When Ava DuVernay began to think about the directors she wanted to work on “Queen Sugar,” the Louisiana-set series she created for OWN, she wasn’t interested in the usual suspects.
“I wanted people with my sensibility, who care about the things I care about,” says DuVernay, who wrote the series pilot and directed the first two episodes of the first season. “People who make films that I love and I knew would embrace the luxurious pace and the attention to detail and the love of nuanced characters.”
As it turns out, those people were all women. Among them: Tanya Hamilton (“Night Catches Us”), Victoria Mahoney (“Yelling to the Sky”) and So Yong Kim (“For Ellen”).
It occurred to DuVernay, a trailblazer in an industry under scrutiny in recent years for its dismal record on diversity, that hiring only women to direct the series would be “quite a radical statement.”
“The statement came after the, ‘Oh yeah, I gotta get my friends to do this,’” says DuVernay, the first black woman to direct a film nominated for a best picture Oscar (“Selma”). “And then it was like, oh wait, these women haven’t directed television but they want to. We should really take this as far as we can.”
Based on the novel by Natalie Baszile and executive produced by Oprah Winfrey, “Queen Sugar” follows the three Bordelon siblings as they return to their family’s Louisiana sugarcane farm following the death of their father. It was a ratings hit for OWN as well as a critical success, praised for its lyrical storytelling, strong sense of place and thoughtful depictions of characters rarely glimpsed in pop culture — African American farmers in the rural South.
For Season 2 of “Queen Sugar,” which returns with a two-night premiere beginning Tuesday, DuVernay was again determined to give more women — especially gay women and women of color — the chance to work. Instead of going through the typical Hollywood channels, she sought filmmakers whose work inspired her over the years, even resorting to tracking people down via Twitter.
The “Queen Sugar” roster includes women who rank as “some of the greatest independent filmmakers to come out of the festival circuit in the last 10 years” but have nevertheless struggled to work in the business, says DuVernay, who has a distribution company called Array.
“They weren’t out there making shoot-em-ups,” DuVernay says. “They were making intimate character dramas.”
Directing the show represents a chance for these directors to hone their craft, gain experience and stay busy in an industry where you’re only as good as your last credit.
“It puts you in the game,” says the director of “13th.” “You can’t play if you’re on the sidelines.”
“Queen Sugar” has become a kind of filmmaking collective and talent incubator, with Season 1 directors moving on to other TV shows, including “American Crime,” “Insecure,” “The Good Fight” and “Underground.” (DuVernay hopes to direct an episode this season, if post-production on her film “A Wrinkle in Time” allows.)