Du Vernay puts women ‘in the game’
The “Queen Sugar” roster includes women who rank as “some of the greatest independent filmmakers to come out of the festival circuit in the last 10 years” but have, nevertheless, struggled to work in the business, says Du Vernay, who has a distribution company called Array.
“They weren’t out there making shoot-’em-ups,” Du Vernay says. “They were making intimate character dramas.”
Directing the show represents a chance for these directors to hone their craft, gain experience and stay busy in an industry where you’re only as good as your last credit.
“It puts you in the game,” says the director of “13th.” “You can’t play if you’re on the sidelines.”
“Queen Sugar” has become a kind of filmmaking collective and talent incubator, with Season 1 directors moving on to other TV shows, including “American Crime,” “Insecure,” “The Good Fight” and “Underground.” (Du Vernay hopes to direct an episode this season, if post-production on her film “A Wrinkle in Time” allows.)
“She really is building this army of badasses,” says producing director Kat Candler.
“Queen Sugar” has also been revelatory for the cast. Dawn-Lyen Gardner, who plays polished middle child Charley, had never been directed by a woman before on a TV show. “You don’t realize that your ‘normal’ hasn’t included you until it does,” she says.
Like Du Vernay, other Hollywood players, including Melissa Rosenberg, showrunner of “Marvel’s Jessica Jones,” and megaproducer Ryan Murphy, have begun using their clout to level the playing field for women directors. Still, progress is slow: According to the DGA, a mere 17.1% of TV episodes in the 2015-16 season were directed by women, up a smidge from 15.8% the previous year.
Which may be why Du Vernay, who credits Winfrey and writer-director Robin Swicord as mentors, plans to continue hiring only female filmmakers on “Queen Sugar” for the foreseeable future.
“For us, this is not a trend, this is not a publicity stunt. This is our choice,” she says, contrasting “Queen Sugar” with shows like “Game of Thrones” that get little scrutiny for hiring only male directors. “Just like it’s their choice never to think about hiring a woman.”
Here’s a look at some of the women directing Season 2 of “Queen Sugar” and what each of them has to say.
The daughter of Mexican immigrants, Guerrero made her feature debut with the highly personal “Mosquita y Mari,” a coming-of-age drama about the budding romance between two Chicana teenagers, which played at Sundance in 2012.
On “Queen Sugar”: “The specificity of Louisiana and the cane business — that’s all really fascinating. A lot of the time what you see [on TV] is urban people of color, which is fine, but you don’t often see this very specific world.”
On the industry: “As a woman, and as a woman of color, you feel that clock ticking. You make your feature, you’re on people’s radars, but it’s very quick, and if you don’t move on something then people start to forget.”
Celebrity photographer Marsalis branched out into feature filmmaking with “Echo Park,” an indie romance starring Mamie Gummer and Tony Okungbowa. The film premiered at the L.A. Film Festival in 2014 and was distributed by Du Vernay’s Array.
On “Queen Sugar”: “I love the siblings and how different they are and how Ava has managed to represent a wide swath of a community with these three characters. Then, of course, there’s Hollywood and Vi,” she says, referring to Aunt Violet (Tina Lifford) and her much younger boyfriend (Omar Dorsey).
On the industry: “There’s a lot of talk, but Ava is the one who actually gave me the opportunity. She doesn’t need to help anybody else. She’s actually spending her time and energy making sure other women succeed.”
She codirected “Black & White & Red All Over,” which screened at Sundance in 1997. Her feature “Lift,” starring a then-unknown actress named Kerry Washington as a professional shoplifter, played there in 2001.
On “Queen Sugar”: “Time seems to slow down when you’re watching this show, and I don’t really think that anything else has that effect.”
On the industry: “Now is a time where people are actually looking to women and wanting someone like that in their stable. It’s almost like ‘MGM got one, so we need a woman.’ … I’m really grateful.”
She wrote and directed “Hellion,” a 2014 Sundance selection in which “Breaking Bad’s” Aaron Paul played the absentee father of a rebellious teen.
On “Queen Sugar”: “Ava is making up her own rules, and directors have a little bit more voice within her television world. So there’s a lot more emphasis with ‘Queen Sugar’ on really building the art in the frame.”
On the industry: “After Sundance, we all go and do the ‘water bottle tour of Hollywood’ and sit down in countless offices. People are really excited to work with you, and you start pitching things, and you get really, really close, but it goes to someone else. It’s hard, I won’t lie. The one thing I learned from that was to continue to work my ass off on my own material.”
Recently invited to join the academy, Dunye wrote, directed and starred in the “The Watermelon Woman” (1996), a pioneering exploration of black women and lesbian identity in film, and the HBO movie “Stranger Inside” (2001), set in a women’s prison.
On “Queen Sugar”: “The wonderful thing about ‘Queen Sugar’ is the look. Gorgeous. Every shot. Antonio Calvache and the amazing Kira Kelly — they are making art with their cinematography.”
On the industry: “A lot of the directors Ava’s working with … have made wonderful work and have not been able to be a part of the system because of our gender. We might get praise and win awards, but when it comes to hiring for industry jobs, people just don’t want to put that bet on a woman director. I made groundbreaking work in the early ’90s, and here I am finally getting an opportunity to do television.”
DESPITE her film work in the ’90s, Cheryl Dunye, above, credits Ava DuVernay for a chance to direct in TV.