Ava Duvernay And 'Queen Sugar': Celebrating Diversity, Inclusivity In TV

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If you love movies or just like to follow what's going on in film, then you surely know the name Ava Duvernay. She directed the acclaimed film Selma and made history by becoming the first black woman to direct a $100 million film. She has an upcoming documentary premiering on Netflix called The 13th.

And as if that wasn't enough, she's also busy working on a commissioned film to be featured at the Smithsonian's new National Museum of African American History and Culture which opens later this month.

Still, there's more. Duvernay has yet another project in the works — Queen Sugar, an original series for Oprah's OWN network premiering Tuesday, Sept. 6.

It's a drama set in the fictional town of St. Josephine, La., and follows the story of the three very different, very conflicted siblings of the Bordelon family as tragedy forces them back together to run their father's sugar cane farm.

The series stars Rutina Wesley (known for her role in True Blood) as Nova Bordelon; Dawn-Lyen Gardner as Charley Bordelon West; and Kofi Siriboe as Ralph Angel Bordelon.

NPR's Michel Martin spoke with Duvernay recently via our New York bureau. Duvernay dishes on choosing a TV series over film, how she connects to the main character's roots, on the series's all-female cast of directors, and how Shonda Rhimes has helped her.

Interview highlights contain extended Web-only content.


Interview Highlights

On what it was about the book Queen Sugar that stood out to her and made her want to adapt it

So many things just felt warm and familiar to me and also expansive, with enough room to explore things that were unfamiliar. And colder. And so I felt like the framework, the organizing device, if you will, as a storyteller, just had a lot of elasticity.

But at the core of it, it's about a family. A family that is just exploring the nuances of life in a way that's quite magnificent. I mean, all of us live our lives and, you know, it feels ordinary in our everyday movements, but when you pull back and you look at the full picture, we're actually, you know, building, crafting our very existence.

There's a grander movement to our days.

And so I just love the idea of following these characters with that in mind. The small pieces of the puzzle that make up the whole picture that far too often we don't get a chance to examine, especially with characters of color.

On whether there is a "Duvernay" signature shot — a close up, lingering shot on the face

Oh, I don't know. I really don't. You know, I admire filmmakers and I do identify signature elements of their craft, whether it's Kathryn Bigelow or Scorsese or Spike Lee. I would never say that I have one. I just don't feel like I've done enough work.

I am really interested in the terrain of the face, and how that really illustrates our interiority. And so, I like to get in on a close-up. I like to hang for a little bit longer on the face, just to see what it will do. It's the window to the soul, if you will.

And I always just scratch my head when I see people cutting away from a moment that's just hanging there. If you just wait one more second, you would have gotten a little bit more of the story. But we're in such a fast-cutting culture. I think that's one of the things I'm really interested in about Queen Sugar is what will be the appetite of the audience to sit with the characters a little bit longer.

I think independent film audiences are kind of familiar with and kind of trained to like — to sink into a story in that way. But this is an independent film every week on basic cable, and so I wonder, you know, how that will land. It's one of the things I'm really curious about, and one of the things that — really the only thing that I have a question mark about as it pertains to Queen Sugar debuting.

On why she decided to make this a television series and not an independent film

Because, because this is the golden era of television! If you're a storyteller and you're trying to tell the best stories, I really and truly believe that TV is the king medium right now. It's so different than 20 years ago, even 10 years ago, where it was this kind of segregation between TV and film.

If I'd had a film nominated for best picture 10 years ago and then the very next year went and made a series, they would have said, "Huh, poor thing. Look at her. She's just doing the best she can."

And now, you have all of these great auteurs and great storytellers kind of in this elongated storytelling medium. That's how I feel. It's not about the destination anymore, even though the destination was important in my telling of the story with Ms. Winfrey.

But, you know, if people are watching it on tablets and on trains and in their bed and in theaters and streaming and appointment television and it's just ... the form is wide open. And so why would you not want to go to TV is more the question. And I just grabbed the opportunity. Thirteen hours of storytelling? Really? You're going to give me 13 hours? OK, I'm going to take it.

And yeah, [I] had a lot of fun with it.

On what it was like to transition from television to film

I mean, knowing that I wanted to do it creatively is much different from actually executing it. I mean, I was speaking with Shonda Rhimes and I just said, "I don't know how you have done this. I mean, really — juggling and being kind of the final artistic voice on multiple shows for multiple seasons?"

I mean, she's been doing this for a decade. I mean, I was worn out, dragging in the door every night, like, you know, "Jesus, help me." Because one episode is being written while ... Episode 9 is being written while Episode 6 is being shot while Episode 5 is being edited while Episode 4 is in composition with the composer. And Episode 2 is in the color grade.

And literally as the creator — EP — person running the show, I have to have my hands involved in all that; much different than a film. Those are coming in kind of chronological order, one to another to another. This is: They're all happening at the same time.

It was a juggling act. I was not the best juggler. I dropped a couple balls; but a great learning experience, and so much respect for the people who do this all the time.

On Shonda Rhimes and how she helped Duvernay navigate the television industry, which has many gender issues

It's really challenging for women to transition; very difficult for women to direct, period. Film or television. But it's really challenging, you may be surprised to know, to go from films that have traveled the world in the finest film festivals to an episode of television.

There's a real disconnect there with women filmmakers. And so it was a gift when Shonda just invited me on her show, sight unseen. I didn't take a meeting, anything. I had won Sundance from the middle of nowhere, and she immediately ... said, "Come on down. Would you be interested in an episode of television?"

[I'm] definitely interested in all types of storytelling, so I jumped into it. But through that process, I learned that there were a lot of women knocking on that door. I didn't have to knock. But a lot of women knocking on that door and being rejected from entering the TV space.

And so, that was all the more reason why, when I had the opportunity to make the decisions, I did similar to what Shonda did and opened it up even wider to as many women as I can get my hands on. So I invited all of these, you know, beautiful, beautiful, luscious, gorgeous filmmakers to play with us and to direct with me.

And the result is pretty profound.

On Queen Sugar's all-female cast of directors

I mean, when you run the show and you talk about inclusivity and you talk about what's right and wrong with the industry, and you get a chance to run the show and make the hiring decisions and the studio and the network are looking to you for guidance on what to do, or direction, or ideas. ... You know, I found myself in a position to actually try to effect some real change.

So it went across the directorial team which, as you said, is all women directors for all the episodes. A first, I've been told, for a full season of television.

The second is an inclusive crew across all of the categories; a predominantly women editorial team. A Latino woman colorist. A black woman post-production supervisor. Black woman composer. A Latino man is our DP. Really, really trying to go deep into all of these categories to say: What does this look like if we're truly inclusive and we make sure that we demand that the department heads go deeper than the usual list and the usual suspects — which, more often than not are not women and not people of color?

And the results are pretty beautiful. A very textured, layered piece that's a tapestry of all of our experience, which is the whole point.

On the contrast between people trying to improve diversity in media and people claiming that more diversity and inclusion is not necessary

Everyone's on their own path. I'm on mine. I feel like part of the reason that I feel so passionately about this space — of inclusivity, of making sure that everyone is invited to the table and a part of the conversation — is in reaction to being left out of the room far too often.

And so maybe when I think deeply about it, one has served the other. One has made the conversation for inclusivity, one has made the real driving force for me in making sure that — not just black people, brown people. Transgender people. People from the LGBT community across international lines. Age. Gender. Anything that you can think of!

Folks that don't like me are also invited into the conversation. Even selfishly, at some point. It's just going to make for a better film. I'm going to get credit for everyone's great ideas, you know what I mean? So why not invite more people than are just, are like me to the table?

That's a way that egotists can think about it. But more than anything, I look around my crew and my cast and feel joy that this is not the kind of crew that I so often was on when I was a publicist before I was a filmmaker. Where I was the only person of color, or the only woman in some rooms.

It's ... it's not a great feeling, and there's a better way to make this work. There's a better way to make art. Filmmaking is a collective artistic endeavor and there shouldn't just be one way to do it.

Unfortunately, this one way has been happening far too long in Hollywood. And so I'm really joyful about being part of what I feel is a new era of making good film and good TV.

On a conversation with Terry Gross in October of 2012 about what kind of black film non-black people will go see

I don't know. It's so interesting you bring that up because maybe an hour before this conversation we're having, I read a review. The majority of the reviews for Queen Sugar have been quite beautiful. There was a review I read that compares it to one of my all-time favorite TV shows, Six Feet Under, talking about the kind of nuanced family drama, which is really what I was chasing, really what I was trying to construct.

But there was one review — of course, we always focus on the guy who doesn't like us, the boy who doesn't think we're cute at school, the job you didn't get, not the job you did get. And there was one review. I won't say I'm bulletproof to reviews, but they just don't get under my skin as much ... except when they say something like what was said. Which was along the lines of — the way I interpreted it was: There is a leisurely pace to this show that I think most people are used to seeing black characters' side of.

You know? And that that was ... it came out in this review that it was slow. Now the pacing is very deliberate, but I went back through this reviewer's reviews, and I put a few other quote-unquote slower shows, known for deliberate pace. He loved those shows. He raves about those shows and the pacing.

I said, "Gosh. Is this something about taking more time, forcing you to look at the formerly incarcerated black man as he struggles with his son, that's different than watching someone else struggle with their son?" You know, looking at piece with similar pacing.

And so I think that what I talked with Terry about is still a question for me. What is allowed? What do we feel comfortable seeing black characters and people of color doing? You know, is it always for laughs? Is it always quick cutting? Is it always plot driven?

I love all those shows. A lot of my friends make those shows. But is there also room for a different pace and a different kind of storytelling?

I found that there is an embracing of that on the film side, and so Queen Sugar is, for me, a grand experience as for whether or not it works on the TV side. The answer may be no, but we'll find out soon enough.

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