Du Ver­nay puts women ‘in the game’

Los Angeles Times - - COMICS - mered­ith.blake@la­times.com

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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.

Aurora Guer­rero

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.”

Amanda Marsalis

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.”

DeMane Davis

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.”

Kat Can­dler

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.”

Ch­eryl Dunye

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.”

Ge­naro Molina Los An­ge­les Times

DE­SPITE her film work in the ’90s, Ch­eryl Dunye, above, cred­its Ava DuVer­nay for a chance to di­rect in TV.

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