With ‘Queen Sugar,’ Ava DuVernay Is Here to Blow Up Hollywood


How do you make Hollywood more inclusive? You hire people of color. You hire women. Basically, you give Ava DuVernay a TV show. The ‘Queen Sugar’ creator tells us about her crusade.

“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 under-served 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.

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SOURCE: The Daily Beast – Kevin Fallon