Ava DuVernay & Oprah Talk “Queen Sugar”, Black Lives Matter, And Normalizing Inclusion

Oprah-winfrey-Ava-Duvernay

You know each of them for their trailblazing careers in Hollywood. Oprah Winfrey’s accolades are so well-known around the world that she is commonly referred to by first name only. Ava DuVernay was the director who has broken in the film industry by becoming the first black woman to be nominated for a Golden Globe directing award in 2014 for ‘Selma’, and the first black woman to win the Best Director Prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival for her feature ‘Middle of Nowhere’.

These achievements have been made despite the growing knowledge of inequality on a number of fronts in Hollywood. While we need systemic change, we also need women like Ava showing other people what it looks like to not give in to the odds which may be stacked against you. Most recently, it was announced she will be directing Disney’s ‘A Wrinkle In Time’, making her the first woman of color to helm a $100 million live-action movie.

Although ‘Selma’ was nominated in certain categories at the 2014 Academy Awards, Ava was not included the in the Best Director category, prompting some people to claim she was “snubbed”. However, if you think Ava was going to sit around and feel sorry for herself, you’d be wrong. Between appearing in the latest Pirelli Calendar featuring a range of female role models, having a Barbie modeled after her for their “Sheroes” collection, and launching an initiative for up and coming minority filmmakers with her AFFRM organization, she is on a mission to show that female directors in Hollywood should not be an anomaly.

Her latest major project is a TV series on the Oprah Winfrey Network called “Queen Sugar”, which follows the lives of three estranged siblings brought together by a tragedy in their family, which forces them to confront their complications in order to run an ailing family sugarcane farm in the Deep South. Aside from the brilliant story-telling and creative direction of the series, we love that the cast are mostly newcomers and Ava chose to assemble an all-female behind-the-scenes crew. Yep, she chose to use her own opportunity to push the needle on Hollywood’s diversity problem.

queen-sugar-directors

“Every single episode is directed by a woman. It isn’t something that we see hardly enough. If Game of Thrones can have all men for the last 3 seasons, Queen Sugar can have all women and show what a fantastic show can be made from our hands and our minds,” she said in an interview about this decision.

It’s not just GOT, either. A recent study by the Directors Guild of America found during the 2015-2016 network TV season and the 2015 cable season, women directed only a mere 17% of 4000+ episodes, and minorities (which included male and female) capped out at 19%. So Ava’s decision to employ only women is her way of changing the status quo.

But we should hold off on using the word “diversity”, as it is something Ava shuns. Instead she prefers the word “inclusion”, as she explained in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter alongside her “Queen Sugar” executive producer and network namesake Oprah Winfrey.

“Forward-thinking people and allies of this cause within the industry have the common sense to know that this is systemic. There needs to be more done than applauding one or two people who make it through your door,” she said.

Read enough interviews with Ava DuVernay and you get the sense that although she readily acknowledges the need for change in Hollywood, she is more inclined to make steps to change that with every opportunity she gets, rather than continue to simply repeat the same talking points.

“I’m in a space where I’m able to do the things that I want to do and the start of that was doing it on my own and working independently without permission. Even though I have more folks, more money and more infrastructure around me now, I made a decision [long ago] to work from a place of protecting my own voice by collaborating with people who nurture and value that — and not trying to spend my time knocking on doors that were closed to me, begging people for things that put me at a disadvantage because they had it and I didn’t,” she said.

Oprah-winfrey-Ava-Duvernay

Her perspective on the issue of inclusion is that no one is going to stop her from doing what she wants to do, even if there are certain archetypes of directors who may get to their destination easier than she would in the film industry because of their gender.

“They have a bit of an easier time of it, an easier road, but it doesn’t mean I can’t do it. It may just take me a bit. Part of the challenge that I find when I enter these conversations with journalists is that [you’ve] thought about it in a way that society thinks about it: ‘the plight of the woman filmmaker,’ ‘the plight of the black artist,’ ‘the plight of whoever is on the outside.’ But if you receive it and treat it as a plight, that starts to manifest in you and your work, and it affects your creativity,” she explained.

Both women explain that inclusion is more of the correct term because it implies people of equal value being invited to the decision-making table where they weren’t before. Oprah shares a powerful story illustrating how visual representation and Hollywood can be an aid in this idea of inclusion.

“When Sidney Poitier came to my school [in South Africa], he gave a gift of 550 movies to the girls. He thought if you watch these 550 movies, they’ll be your education for life. He wrote to the girls that his dream for them was to be able to sit at the table of the future where the world’s decisions would be made. I realize now that what he was saying is to be included, to be valued as a person who has something to contribute,” she said.

Oprah-winfrey-Ava-Duvernay

‘Queen Sugar’ is not just a dramatic series, but a creative arena where contemporary cultural issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement have a place to call home, in a different way to what we normally see in news media.

“You see integration of Black Lives Matter from the beginning because it is literally black lives having meaning and mattering in the everyday. With the Black Lives Matter movement, a lot of the focus is on the protest and dissent. I’m hoping to dismantle the public notion — for folks outside of the community — of what Black Lives Matter means. It’s really about saying that black lives matter, that humanity is the same when you go inside people’s homes,” explained Ava.

However, the show does include issues such as incarceration and police brutality but in a way that fits in with the story, as opposed to being an outlandish political statement. What Ava and Oprah and the team have done is humanize these issues in the context of individual people’s lives, rather than a sensational soundbite or news clip.

“Everybody gets caught up in the slogan and the hashtag and the protest. What we’re trying to do is get you to feel it,” said Oprah, who goes on to share an experience from her ‘Oprah Winfrey Show’ days which exposed just how little the humanization of different people was shown in mainstream media.

queen-sugar-cast

“I was doing an episode about single parenting. I had a black father on, and we had gone to his house and done a taped piece about him putting his two little girls to bed and reading to them. This was around 1989 to 1990, before email, and the white audience wrote letters saying, ‘I didn’t know black men did that.’ That struck a nerve. Then I realized that the best way to show that black people are just like everybody else, or that gay people are just like everybody else, is not to do a show about gay people or black fathers raising their children [but] just to include them in a story about raising children. That’s how you normalize it and make it OK for everybody else,” she said.

Interestingly, Ava wants audiences to see ‘Queen Sugar’ as less of an “education” and more of a vehicle to create empathy and understanding. She talks about this in the context of the “all lives matter” rebuttal which we often see online by those who either oppose or misunderstand that foundation of the Black Lives Matter movement (which is certainly not helped by extreme conservative news outlets which like to label BLM as a terrorist organization).

“All lives can’t matter to folks who are not us if you don’t know us, if you don’t understand [us]…These are black people; this is a black family. It’s a window into that. The same way when I go see A Separation, an Iranian film about an Iranian family, or when I go to see a Korean film, it is a window into that world, and I see them, and I start to understand and value them. They begin to matter to me,” she explained.

She also talks about the need for more minority stories being told specifically through the lens of minority creators, because while we are seeing a much wider range of diverse characters and stories in film and TV, Ava says this will only ever be an “interpretation” of what a person of color could speak to with more authority.

Oprah-winfrey-Ava-Duvernay

“The work that has been generated by creators of color featuring protagonists of color, it’s a really, really small fraction of what’s on the air right now… the African-American part of the conversation is just a sliver of it; Latino representation is horrible, Asian Pacific Islander is worse, and Native American is criminal. So shame on all of us and the powers that be who allow that. It’s not right, and all we can do as artists is continue to push and ask the audiences who care about this to push as well,” she said.

Change is definitely slow to happen, even in a supposedly liberal industry like Hollywood, which, when you boil it down to the handful of people at the very top of the big studios and networks, shows just how absent ideas of inclusion can often be. Which is why creators like Ava, and network moguls like Oprah who see the need for change are taking steps to adjust the ratio we see on screen.

Representation is not just a nice idea, it is a foundational element to making inclusion a reality.

“Artists should be free to create what we want. I believe there’s a special value in work that is a reflection of oneself as opposed to interpretation… Historically, black artists have not been able to interpret black life as robustly as we should, in terms of having it distributed, financed and shared. That’s why it’s a beautiful moment when you have black artists who are able to articulate and express their reflection as opposed to black folk only being able to watch an interpretation of our life,” said Ava.

If you haven’t yet seen ‘Queen Sugar’, watch the trailer below and check your local listings for episode airings.


 

Leave a Reply