Queen Sugar’s All-Female Directors on How the Show Gave Them Their First TV Jobs

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Ava DuVernay behind the scenes of Queen Sugar. Photo: Courtesy of OWN

When Ava DuVernay set out to make Queen Sugar, the director of the Oscar-nominated Selma and Netflix documentary 13th realized she wouldn’t have time to direct the entire show herself. As she reflected on whom to trust with her TV adaptation of Natalie Baszile’s novel, the names that popped up in her head were filmmakers she’d known and admired through the independent-film festival circuit and other Hollywood circles. She wasn’t thinking about gender, but in the end, she quietly swung open a door for women in the TV industry when she hired only women to direct the 13 episodes of OWN’s critically acclaimed first season. 

“It wasn’t — let’s find all women,” DuVernay said.It was more like, I would really love Kat Candler to do it. Wouldn’t Victoria Mahoney kill it? Would Tanya Hamilton be interested? What would So Yong Kim do with Ralph Angel? My mind started working that way." When DuVernay told executive producer Oprah Winfrey what she was thinking, Winfrey replied, "Yes! Let's do this!"

"Diversity is real and possible," Winfrey told Vulture in an email. "The power of the feminine energy to come together to put this art into the world comes through in this series. It is extremely powerful."

DuVernay’s instincts are a correction of sorts to the way the TV industry typically operates. A report released by the Directors Guild of America in August, tracking the past seven TV seasons, shows only 144 of 619 first-time episodic directors were women. Last season, women directed 17 percent of 4,000-plus episodes of television; of those, just 3 percent were women of color.  While the first season of Amazon's Transparent was the first TV series to be directed entirely by women, creator Jill Soloway helmed seven of the ten episodes and Nisha Ganatra handled the other three. Other series, such as DirectTV's You Me Her, which was led by Ganatra, have been directed entirely by one female director.

DuVernay is the first series creator and showrunner to hire seven women of various backgrounds, five of whom had never directed episodic television. “I needed folks that are like-minded, that share my point of view and embrace my style and would have something to say,” said DuVernay who directed the first two episodes of the series, which airs its season-one finale tonight, and assigned the rest. DuVernay and director of photography Antonio Calvache (Little Women, In the Bedroom) created a cinematic and distinct look for the story of estranged Louisiana siblings who inherit their father's sugarcane farm. It's one that builds the world of fictional town St. Josephine, Louisiana, shows off its natural beauty, and accentuates the show’s patient tone.

DuVernay wanted directors who would take that vision and run with it. She hired TV pioneer Neema Barnette (Woman Thou Art Loosed: On the 7th Day, Being Mary Jane); Tina Mabry (Mississippi Damned); Kat Candler (Hellion); and Salli Richardson Whitfield (Eureka) to helm two episodes each, and Victoria Mahoney (Yelling to the Sky); So Yong Kim (Lovesong, Treeless Mountain); and Tanya Hamilton (Night Catches Us) for one episode each.

“What Ava did ran counter to everything I have been told in every meeting I have gone to, which is that you can’t get the job because no one will hire you without previous experience, but nobody will give you that first opportunity so it’s a catch-22,” said Hamilton, whose film Night Catches Us debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2010. “What’s great is that Ava proved that it’s just nonsense.”

All of Queen Sugar’s directors had experienced similar obstacles as they pursued their first TV gigs — the lack of inside connections to land first opportunities; no agent to help facilitate or no first job for an agent to showcase; even their status as mothers or future mothers came up as reasons for rejection. In addition to the “obvious sexism” behind the excuses, DuVernay says it’s absurd for studios and networks not to appreciate the similarities between helming an independent film and a TV show.

“It would be different if they were working at the local library and I gave them an episode of television. These women have directed films, acclaimed films that have gone to festivals around the world,” DuVernay explained. “Independent films and TV are very similar in that you don’t have a lot of time. But in TV, you have more money. So how would you not be able to translate making something beautiful under time and money constraints when you’re given the blessing of more money, more tools, more crew under the same time pressure you already demonstrated that you can excel in?”

DuVernay credits another woman — Shonda Rhimes — for giving her a break in her own career. After DuVernay’s 2012 Sundance win for her feature debut Middle of Nowhere, Rhimes invited her to direct an episode of ABC’s Scandal. “They knew that if I directed a film well, I could direct TV,” she said. “Just the idea that some of our male counterparts were able to go from an independent film to a blockbuster with hundreds of millions of dollars, but a woman who’s directed a film can’t make an episode of television? I can’t even.”

Other shows are beginning to follow suit: Last month, Jessica Jones showrunner Melissa Rosenberg announced that she will be hiring all female directors for season two of the Netflix show. As for Queen Sugar season two, which goes into production next spring in New Orleans, it will have a new showrunner, Monica Macer (Nashville, Prison Break, Lost), and a new slate of all-female directors. DuVernay, who is currently filming Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time, will hire the directors and be involved in editing of scripts and episodes.

Except for Barnette, the already-busy TV veteran, working on Queen Sugar has earned its first-season directors jobs at some of TV’s most high-profile shows, including Transparent, American Crime, Grey’s Anatomy, and Netflix’s upcoming Dear White People. Here’s how they all landed on Queen Sugar.

Neema Barnette
Queen Sugar producer-director, episodes three and seven, “Thy Will Be Done” and “In No Uncertain Terms”

When she was 25 years old, Barnette became the first African-American woman to direct a sitcom — an episode of What’s Happening Now. It was 1986 and her first day on the job ended in tears at the hands of a male assistant director who “was giving me a hard time.” But the kindness of late actress Shirley Hemphill taught her the value of hanging on to her sensitivity for the sake of her art.

Thirty years later, Barnette found herself getting emotional again talking about how she felt the day DuVernay told her she was going to hire only female directors — most of them first-time TV directors — for Queen Sugar. “I shed a few tears and I was elated and so proud of her. I didn’t think I’d live to see the day, but not only am I living to see it, I was going to be a part of it.”

In addition to directing two episodes, Barnette, who also was the first black woman to land a TV-production deal, served as a “mama bear” mentor on set. “Neema Barnette is a legend in the space among black women directors and she’s someone who rooted me on very early in my career,” DuVernay said. “She was one of the first people I thought of.” Barnette lived in New Orleans for the five months of production and helped each director learn the rhythms of episodic television.

Before meeting the directors, Barnette studied each of their films and visual styles so that she could work with them more intimately. “It was important for Ava and I that they not be creatively inhibited,” Barnette said. “If you’re going to change the game — change the game. You don’t want to say you’re changing the game and then treat the women like other TV shows treat them, where they are stigmatized. They’re bringing something to the table that is individual, and we want them to keep their vision as well as Ava’s vision.”

Throughout filming, Barnette kept an “emotional beat sheet” for every character to help her keep track of their trajectories. She directed one of the series’ most effective scenes in the third episode working with young actors Kofi Siriboe and Bianca Lawson, who play Ralph Angel and Darla, Blue’s estranged parents. In it, a heartbroken Ralph Angel shows up unannounced at Darla’s trailer and they exchange no words, but end up sleeping together.  "It was like a quiet storm," she said of directing the scene. "I worked with the actors on trying to figure out how [Darla] knows when to step into his space."

So Yong Kim
Episode four, “The Darker Sooner”

Kim, an award-winning independent filmmaker who has made four feature films, met DuVernay several years ago at the Sundance Film Festival. The Los Angeles–based Korean-American writer-director won the Special Jury Prize for her debut film In Between Days in 2006, and premiered For Ellen and Lovesong at Sundance in 2012 and 2016, respectively. Her film Treeless Mountain premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2008. 

When DuVernay called her to gauge her interest in directing Queen Sugar at the end of last year, Kim jumped at the chance. For years, she had been trying to direct episodic TV. “It is a tough, tough market to break into,” Kim said. “It’s amazing that Ava focused on women directors who had no episodic experience. But now that I’m getting more experience, I’m realizing how challenging it must have been for her to pull that together and the support that Oprah and OWN must have given her. At the time, I didn’t realize all of this because I was so green.”

Kim traveled to New Orleans to shadow DuVernay as she directed the pilot and leaned on Barnette whenever she needed support during her seven-day shoot. “For me, directing is about collaborating,” she said. “You have to lead, but leading in a sense where you encourage people to collaborate and participate in a way that everyone feels like they’re doing their best as a creative person. If I have a specific idea about a scene, I communicate that with the actors and see what they think. But if they already have certain ideas, I work with them. There isn’t one general brush stroke I use. It has to be specific to the person.”

In one of Kim’s favorite scenes to film, Ralph Angel goes to the bank to apply for a loan. “There are certain scenes I choreographed and I’m happy they turned out fine, but for me it’s the quiet moments when the character is just sitting and waiting, or those uncertain moments when you see something in their face,” she said. “Ava really wants to keep that breathing space and quiet, contemplative moments and I think that’s why it stands out as a beautiful show.”

As a fan of her movies, DuVernay said she was excited to see Kim in action on set. “She has this really light, graceful touch,” she said. “Which is very different than mine.”

Working on Queen Sugar landed Kim jobs on some of TV’s most critically beloved series: the penultimate episode of the third season of Amazon’s Transparent, the first episode of the third season of ABC’s American Crime, and an episode of Jay and Mark Duplass’s upcoming HBO comedy, Room 104.  “I feel very fortunate,” Kim said. “What Ava wanted is happening with all of us. Isn’t it funny that people are like, Oh, we didn’t know there were that many women directors. What do you mean?”

Victoria Mahoney
Episode five, “By Any Chance”

A former actress, Mahoney made her directorial debut with the semi-autobiographical Yelling to the Sky, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2011. She and DuVernay met through the festival circuit and became friends. She recalls an email DuVernay sent her late last year with a link to an industry trade story about the “abysmal statistics on directorial women hires.” In the note, DuVernay wrote, “Screw this, let’s just keep hiring each other” and asked Mahoney if she’d be interested in working on Queen Sugar.

“There are tons of people with immense power who could have done what she did, who could have said, for one season straight, 'I’m gonna hire a bunch of outliers who made badass, critically acclaimed films, and I’m gonna give them a chance because no one else will,'” Mahoney said. “We show up for work and we’re working on farms and areas where our ancestors weren’t allowed to speak or move or breathe. Here we are standing as women-of-color directors with a woman-of-color show creator, a woman of color who wrote the book, and a woman of color who owns a network. And then a family of color as the protagonists. This is as special as special gets.”

DuVernay recalls Mahoney coming in the door with “vigor and energy and a whirlwind of ideas and emotion. It’s a different way to direct and is very effective,” she said. “She is a New Yorker coming in with all that New York.” Mahoney says there is one scene she directed that "fucking broke me," in which Ralph Angel discovers his boss is docking money from his paycheck. "That Kofi," she said. "He's a baby Daniel Day-Lewis or baby Denzel."

Since she left Louisiana in the spring, Mahoney hasn’t stopped working. After Queen Sugar, she directed episodes of ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, Starz’s Survivor’s Remorse, and American Crime and will soon direct an episode of Netflix’s upcoming series Gypsy, starring Naomi Watts, followed by Starz’s Power. “Ava called my jersey and put me in the game,” Mahoney said. “I’ve been waiting for this.”

Tanya Hamilton
Episode 6, “As Promised”

Hamilton and DuVernay met in Philadelphia after her critically acclaimed film Night Catches Us, starring Kerry Washington and Anthony Mackie, premiered in 2010, and stayed in touch ever since. Hamilton moved to Los Angeles from Philadelphia two and a half years ago because she wanted to work in television, but was having trouble finding her start.

“I had been knocking on doors and the doors were not opening even though I had a film,” Hamilton said. “It made no difference. Queen Sugar has helped me get so much work, but I have to recognize that it was this beautiful anomaly. It’s like visiting somebody’s house and they say to you, ‘Open my fridge! Sleep in my bed!’ But then at somebody else’s house you can only stay in the living room.”

The actors and crew appreciated Hamilton’s quiet but commanding presence, DuVernay said. “She holds her space so everyone just kind of leans in and listens to her,” she explained.

Two “happy accidents” made Hamilton smile when she saw they made the final cut — a train that passed as the Bordelons are walking away from the cane field, and a crop plane that flew through the same scene. “When I saw the train coming, I told the assistant director to keep rolling and he said, 'Oh, we’re never going to use that, there’s no continuity,'" she recalled. "But our wonderful editor found a place to make it work.  That kind of stuff, the magic of filmmaking that sometimes doesn’t happen when you’re making television, it just felt like there was this energy and synergy in making art that I appreciated a lot.”

After Queen Sugar, Hamilton directed an episode of Freeform’s upcoming Famous in Love, an episode of the CW’s The Vampire Diaries, American Crime, and OWN’s Greenleaf.  “Working on Queen Sugar has given me a certain legitimacy that I didn’t have before,” she said.

Kat Candler
Episodes eight and nine, “Where With All,” and “Next to Nothing”

Candler and DuVernay met through a mutual friend in 2011. A year later, Candler’s short film, Hellion, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, the same year DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere won the directing award for drama. DuVernay brought up Queen Sugar when the two ran into each other at SXSW in Austin last year.

Candler knew immediately she wanted in. “How casually Ava just opens the door and says ‘come hang out’” is mind-boggling, said Candler. “I would leap off tall buildings to do that show again. It was such a special experience and probably will never be replicated.”

DuVernay recalls Candler was hesitant to be the only white director on the project.  “She was wondering if she’d be able to really get into it — you know, this is a black family and not the typical black family you see going to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture,” she continued. “In this episode, they’re in the house, playing spades and drinking Hennessey. This is real. Oh my god, she just took it and ran with it.  She was a cast favorite. She was so generous and graceful and in tune and curious.”

Candler directed the two hurricane episodes — the first of which takes place almost entirely indoors. After reading the script, Candler researched films online, looking for images that captured the composition, style, and artistic quality she wanted for the episode and put together a booklet of images to show DuVernay. “I don’t work that way — I don’t have every shot mapped out in my head when I step on set,” DuVernay said. “I have goals and I’ve prepared to a point but I’m a little looser. She had diagrams — and the result was beautiful.”

After Queen Sugar, Candler directed two episodes of BET’s Being Mary Jane and will direct an episode of Syfy’s 12 Monkeys next. “Queen Sugar has been a huge gift to all of us. We were all really struggling to get into the world of television. People will take meetings with you and talk to you but so rarely give you a chance. When I read about Jessica Jones, I thought, That’s all Ava.”

Salli Richardson Whitfield
Episodes 10 and 11, “So Far” and “All Good”

A film and TV actress for 25 years, Richardson Whitfield was working as one of the leads on the TV drama Eureka when she starred in DuVernay’s first film, I Will Follow in 2010. During their time working together, the actress told DuVernay that she wanted to become a director and had been treating all the sets she worked on as a film school of sorts, learning as much about camera work and process as she could from her directors. 

Richardson Whitfield was so inspired by DuVernay’s self-financing of her $50,000 film that when she returned to her job on Eureka, she eventually asked to direct and was given the chance to do two episodes. “It really sparked something in me and after I got done with my show, I did a few short films. But I had two young children and it wasn’t really the time because directing is all-consuming.”

By the time Richardson Whitfield was available to direct again, DuVernay had already assigned all of the episodes of Queen Sugar. “It was disappointing,” she said, “but I thought, Don’t worry, our time will come.”

When production on Queen Sugar began, Richardson Whitfield traveled to Louisiana to visit her husband, Dondre Whitfield, who plays Remy Newell on the series. When she arrived, DuVernay told her she was not going to have the time to direct as many episodes as she thought and asked her if she wanted episodes 10 and 11.

“She directed two episodes of a show that she starred in but no one would let her direct off of that because they assume she’s a vanity actress — she thinks she directed but everyone else was directing it kind of thing,” DuVernay said. “I knew she could do it. I knew her mind. Of all the directors, she was the only one who had not directed a feature, but I knew she could and she came through with flying colors — gorgeous episodes, finished early, and under budget.”

In her first episode, “So Far,” Richardson Whitfield directed a poignant moment when Aunt Vi (Lifford) agrees to sign over Blue’s guardianship papers to his father (Siriboe). “I see things in a certain picture and that may mean that I come over to you and shift you to the right until you put your hand on the table at this point,” she said of directing that scene. “I saw Tina Lifford recently and she was so funny. She said, ‘I couldn’t wait to see your episode just to tell you that it doesn’t work for you to control the actors that way. It doesn’t come out well! And then I saw it and it was brilliant and I can’t say that to you.’ She was overexaggerating, but sometimes I do need actors to do exactly what I’m telling them to do.”

In her second episode, “All Good,” Richardson Whitfield directed Remy kissing Charley, that is, her husband kissing Gardner. “My husband is the one who gets weird about that kind of stuff,” Richardson Whitfield said, laughing. “I said to them, ‘Y'all better get to kissing! We don’t have much time!’ And then, of course, they laughed and told me I made them kiss for too long. I had all these different angles! Rub her hair, touch her face. And they were like, What the hell?  But I wanted it to be super-special, and I think Ava did it on purpose. That woman is just too smart.”

After Queen Sugar, Richardson Whitfield directed episodes of Shadow Hunters, Underground, and will direct an episode of John Singleton’s new BET drama Rebel. She then will return to Freeform’s Stitchers for its third season, where she plays the head of a secret government program, and hopes to direct on that series as well.

Tina Mabry
Queen Sugar producer and writer (episodes 2 and 8, “Evergreen” and “Where With All”) and director (episodes 12 and 13, “Far Too Long” and “Give Us This Day”)

DuVernay loved writer-director Mabry’s first feature film — 2009’s Mississippi Damned — so much that she kept in contact with her over the years. When it came time to staff Queen Sugar, DuVernay hired her as a writer and elevated her to producer, even though she had no previous TV experience, and offered her directing slots as well.

“She’d done this beautiful film and gone through all the diversity programs in Hollywood and still could not get staffed,” DuVernay said.  “I look at her, I look at these women, and if anyone would take the time to watch their films and value their voices, it would be indisputable that they should be working. These are sisters with minds just like mine and for reasons that are not cool and are all about bias, they were not able to move as they should and wanted to.”

Mabry felt honored to direct the season’s last two episodes. Tonight's season finale ends with a montage and an emotional moment at the farm that echoes one from the pilot. “We had a lot of latitude in how we wanted to frame the shots and use negative space and the architecture and the scenery,” Mabry said. “I wanted to re-create that shot because this concludes this part of the journey between this sugar farm and this family.”

A week after Queen Sugar wrapped, Mabry directed An American Girl Story — Melody 1963: Love Has to Win, followed by two episodes of Netflix’s Dear White People. She is now working as a writer and co-producer on USA’s Queen of the South.

Queen Sugar is allowing people to see themselves on television in a new way, especially people of color and Southerners, too,” Mabry said. “Once you see those representations of our life or your community, it empowers you because you feel like you have a voice now. We’ve been waiting for the floodgates to open, and they’re open now.”