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How ‘Queen Sugar’ changed the lives of its female directors

Over 7 seasons and 89 episodes, Ava DuVernay hired only women to helm each episode. Here’s the impact it had on 5 of those directors.

From left, “Queen Sugar” director DeMane Davis, series creator Ava DuVernay, and director Shaz Bennett. (G L Askew II/For The Washington Post)
10 min

LOS ANGELES — The DM from Ava DuVernay came on a Thursday afternoon.

DeMane Davis wasn’t expecting it. It was just another day at the Boston advertising agency where she worked when the intriguing message landed.

Davis had never met DuVernay, but she knew the director was just coming off her breakthrough film, “Selma.” DuVernay also was developing a series for Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network based on Natalie Baszile’s 2014 novel “Queen Sugar.”

In the message, DuVernay told Davis she was a fan of “Lift,” the 2001 independent film she co-directed starring a pre-“Scandal” Kerry Washington. “Wondering,” she asked. “Have you written any episodic TV specs by chance?”

Davis had written a pair of unfilmed scripts. But she had pretty much ruled out directing TV.

“Because the adage was, you have to have experience to get this job and you need the job to get the experience,” Davis says.

After seven seasons and 89 episodes, “Queen Sugar” will sign off on Tuesday night. The drama artfully told the story of the Bordelon family and its battle to maintain their sugar cane farm in rural Louisiana, receiving critical acclaim for its depiction of Black lives on screen. But behind the camera, DuVernay pulled off something truly remarkable. She hired women to direct every single episode. Some were veterans who had been boxed out of the male-dominated television industry. Others were first-timers who simply hadn’t been given a chance. That latter group includes Davis, who directed seven episodes and also supervised a season as producing director. Davis’s work on the series led to her directing on the acclaimed miniseries “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker” and signing on for a new series, “Found,” now in production.

“'Queen Sugar’ gave me a career,” Davis says matter-of-factly.

DuVernay, who wrote and directed the finale and served as executive producer of “Queen Sugar” along with Winfrey, says that she didn’t initially plan on a female-only slate when the series launched in 2016.

“It was not a mandate,” DuVernay says. “When I was figuring out, okay, I think this director, this director and this director, they were all women. Women I knew. Women I didn’t know. And that’s where the idea came out of. Organically.”

In Los Angeles, at an event celebrating the show’s hiring practices, The Washington Post spoke to five “Queen Sugar” directors about what working on the series meant to them.

Kat Candler

The Austin filmmaker’s 2014 production, “Hellion,” about a young boy struggling without his mother, screened at the Sundance Film Festival.

“I thought, okay, after this feature, the doors are going to start opening up for episodic television and bigger films,” she says. “That didn’t happen. I went to a lot of meetings where it was like, you have an episode of television, then come back to us and we’ll talk.”

Candler knew DuVernay from Sundance. The latter had won the best director prize in 2012 for her feature, “Middle of Nowhere,” and maintained a relationship with the festival. In 2015, DuVernay came to Austin for a speaking engagement and invited her to lunch. She told her she was making a television show. Would Candler be interested in directing?

Her first episode was the eighth of the first season, “Where With All.” As a hurricane approaches, tensions heighten between family members. It’s then that they gather to play a card game, spades, at Aunt Vi’s house.

“I didn’t have a writer on set, which is absolutely not normal in television,” says Candler. “It was myself and the script supervisor and that was it. And the rest of it was our playground of these amazing actors who at that point [in filming] had such a familiar familial atmosphere and spirit to them. I love that episode so much, but my best memory of it is the spades game. I was a huge spades player growing up, seventh grade, back of the bus, me and my buddies, we would just play. So I was like, This is my jam, I know what I’m doing. And we improvised a lot and it just felt I was just sitting in someone’s living room as they were playing spades. It was just so authentic.”

Cierra Glaudé

She goes by “shooter,” but until “Queen Sugar,” Cierra Glaudé hadn’t shot much. In 2014, she was a student the University of Alabama when her film professor invited DuVernay to speak. At the event, Glaudé approached the director.

“I told her, ‘Hey, I’m the one you need, and I’m looking to work on your movie,’ ” says Glaudé. “And she looked at me and she was like, all right, and then she was never able to get rid of me after that.”

Glaudé started on “Queen Sugar” as a production assistant. She took her job seriously, even if it meant getting coffee for a director.

“I would paint the cup with the syrup,” says Glaudé. “I never worked at Starbucks or anything, but I would do, like, a little barista action, you know, and get them right and just make sure they were comfortable and they had what they need. Coffee was just a byproduct to be close to the camera, to be able to learn from all these different directors like Julie Dash, Neema Barnette, DeMane Davis.”

Eventually, DuVernay told Glaudé it was time. She made her directing debut in the fifth season and captured the Bordelon family having to face the killing of George Floyd. In one of her favorite sequences, she captures Nova, the advocate journalist, recording a vlog in which she recites the names of Black victims of police brutality.

“We are starting close on Nova and we pull out through the ring light,” says Glaudé. “That was a shot that I really wanted. And I talked to my DP, Bruce Cole, and we made it happen. It frames her to where it feels like she’s in a target. And then once that image hit the internet, people were pulling up like old references of artwork, of like, you know, very similar things, like a bronze statue that had, like, a target around it. Wow. I just thought this was a cool shot I came up with on a day where people were making all these historical references.”

Patricia Cardoso

“For the longest time,” says Patricia Cardosa, “I had internalized it and I thought, ‘Oh, I did something wrong.’ ”

The statistics told another story. As of 2015, when DuVernay began plotting out “Queen Sugar,” just 17 percent of television episodes were directed by women, and of that total, only three percent were women of color. Cardoso’s 2002 film “Real Women Have Curves” made her the first Latinx woman director to receive the Sundance Audience Award. It did not get her more gigs.

“I’m very persistent,” Cardoso says. “And I knew I was going to die trying. And I always had faith that eventually I will get to direct more often and be able to make a living. I didn’t think it would take so long as it took.”

Cardoso was in Ikea shopping for furniture when DuVernay called to recruit her. After she hung up, she began crying.

As “Queen Sugar” wraps, her proudest artistic moment is a scene late in the first episode she directed in the third season. It reminded her of how she always was being scolded as a young girl.

In the scene, Ralph Angel is washing dishes and Blue, his young son, approaches. They’ve had an argument and the young boy in blue pajamas wants to apologize. “I’m sorry I was being bad,” he says.

Ralph Angel, pausing, speaks to the boy softly.

“Definitely was acting brand new,” he says. “But you ain’t got a bad bone in your body.”

Shaz Bennett

As a kid in the early ′80s, Shaz Bennett would rip tickets at the U.S. Film Festival, which morphed into Sundance. She later wrote and performed one-woman shows, filmed shorts and worked at film festivals. Bennett took it upon herself to write to DuVernay after she saw she had hired Sundance stars such as Candler and Davis.

When she was brought in for Season 3, Bennett found the vibe at “Queen Sugar” different from the usual set.

“One of the things that’s so great is that some of the shows you go on, you’re the only woman in the room,” she says. “You’re sort of asked to prove that you deserve to be there. Here, there was a camaraderie among the other directors and writers and the crew. This wasn’t like, ‘Prove me wrong.’ It was ‘Welcome.’ ”

She also could turn to other directors for advice. DuVernay installed one every season as a producing director, meaning there was always somebody available as a resource and mentor. These included Davis and Candler. In the seventh and final season, Bennett served as the showrunner, the person who ran the writers room and worked on the budget and schedules and oversaw casting. (Candler served as showrunner in Season 3.)

“I could call DeMane at two in the morning and say, ‘I just don’t understand this. This doesn’t work. What should I do?’ ” Bennett says. “And she would give me advice. I’d do it with Ava all of the time on scripts. ‘This story’s not gelling. It is not feeling like a ‘Sugar’ script because it’s not grounded in the character enough. Some shows I’ve worked on, that’s not done. On those shows, the goal is to figure it out yourself.”

DeMane Davis

In 2001, Davis, a Boston-based filmmaker, directed “Lift.” And yet she found herself where so many women end up, without any offers. So she plugged away by getting a job at an ad agency, writing and directing commercials. Her first “Queen Sugar” episode was the sixth in Season 2 and featured Ralph Angel’s dramatic reveal that he, in fact, inherited the farm from his late father, not his sisters.

Like that, a peaceful dinnertime grace devolves into a heated exchange.

“I’ve personally been at many family functions and usually holiday dinners when stuff is revealed and people start yelling and walk out of the door,” Davis said. “But when I read the script first as a fan, I was freaking out and then I had to read it again, like, wait a minute, you have to direct this.”

Davis knew she would be demanding a lot of the cast.

“They’re sitting down there fully dressed. There’s food on the table. You know, it’s going to be a long day,” she said of filming. “I remember starting that day, that scene, and thanking everyone for coming and saying, ‘If I could just ask for patience, because we’ve got to go all the way around-the-clock to get everybody and get everyone’s reaction.’ And everyone was game and excited to do it, but exhausted. I have photos of actors just passed out and chairs in between.”

As “Queen Sugar” wraps, Davis thinks about the sensible and obvious nature of DuVernay’s approach in seeking out qualified women to direct.

“I now go to job interviews, and executives will say to me, ‘I really love what she did. I would love to do something like that. How do you do that?’ And I say, ‘You just decide that you’re going to do it.’