By Sophia Loffreda
Earlier this Fall, our contributor Sophia assisted to a private screening of the OWN Network’s newest show, Queen Sugar at the Google Fiber space in downtown Austin. She had the chance to get exclusive news about the show.
“This is the golden age of television!” We’ve heard this statement time and time again. But what does “golden age” mean in the context of today’s massive T.V. and streaming landscape? We may not be sold on the concept of a “golden age” but recently, there has been a big development push towards inclusive storytelling and diverse voices. That to us, is pretty golden! Hold the confetti party, we are still far from having something onscreen for everyone, but the industry is championing counter culture and female-driven narratives, on screen representation, diverse casts and diverse crews more than ever before. As a result, this season’s new T.V. offerings reflect a broader human experience.
With the recent release of The Hollywood Reporter’s “50 Most Powerful Show Runners” list, female show runners and show runners of colour were prolific and numerous — including Jenji Kohan (Orange is the New Black), Nahnatchka Khan (Fresh Off the Boat), Shonda Rhimes (The Catch, Grey’s, How to Get Away with Murder, Scandal, Still Star-Crossed), Mindy Kaling (The Mindy Project), Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang (Master of None), Kenya Barris (Black-ish), Jill Solway (Transparent), Jennie Snyder Urman (Jane the Virgin), among others.
Aside from prime time, we have been binging fresh new shows like Atlanta (FX’s new comedy, created by and starring Donald Glover, with an all-black writer’s room), Insecure (HBO, created by and starring comedian Issa Rae, based on her web series Awkward Black Girl) and Queen Sugar (OWN, created by Ava Duvernay). All feature diverse casts, diverse production crews and touch on social and racial issues. We were lucky enough to attend the Austin premiere of Queen Sugar, and we can confirm that the series is as stunning and honest as TV gets. The drama follows the estranged Bordelon siblings Nova (Rutina Wesley), a journalist and activist; Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), a savvy sports manager who’s biggest client is her pro basketball star husband; and Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe), a formerly incarcerated young father in search of redemption.
Queen Sugar - Ava Duvernay
The ATX TV Festival kicked off the 2016 TV season by holding a private screening of the OWN Network’s newest show, Queen Sugar at the Google Fiber space in downtown Austin. By the time the credits rolled on the season premiere, tissues were circulating throughout every row of attendees. Produced by Oprah Winfrey and directed by award-winning filmmaker Ava DuVernay, the TV series is getting a lot of attention for being directed solely by women. Although show runner Ava Duvernay was not in attendance, the event’s special guests included Texas Filmmaker and former University of Texas lecturer, Kat Candler, as well as University of Texas alum, JoAnne Yarrow, who edited four episodes of the series.
Duvernay hand selected each female director, asking Candler to be involved casually over a burger after the two met on the festival circuit in 2011, and then at Sundance in 2012 promoting their respective indie film work. Kat Candler directed the recently aired episode 6 and 7.
She spoke candidly about the experience during the Q&A, citing Duvernay’s focus on hiring women and people of colour in leading roles and crew roles as incredibly important. “It’s beautiful to see such representation on the screen and then as a director coming onto the set. At least 50% women and then at least 50% ppl of colour. It was the first time in my career that I had ever seen that before.”
Yarrow also spoke to the fact the all-female directorial team is a historic one. She said the same modus operandi was applied to the post-production team. “Editorial is very male heavy. It is unique and I am seeing those changes slowly but surely.”
Candler also credited Louisiana as an inspiration for the mood of the show and the two episodes she directed. The series’ storylines often take place in the characters’ homes. Duvernay said in an interview with Vulture that they chose to not play the city as a character, because the spirit of Louisiana was so present in every location. “The city was not a character. Our characters lived there. New Orleans is a fabric that just exists. The city is so distinct that you don’t have to overcorrect and show it off because it just is in the pores,” she said.
Candler spoke about being inspired by Duvernay’s vision for the show, saying that she gave them all permission to explore. “She said go make art, put honesty and authenticity on screen and bring yourselves to the screen as well. I think she hand picked all of us because of the material we gravitate towards.” When watching Queen Sugar, that honesty and authenticity is ever present — whether in the blocking, framing, lighting, camera movement, or pacing. Each scene feels grounded, emotional, and fresh. “There are the key Queen Sugar shots,” said Candler, “lots of negative space.” Yarrow also cited the ease with which she understood Duvernay’s style for the show. “She is very deliberate, very specific, she knows exactly what she wants. You get it very quickly.”
It’s beautiful to see such representation on the screen and then as a director coming onto the set. At least 50% women and then at least 50% ppl of colour. It was the first time in my career that I had ever seen that before.
Duvernay has spoken about breaking traditional TV rules in favour of creating emotional resonance and rawness on screen. The premiere included a birthday party scene where protagonists Ralph Angel and his son, Blue, look directly into camera. Characters are often framed on either the extreme right or extreme left of frame to create feelings of claustrophobia and panic, playing with negative space and “filmic” expectations. These kinds of big decisions. albeit visually odd to the seasoned TV junkie, feel motivated and fresh in Queen Sugar. By the end of the premiere, the entire Austin crowd was weeping. The power of performance and direction is indisputable.
Yarrow spoke about her experience coming up as an assistant editor and about the all-too-familiar reality of having to work twice as hard. “You always want to be the first one with the answers, so that no one can ever second guess you. You have to be better, you have to be above average to succeed. There is that pressure.” she said. But there is also now a beautiful sisterhood behind Queen Sugar, with the directors and crew exchanging emails and helping each other through professional challenges.
Kat Candler closed the night by talking about the importance of shows like Queen Sugar and the fast-paced but rewarding experience of directing television versus indie features. She had encouraging words for young women and minorities trying to break into the industry and for every producer looking for talent: “It’s so freakin’ simple. Hire us! Sometimes it doesn’t take all of these development programs and these diversity panels. Just freakin’ hire us.”
December 19, 2016