For two seasons, Ava DuVernay has hired only women to direct her OWN series Queen Sugar. “Hollywood is a patriarchy. It’s built for men by men, and women and POC are seen as addendum to that," DuVernay told BuzzFeed News. “It is a struggle to insert your voice into a paradigm that isn’t checking for you.”
So after directing the first two episodes of Season 1 herself, DuVernay pulled together a badass brigade of female directors who she felt had the skills necessary to embellish and expound on the show’s narrative. “These women had made gorgeous, lush, robust, beautifully nuanced independent films that they’d raised up from nothing, from an idea in their minds. They’d actually put these films up on their feet, produced them, toured them in film festivals around the world, won awards for them, but couldn’t get a job directing an episode of any television show," DuVernay said. "I’m talking the worst bottom-of-the-barrel television you can think of — they couldn’t get a meeting. That is wrong.”
DuVernay's effort wound up changing that for the women she brought behind the lens. “Our directors have gone on to direct everything from Luke Cage to Transparent to American Crime," she said. "If anything, Queen Sugar proves the point of the unjust inequality of the hiring practices in Hollywood."
The female directors DuVernay has brought aboard for Season 2 are all new, with the exception of Kat Candler. In honor of the second midseason premiere, BuzzFeed News spoke with several of the directors to find out what happened during the making of this season's most memorable scenes so far.
1. When Nova (Rutina Wesley) threw a rally to help raise a community bail fund, then ran into Micah (Nicholas L. Ashe), who was still grappling with the police brutality he endured in the Season 2 premiere.
Season 2, Episode 2 — "To Usward"
Directed by Cheryl Dunye
"I definitely wanted the camera to push through the crowd, so we really had to build up enough folks to have that feeling where she’s trying to find him and he’s trying to find her. I wanted Micah to totally collapse in her arms and for her to embrace him. It was a wonderful night shoot. We had a great bunch of extras. Rutina brought it from every angle. I was amazed at the power and the energy everyone gave again and again.
"Because Armstrong Park, where we shot the scene, is sacred ground, you’re not allowed to bring cars onto it, or cranes, etc. So I decided we'd put the police cars in the back so we could feel them. And I figured in postproduction, we could add sound. Then, while we were filming, two cop cars drove by naturally with their sirens on. It was meant to be. They gave us what we needed to make that feeling of police presence happen. It’s one of my favorite scenes from that episode." —Cheryl Dunye
2. When Nova met her soon-to-be bae, Dr. Robert Dubois (Alimi Ballard), at a symposium in Atlanta.
Season 2, Episode 3 — "What Do I Care for Morning"
Directed by Aurora Guerrero
"Originally, we were thinking of filming this party full of elite intellectuals at a museum in New Orleans. The space had white walls, white columns, very ivory feeling. We felt like it was the appropriate space for the scene. And then we lost the space due to scheduling reasons and were left scrambling a bit.
"The location scout took us to the Ace Hotel in New Orleans where, in the back, they have this big kind of hall space. It was a very different feel from the museum — a very hip, young, urban-ish space.
"As we were walking to the back part, we walked through a photo exhibit that was part of the hotel and I was drawn to it. The exhibit had a very political angle to it; it focused on images that spoke to communities of color, capturing the essence of these people, portrait-style. I walked by one of the photographs that was a woman and her two children — they were Latino immigrants. The boy had on a shirt that said, 'No papers, no fear,' which is a slogan that's used in the immigrant community, particularly the undocumented community, as an attempt to not be in this victim space, but have agency and an air of resistance around the fear a lot of these policies impose on communities.
"I'm Latina. I feel being an ally and advocate for immigrants and undocumented immigrants is important because part of my family is mixed status. So the photo stood out to me personally and it fit this discussion that Nova and Dr. Dubois engage in in the symposium around disposable communities and mass incarceration, because the for-profit industry around incarceration is definitely expanding itself into the immigrant detention centers.
"I was so into the conversation that Ava had put on paper, and this was my way of adding this layer of this other community that’s also part of that conversation, without having to change dialogue or anything. I wanted to bring it in visually and either people will catch it or they won’t." —Aurora Guerrero
3. When Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe) finally told his sisters, Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) and Nova, that he found a letter from their father amending his will to make him the sole owner of the farm.
Season 2, Episode 6 — "Line of Our Elders"
Directed by DeMane Davis
"Before we started, I took a moment to say to the cast, ‘I would be remiss if I didn’t take the opportunity to thank you for the work you do on this show. I understand this is going to be an emotional scene and I want you to know we have all the time in the world to get it done. So I defer to you, so let me know how you’re feeling, if you need to stop, whatever you need.’ It was my first time working with the whole cast, so I felt it important to let them know it’s a safe space.
"Once it got going, it was cooking. They were all at the top of their game, so no one needed a line, no one screwed up. And I remember after the first take, I came running out of Violet's [Tina Lifford] room, where we had the monitors set up, and I came out screaming, ‘Oh my god, that was great!’ and I look around and everyone is crying. Kofi is crying. Dawn is crying. Rutina is crying. Omar [Dorsey, who plays Hollywood] had his head down.
"On this show, I promise you, there’s no movie magic happening with the tears. All of these actors are in it, and that’s what makes it spellbounding; they’re in it, so you’re in it.
"It was the best experience I've had on a set in my lifetime." —DeMane Davis
4. When Charley and Remy (Dondre Whitfield) had an honest heart-to-heart about their relationship that led to Charley finally being vulnerable enough to tell Remy what he'd been wanting to hear.
Season 2, Episode 8 — "Freedom's Plow"
Directed by Amanda Marsalis
"We spend the time to make sure it fucking looks great. I’m a photographer originally, and so the way something looks is incredibly important to me. It’s also why I feel so bonded to Queen Sugar and its commitment to aesthetic.
"I wanted to make sure that this scene was on the sexy side — the way the light's coming in hitting her and him — so that you feel the moodiness of what’s going to happen even though you’re not sure what’s going to happen. Both Dondre and Dawn are phenomenal actors and they both know what they’re doing. Dawn and I spent a lot of time talking about her character, where she’s coming from, where she’s going — she has a wonderfully complex process that I really appreciate. As an actor, she has a new director every week, so it was nice that Dawn makes an effort for the two of us to connect and be on the same page. Plus, it’s my job to give her the space and support that she needs to do her process.
"The Queen Sugar actors are so good at their jobs, they're such impressive people, they come to set prepared, they know who they are, and what they’re doing. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from this show." —Amanda Marsalis
5. When Ralph Angel asked Darla (Bianca Lawson) to be his wife.
Season 2, Episode 8 — "Freedom's Plow"
Directed by Kat Candler
"The proposal scene came together beautifully despite that it was the last scene of the night and I remember it was getting really late and we were on the edge of having to wrap.
"I'd hemmed and hawed about which flowers to use, how to lay them out, how many candles to light, asking Kofi what Ralph Angel would do...all of those little details.
"But when it came down to it, it was simply the words that Ralph Angel spoke. It was the truth he spoke with such vulnerability and heart. He brought that performance with a rare rawness. I just quietly wept behind the monitor in awe. And that long dolly pull back through the house... I knew I wanted this house to be theirs, this would be their home — shared. The quiet of the night and the simplicity of that moment I just loved." —Kat Candler
6. When Micah finally opened up to Charley about the abuse he endured when he was arrested.
Season 2, Episode 9 — "Yet Do I Marvel"
Directed by Julie Dash
"I wanted to pay special attention to Davis (Timon Kyle Durrett), how he reacts to his ex-wife and his child. It’s another gut-wrenching moment for Davis — to revisit that on another level is equally painful. At the same time, he shows amazing restraint. If he falls apart, his child will fall apart. If he falls apart, his wife will go bonkers, beyond how she already is. His performance is so subtle, but it’s amazing. He’s still holding the family together, and that’s another remarkable moment as written by Jason [Wilborn] and Ava in the scene — that even though you may be estranged from a husband or wife, the family unit will always be together. And we don’t often see this on television about our stories. When have we ever? My toes were curling while I was directing. As a director, I become emotionally engaged with the scene as it’s evolving. And yes, adjustments will be made, but the emotional core of this scene had everyone on set quivering." —Julie Dash
Sylvia Obell is an entertainment reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Sylvia Obell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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