goodbye to the boy on the bench, in the first episode are you going to give him a pound? Are you going to be like grow up, I’ll be back? Are you going to treat him like a kid? Are you going to treat him like a man? Like all of these little things that you find. And so I just think it’s the most beautiful collaboration. And I get to have friends. And I get to make sure that we can all be creative together. But what are some of the little things in the first couple of creations of the things that you can think of?
Q: How do you see Violet coming alive for season two?
AD: Omar texted me this weekend, Omar who plays Hollywood, Vi’s man. Who said right? Oh, you did. And he had just done ADR, additional dialog recordings, when they have to sometimes resay a line into the mike because we didn't get it during production. And he saw a scene and he just texted me in the middle of ADR and says, “Ooh, Vi is sexy in this scene.” It’s like-- I texted him back and I said, are you on set? And he’s like, “No, I’m in the recording booth.” He’s just feeling it. They just really have this great chemistry. So that relationship, I just love that relationship. That was a relationship that wasn’t in the book. That was something that we talked about a lot. I wanted to show a woman those like OW’s age who looks like that and who is vibrant and sexy and all of the things that-- and alive because every time you see-- not every time but often when you see a black woman over a certain age she got to be the mama and the thing and that that. Yeah, just that vitality is what we wanted to show. Yeah. And Hollywood, the actor who plays Hollywood one of the things for him, Omar Dorsey, who was in Selma I just thought was such a beautiful, beautiful actor, beautiful man, great spirit. And I said to him, ‘You need to be somebody’s leading man!’ And he said to me, “I don’t look the way Hollywood thinks a leading man should look.” He said that to me, two, three years ago during Selma. And I was like yeah, you do. He and Kofi walking down the street together is a calamity. The two of them. It’s just a wrap. It’s chocolate city. It’s so much happening. That’s it.
|Kofi Siriboe, Rutina Wesley and Dawn-Lyen Gardner|
Q: When it comes to female equality and specifically equity, how would you define success? I know you said Queen Sugar is really leading the charge with all female directors. Is it more shows like that? Is it equal wages for actors and producers and writers? How do you envision that final goal?
AD: Equity means-- I mean half of the projects being directed by women. Casts that reflect the real world, not just black people and white people but brown people and native people and Muslim people and people of all ages and sizes and body types. The things that we try to do with Queen Sugar, that I try to do in my films, just to make our stories reflect the real world. Where folks feel like they can enter into whatever you’ve made and see themselves or people who they know. You know what I mean? I watched Wonder Woman this weekend. I cried when Patty Jenkins came up. I saw her last night. I said, I broke into tears when your name came up. A few of the things that she did, “the posse” the three guys, every hero has to have like a crew, a squad. His squad had a Native American man in it. Right? As they’re walking through the train station to go to wherever they were going to battle I saw Sikhs. I saw Sikh soldiers, right, dressed in the British regalia, soldier regalia, military regalia but they were actually also Sikhs with the appropriate head dress. The Amazons accurately reflected when you look at that history and that myth, accurately reflects that they were woman soldiers and warriors that would come in from all across what the world was at that point. So it’s just an attention to detail that was wrapped in a big huge super hero thing. Even the scene on the boat. Even when I saw the scene on the boat, where he says, “I can’t sleep next to you.” And she’s like, “It’s up to you, if you want to or not. You’re not going to do nothing. So you might as well just sleep right here because you can’t do anything because I’m not going to let you.” Right? Like some of these when you unpack issues of sexuality and gender politics, it was a way to do that with a real intention that was like I’m coming from a place of equity that colored the whole thing. It didn’t feel wrong. And if you weren’t looking for it you wouldn’t have even felt it. But if you were looking for it you saw something and you saw yourself. And that was a beautiful example of what Hollywood can be. And that’s what happens when you have women behind the camera.