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Why Ava DuVernay hired only female directors for her new TV show ‘Queen Sugar’

Kofi Siriboe as Ralph Angel, Rutina Wesley as Nova and Dawn-Lyen Gardner as Charley in the OWN drama “Queen Sugar.”

Ava DuVernay’s new OWN drama “Queen Sugar” has quickly established itself as a model for an industry struggling with diversity.  The cast is predominantly black, the writer’s room is even more diverse and DuVernay picked an all-female slate of directors to helm the show’s first season.

On a conference call ahead of last week’s “Queen Sugar” premiere last week, DuVernay told reporters that her main goal was hiring “dope directors.” But she knew firsthand that it was difficult for even the most accomplished female filmmakers to break into episodic television.

Most of the seven directors DuVernay hired for “Queen Sugar” had never done episodic television before. (One exception is Neema Barnette, who directed this week’s episode, and was the first African American woman to ever direct a sitcom.)  Directors for forthcoming episodes include indie filmmakers Kat Candler and Tina Mabry, and actress-director Salli Richardson-Whitfield, who starred in DuVernay’s first feature film, “I Will Follow.”

“We just never had the opportunity,” Mabry told Fusion in a recent interview. “And that is something that Ava provided all of us with. That opportunity to actually showcase the skill that she knew we already had but had not gotten the chance to due to our industry, which struggles with inclusiveness.”

For DuVernay, it was another Hollywood trailblazer who helped her break into television directing: Shonda Rhimes.

In 2013, DuVernay directed an episode of  Rhimes’s ABC drama “Scandal.” At the time, DuVernay was working on her Oscar-nominated film “Selma” and had made history with her second feature film, “Middle of Nowhere,” becoming the first African American woman to win the best director award at the Sundance Film Festival. DuVernay said it was only after “Scandal” that the television offers “came pouring in.”

In a report released this week, the Directors Guild of America revealed that just 17 percent of television episodes were directed by women in the 2015-2016 television season — a slight increase from 16 percent the previous season. The numbers were even more dismal when it came to women directors of color who accounted for just three percent of the more than 4,000 episodes analyzed in the report.

“Scandal” and another Rhimes-produced ABC drama, “Grey’s Anatomy,” both made the report’s “best of” list, which cites series that have hired women or people of color to direct at least 40 percent of the season’s episodes.

Of course, the barriers for female directors aren’t limited to television. Last year, San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Tevision and Film reported that a mere 9 percent of the top 250 domestic grossing films were directed by women. The numbers are so stark that earlier this year, the ACLU reported that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) had launched an investigation into Hollywood gender discrimination.

A new milestone for black women in movies — and why it matters

In a recent interview with AOL Build, Dawn-Lyen Gardner, who plays Charley Bordelon on “Queen Sugar,” said that she had never been directed by a female director before DuVernay, who directed the first two episodes of the series.

“And then it was women directors after that,” Gardner said. “It was incredible, and I think there something sort of paradigm-shifting about that. All of a sudden, something that hasn’t been done is done —  and you realize there’s no reason it shouldn’t be done. ”

Lifetime has also made a concerted effort to hire female directors, partnering with the American Film Institute to create jobs for graduates of the AFI Conservatory Directing Workshop for Women. Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, who co-created “UnREAL,” is a graduate of that program. In March, Susanne Bier (who directed AMC’s well-received miniseries “The Night Manager”) argued in an op-ed for The Guardian that television offered more exciting opportunities for women directors than film.

Reviews for “Queen Sugar” (including my own) have been largely positive. And DuVernay said she has fielded calls from studios and producers interested in working with the “Queen Sugar” directors.

“They all killed it and they’re working now,” DuVernay said. “Not just working — but in demand.”


Review: Ava DuVernay and Oprah’s ‘Queen Sugar’ makes a powerful statement about family and loss