Ava Duvernay Brings 'Queen Sugar' TV Series To Oprah's OWN Network : Code Switch Ava Duvernay, director of the acclaimed film Selma, brings her talents to TV in Queen Sugar, an original drama series for Oprah's OWN network premiering Sept. 6.
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Ava Duvernay And 'Queen Sugar': Celebrating Diversity, Inclusivity In TV

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Ava Duvernay And 'Queen Sugar': Celebrating Diversity, Inclusivity In TV

Ava Duvernay And 'Queen Sugar': Celebrating Diversity, Inclusivity In TV

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If you love movies or just like to follow what's going on in film, then you surely know the name, Ava DuVernay. She directed the acclaimed film "Selma." She's made history by becoming the first black woman to direct a $100 million film. She has an upcoming documentary premiering on Netflix called "The 13th," and she's also working on a commission film to be featured at the Smithsonian's new National Museum of African-American History and Culture which opens later this month.

And if that weren't enough, DuVernay has yet another project in the works, "Queen Sugar" an original series for Oprah's OWN network premiering next Tuesday. It's a drama set in the fictional town of St. Josephine, La., and it follows the story of three estranged siblings of the Bordelon family as tragedy forces them back together to run their family sugar cane farm. And Ava DuVernay is with us now from New York. Welcome, congratulations. Thank you for joining us.

AVA DUVERNAY: Oh, thank you for having me. I love this show.

MARTIN: Well, thank you. So I read somewhere that you were trying to take a break, chilling with Oprah when she handed you a book, and the book was "Queen Sugar." And your mind started working, so what was it about this story that stood out to you?

DUVERNAY: You know, so many things just felt warm and familiar to me and also expansive with enough room to explore things that were unfamiliar. And so I felt like the framework, the organizing device as a storyteller just had a lot of elasticity.

But at the core of it, it's about a family, a family that is just exploring the nuances of life in a way that's quite magnificent, and so I just love the idea of following these characters with that in mind. The small pieces of the puzzle that make up the whole picture that far too often we don't get a chance to examine, especially with characters of color.

MARTIN: You know what? I hope it's OK to compare this to the film that many people have seen, the award-winning "Selma," but both have this very intimate feel even when you are dealing with something really big and, you know, something, you know, very dramatic. Do you think that there's an Ava DuVernay signature? And do you think that's what it is?

DUVERNAY: I don't know (laughter). I really don't. You know, I admire filmmakers, and I do identify signature elements of their craft. I would never say that I have one. I just don't feel like I've done enough work. I am really interested in the terrain of the face. And so I like to get in on a close-up. I like to hang for a little bit longer on the face just to see what it will do. It's the window to the soul, if you will.

And I always just scratch my head when I see people cutting away from a moment that's just hanging there. If you just wait one more second, you would've got a little bit more of the story. But we're in such a fast-cutting culture. I think that's one of the things that I'm really interested in about "Queen Sugar" is what will be the appetite of the audience to sit with the characters a little bit longer?

MARTIN: Why did you decide that this was a TV series and not an independent film? I could have easily seen it as a film. Why did you want to do it that way?

DUVERNAY: Because this is the golden era of television. If you're a storyteller and you're trying to tell the best stories, I really and truly believe that TV is the king medium right now - so different than even 20 years ago, even 10 years ago, where there was this kind of segregation between TV and film. If I had had a film nominated for best picture 10 years ago and then the very next year went and made a series, they would have said, poor thing. Look at her. She's just doing the best she can (laughter).

And now you have all of these great auteurs and great storytellers kind of in this elongated storytelling medium. That's how I feel. Why would you not want to go to TV is more the question. And I just grabbed the opportunity.

MARTIN: Well, what was that like transitioning from creating films - two-hour films, two-and-a-half-hour films - to doing those 13 episodes? I mean, it sounds in a way like you'd been planning for this for some time in your head. But what was that like?

DUVERNAY: I mean, knowing that I wanted to do it creatively is much different than actually executing it. I mean, I was speaking with Shonda Rhimes and I just said, I don't know how you have done this. I mean, I was worn out dragging in the door every night like, Jesus, help me. It was a juggling act. I was not the best juggler. I dropped a couple balls, but a great learning experience and so much respect for the people who do this all the time.

MARTIN: You know, in fact, you talked about Shonda Rhimes. Do I have that right that she gave you your first TV guest episode? Is that right?

DUVERNAY: Yeah, yeah. Well, it's really challenging for women to direct period - film or television. So it was a gift when Shonda just invited me on her show sight unseen. I didn't take a meeting, anything. I had one Sundance - "Middle Of Nowhere" - and she immediately - her and our producer Tom Baracus (ph) said, you know, come on down. Would you be interested in an episode of television?

But through that process, I'd learned that there were a lot of women knocking on that door. I didn't have to knock, but a lot of women knocking on that door are being rejected. So that was all the more reason why when I had the opportunity to make the decisions, I did similar to what Shonda did and opened it up even wider to as many women as I can get my hands on. So I invited all of these, you know, beautiful, beautiful, luscious, gorgeous filmmakers to play with us and to direct with me. And the result is pretty, gosh - it's pretty profound.

MARTIN: You've directed the first two episodes which you invited an all-female cast of directors to direct the rest of the episodes of the first season, if I have that right.

DUVERNAY: Yeah. That's right. So it went across the directorial team, which, as you said, is all women - all women directors for all the episodes. A first, I've been told, for a full season of television - predominantly women editorial team, a Latina woman colorist, a black woman post-production supervisor, black woman composer - really, really trying to go deep into all of these categories and the results are pretty beautiful - a very textured, layered piece. And so I'm really joyful about being part of what I feel is a new era of making film and good TV.

MARTIN: You know, speaking of a new era, you talked to my colleague on Fresh Air, Terry Gross, about four years ago now. It was October of 2012. It was - at the time, you were releasing "Middle Of Nowhere," and you told Terry - you said that - when talking about cinema segregation, you said that there was one important question to answer which is what kind of black film will a non-black person go and see? And you said that, unfortunately, at this point, it takes a lot. It takes a Sundance award. It takes a big New York Times profile. That was four years ago. Any different now do you think?

DUVERNAY: I don't know. You know, I was really - it's so interesting you bring that up because maybe just about an hour before this conversation that we're having, I read a review most - I mean, the majority of the reviews for "Queen Sugar" have been quite beautiful, but there was one review, of course - we always focus on the guy who doesn't like us, the boy who doesn't think we're cute at school, the whatever - the job you didn't get, not the job you did get.

I'm really - I won't say I'm bulletproof to reviews, but they just don't really get under my skin as much, except when they say something like what was said which was along the lines of there is a leisurely pace, a more luxurious pace to this show that I think most people are used to seeing black characters inside of. Now, the pacing is very deliberate, but I said, gosh, is this something about taking more time, forcing you to look at the formerly incarcerated black man as he struggles with his son that's different than watching someone else struggle with their son? You know, what is allowed? What do we feel comfortable seeing black characters and people of color doing? And so "Queen Sugar" is, for me, a grand experiment as to whether or not it works on the TV side. The answer may be no, but we'll find out soon enough.

MARTIN: Well, thanks so much for speaking with us. What's your next trick - moon-landing something?

(LAUGHTER)

DUVERNAY: It's pretty busy, but it's a happy time. You know, when you get a chance to be in the room, you know, you dance a little bit. So I feel like I'm getting my groove on now, and it's a good time.

MARTIN: Well, congratulations. Thank you so much. That was Ava DuVernay. She is the creator and director of the series "Queen Sugar" which premieres on the OWN network, Oprah Winfrey's network. Oprah is also a co-producer of the series. It premieres on September 6, and Ava DuVernay was with us from New York. Thank you so much for speaking with us. I hope we'll speak again.

DUVERNAY: Good to talk to you. Thanks a lot.

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