from Legendary Director Ava Duvernay
and Icon Oprah Winfrey
By: Keith Lutz, Staff Writer
The power of a television show to tell a story cannot be denied, and here, in television’s “golden age,” shows like Queen Sugar demonstrate how the medium is surpassing the big screen in monumental and tangible ways.
Now in its fourth season on air, OWN’s Queen Sugar, based on the book by Natalie Baszile, began in 2016 as a collaboration between titans Ava Duvernay and Oprah Winfrey to bring Bazile’s complex story of family life in Louisiana. Queen Sugar focuses on the three Bordelon siblings — Nova (Rutina Wesley), Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) and Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe). Their late father, Ernest (Glynn Turman) left them a sugarcane farm in St. Joseph, Louisiana, and it was his wish that they would come together as a family and run it. Queen Sugar is praised for its ability to handle multiple issues and its realistic, progressive portrayal of social struggles and how identities are forged. Praised for its realism and compelling story, Queen Sugar is no less a pioneering production behind the scenes and it is this combination of excellent story and a stellar team that has catapulted it to success.
Charley, the middle child, is actually the half-sister of Nova and Ralph Angel. Her mother is a white woman that Ernest had a relationship with, and Charley was raised separate and apart from her siblings, only spending summers with them in Louisiana. She had what she thought was a picture-perfect life in Los Angeles with her teenage son and her NBA baller husband, but those walls come shattering down around her when her husband Davis and his teammates become embroiled in a sexual assault scandal. Charley leaves Los Angeles for Louisiana, presumably because of her father’s illness and sudden death, but she likely also wanted to escape her cracked reality.
Called back to rural Louisiana to manage a 500 acre sugar farm they inherited, Charley Bordelon finds herself going from a working mother to running and maintaining the sugar farm their father left them. Starring a predominantly African American cast, Queen Sugar is also being critically acclaimed for its stark, realistic appraisal of race relations as well as gender and class. But that’s not the only thing that Queen Sugar is doing to pioneer change in the Hollywood system. From the outset, Duvernay and Winfrey agreed that all of the episodes of the show would be directed by women. As stated in The New York Times, “The film will feature an all-female directorial team, with many of the candidates pulled from a pool of African-American independent film directors.” They are Neema Barnette, Kat Candler, Ava DuVernay, Tina Mabry, Salli Richardson-Whitfield, Tanya Hamilton, So Yong Kim, and Victoria Mahoney.
This probably does not come as much of a shock to those who have followed Ava Duvernay’s career and, more importantly, her collaborations with Oprah Winfrey. Previously, the two worked together on the riveting film Selma. It was important for the two creators to have an all-female directing team because of the general theme of female empowerment that is at the heart of Baszile’s work. Both creators are adept at capturing sentiments and putting them on screen in a way that resonates with audiences of all types. Even so, they’re not hesitant to bring in other talent where appropriate.
Neema Barnette eventually joined Queen Sugar after its successful first season as a director and producer followed by Tina Mabry who took a turn in the director’s chair for two episodes and the score for the series would be coming from Meshell Ndegeocello.
Ava Duvernay is not a stranger to the big screen or the television, and much of her expertise is evident in the crafting and exposition of Queen Sugar. Popular press might recognize her for her work on the film A Wrinkle in Time (another vehicle that had Oprah associated with it) as well as When They See Us. It was her work with Winfrey on Selma in 2014, however, that garnered a lot of critical press attention. Praised for her work on the film, she went on to become the first female African America director nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Director as well as the first ever nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. Her work with A Wrinkle in Time was also historic in that it was the first film ever helmed by a female African American director with a budget over $100 million and which made over $100 million at the box office. More recently, her work for Netflix, When They See Us, a show about the Central Park Five and their demonization without evidence, has put her at the center of a lot of conversations in the United States about race and the justice system. This documentary is no less powerful because it involves the current sitting President of the United States, Donald Trump, who openly called for the harshest punishments to be meted out to the accused five even though there was no hard evidence tying them to the crime. Their exoneration, and the difficulties they experienced trying to get there, are part of a central human struggle that Ava Duvernay’s lens is adept at capturing and which has the effect of changing national conversations.
No less a stranger to getting a dialogue started, Oprah Winfrey’s work in the realm of African American media and culture cannot be denied. Her story is also well known but bears some repeating here. Starting as a daytime talk show host in Chicago, Winfrey has built a media empire that is simultaneously in tune with mainstream audiences but also does a masterful job of bringing issues to light. From her endorsement of Barack Obama in 2008 to her roles in various films, television shows, and even stage appearances, Oprah Winfrey is a lens through which worlds can be viewed and a masterful storyteller. The collaboration between her and Duvernay is a true meeting of the minds. Plus, if anyone can push something to stratospheric success, it is Oprah Winfrey, and there is little doubt that she and her network are totally on board when it comes to Queen Sugar.
Tina Mabry, a producer, writer, and director for Queen Sugar on Oprah’s OWN network, joined the team in 2015. Her first film, Mississippi Damned, arrived in 2009 and got her the attention of Filmmaker Magazine who named her one of the 25 new faces of indie film. She also got the honor of being one of the top 40 under 40 by Advocate magazine. Born and raised in Tupelo, Mississippi, Tina received a Masters of Fine Arts in Cinema and Television from the University of Southern California. Her first film, a short 2005 clip called Brooklyn’s Bridge to Jordan, led to her 2009 debut with Mississippi Damned. A script she penned for Jamie Babbitt, Itty Bitty Titty Committee, went on to the 57th Berlin International Film Festival where it premiered. Mississippi Damned, for its part, premiered at the Chicago International Film Festival, Outfest, American Black Film Festival, as well as the Urbanworld Film Festival.
Season 4 also continues the series’ use of an all-female directing team, a “creative initiative” established in the show’s first season by creator/exec producer DuVernay. Season 4 directors will include Cheryl Dunye, who will also serve as producing director, Carmen Marrón, Numa Perrier, Heidi Saman, Bola Ogun and Tchaiko Omawale.
As far as where the show goes from here, it is anyone’s guess, but the stellar work produced thus far hints at a bright and long future ahead for this progressive team of producers and creators.