Welcome to “Queen Sugar” land. Here, women are in charge.
The main architect behind this place is award-winning filmmaker Ava DuVernay, who adapted “Queen Sugar,” a book by Natalie Baszile, for the Oprah Winfrey Network. The show, which takes place in the fictional St. Josephine, La., follows the Bordelon siblings as they fight to keep their father’s legacy – rooted in his life as a sugarcane farmer – alive after his passing. Using Louisiana’s rich history and lush landscapes, the hour-long drama, which was recently renewed for a fourth season, has covered complex territory. Addiction, police brutality, privilege, LGBTQ life and racism are continuously folded into the show’s characters’ storylines.
Director of photography Kira Kelly, who joined “Queen Sugar” in its second season, says the stories the show tells are rich and make for “really wonderful television.”
“But I also think there’s the story behind the show,” Kelly adds. It’s a “place where women were and are being encouraged to be artists and do wonderful work.”
When “Queen Sugar” debuted in 2016, DuVernay made headlines for her decision to only hire women directors, many of whom were women of color. Her writers’ room was majority female, and she brought on a slew of women to oversee departments, such as Christiana Hooks, who still supervises the show’s post production. Behind the scenes, DuVernay exemplified how to find, hire and foster new or underutilized talent.
“It’s unprecedented in this industry, what she has done. She was the first,” says Kat Candler, “Queen Sugar’s” showrunner and former producing director, who enforces the show’s “no a--hole policy at every level.”
“Prior to ‘Queen Sugar,’ you would go into meetings and have executives ... just racking their brains with, ‘How do we remedy this?’ It’s so simple. You hire women; you hire people of color; you hire new voices. You just hire. It’s not rocket science.”
Dawn-Lyen Gardner plays Charley Bordelon West, a protagonist who has “zero doubt in herself,” the actor says. When Gardner initially walked onto “Queen Sugar’s” set in 2016, it “was the first time that I saw so many women and people of color in leadership positions in a production. … It makes you yearn for that in more cases.”
The premiere episode of Season 1 was also the first time Gardner had worked with a woman director on a TV series. That practice continued the following season, and DuVernay also made the editing room women-only. Of the 25 directors “Queen Sugar” has hired over three seasons, 22 had never directed an episode of television before.
Prior to “Queen Sugar,” director DeMane Davis had about 60 commercials and two indie feature films on her resume. Both of her films were shown at Sundance, a major feat. Despite trying, Davis, who is based in Boston, could never break into TV. Why? Hollywood — the place, not the character played by Omar Dorsey on “Queen Sugar” — puts up barriers, Davis says. “Some are real,” she explains. Others, like needing to live in a specific place or having a certain “type” of experience, “are imagined.”
Davis says those barriers make “it easier for agents and different entertainment entities to say, ‘Well this is why you’re not getting the work. It’s because you don’t live [in Los Angeles] or ... you don’t have any experience.’ And it’s like, ‘Well, can you give me experience? Because otherwise how am I gonna get it?’”
“And that’s what Ava does,” Davis adds. “She essentially handpicks you and says, ‘I believe in you. Your work says that you have experience, and I know that you can do this.’ … It changed the whole game.”
After she directed two episodes of “Queen Sugar” during its second season, DuVernay called Davis, who was back in Boston, standing in her kitchen in a tank top and shorts. Davis had been thinking about how much she wanted to be back in New Orleans, where the show does most of its filming. Then, DuVernay asked if she would come back the following year to fill Candler’s position as producing director. “For real though?” she kept saying before accepting the position and hanging up. “I was just in shock. I was walking around like, ‘What just happened?’” She celebrated by having a dance party with her niece.
Back then, Davis almost couldn’t believe that DuVernay was giving her so much responsibility, the director says. She thought, “Can I do this?” But working on “Queen Sugar” has given Davis an extra vote of confidence, she says. This season, Davis tried to make sure directors felt that same reassurance. As producing director, Davis was always on set, helping to maintain the show’s consistency. If directors were nervous, Davis continuously reminded them that they were there for a reason.
On “Queen Sugar’s” set, Davis says, there is “no facade,” posturing or intense competition, which can sometimes foster the feeling of being threatened, which is something she remembers from working in advertising.
When she first started on “Queen Sugar,” Davis admits she initially brought a version of that mindset to Louisiana during Season 2. She met Amanda Marsalis, the woman who had directed the episode before her, and had to completely shake that mentality. Davis knew the truth — another talented woman does not pose a threat — and she had to let go of past feelings.
“Especially because as women, a lot of the times, we’re in this situation where there aren’t that many women,” Davis says. “And I’m black, so there are definitely not that many black women. So when another woman comes up, it might be like, ‘They only let one in. It’s going to be me or you.’ But [on ‘Queen Sugar’], it’s not like that. It’s all women. They’re letting all the women in.”
On set and in L.A., where the show’s post-production happens, they share resources they’ve found and make sure they’re armed with the information they need to be successful.
Before directors step foot in Louisiana to shoot an episode of “Queen Sugar,” Davis sends them a guidebook filled with information on how the show runs logistically and creatively. It’s something Candler, the showrunner, started when she was producing director.
“We understand that everyone coming in hasn’t done this before,” Candler says. “Everybody knows that we’re educating through this process. There’s a safety net, a support group.”
Candler, who had never done an episode of television before “Queen Sugar,” said the show’s goal is “create a safe and protected space” that fosters creativity but also teaches them the nuts and bolts of running a TV series. “In my experience, that’s not always the case,” Candler says. “You’re expected to come in, hit the ground running, know exactly what you’re doing, and there’s not always a lot of wiggle room for asking for help.”
She first crossed paths with DuVernay at a film festival around 2011, and the two kept in touch. Candler had been teaching a film class at the University of Texas, where she made about $13,000 a year. Notably, Candler’s husband had a full-time job and health insurance, which allowed Candler to stay afloat as she pursued filmmaking. When “Hellion,” one of her films, got significant recognition at Sundance in 2014, she thought doors would finally start to bust open. “Some were edged open,” Candler says, “but there weren’t a ton of offers.” She tried to get into television, but was constantly told: “When you have your first episode, come back to us. But until that point, we can’t hire you.” The Florida State grad and former movie theater employee had been making films since 1999.
Then, in the fall of 2015, DuVernay called. She asked Candler to direct a “Queen Sugar” episode for Season 1; Candler ended up doing two.
Tanya Hamilton, So Yong Kim and Victoria Mahoney, all first-time TV directors from Season 1, have gone on to work on shows like “The Chi,” “Vida” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” the medical drama created by Shonda Rhimes. DuVernay has said it was Rhimes who offered her a break in her career; DuVernay directed an episode of “Scandal” in 2013. (This was before DuVernay was nominated for any Oscars. “Selma” came out the following year.)
Looking for fresh viewpoints is part of what “Queen Sugar” does best. DuVernay has instilled a drive in Candler and the rest of the show’s team: Find underrepresented voices. Find artists with different perspectives. And don’t ever settle until you find the right person.
Some of DuVernay’s hires are framed as anomalies — Kelly, for example, is an Emmy-nominated, black female director of photography — but her work, particularly on “Queen Sugar,” proves that it’s possible to find and employ those who are deemed impossible to find by the industry at large. “I love the fact that for however long in hiring processes, there’s been this idea of: ‘Well, you know those people don’t exist. A black woman DP doesn’t exist,’” Kelly says. “And suddenly, it’s like: No, they do exist. They’re here, and they’re on our set. It’s powerful.”
Men, of course, have a place in “Queen Sugar” land, too. There’s Antonio Calvache, the director of photography who has alternated episodes with Kelly. The male cast members, from Kofi Siriboe to Omar Dorsey, offer nuanced portrayals of black men. (Siriboe is Ralph Angel, a father and farmer who was once incarcerated; Hollywood, played by Dorsey, is a loving and supportive partner to the Bordelons’ aunt, Violet, who is played by Tina Lifford). Then there’s Anthony Sparks, an executive producer and writer who has been on the show since the beginning. Sparks will fill Candler’s role as showrunner when the show’s fourth season begins production. The prominent position changes every year to give more people opportunities, according to Chelsea Hettrick, the senior communications director at OWN.
“Queen Sugar” doesn’t rely solely on well-known agencies to find talent. Many of the women working on the show aren’t new to the industry, and each person knows a handful of people who haven’t been able to find quality work, so they tap into those networks. They go to film festivals that aren’t as high profile, such as Urbanworld and Film Independent, and keep tabs on people they meet though mentor programs or see online. This year, Candler wasn’t able to hire some of the writers she liked, so she passed their names along to other people who had open opportunities.
To build out the Season 3 writer’s room, Candler hired Channing Godfrey Peoples, an actress and filmmaker who “knew the world of New Orleans backward and forward,” and Chloé Hung, a 27-year-old playwright who had only dabbled in television. (“I don’t care if they work in TV,” Candler says. “I can teach.”)
Before her first day on the job, Hung had asked a few TV writers for pointers. “Overwhelmingly,” Hung says, “the advice I got was, ‘Don’t talk. You’re there to support the senior writers. Don’t be too eager.’” So, Hung, who says she is already pretty quiet, didn’t “let out a peep.” But then a senior writer turned to her and asked, “What do you think?”
“It wasn’t a challenge,” Hung recalls. “They genuinely wanted to know what I thought.”
Later, she shared the advice she had gotten with Candler, who told her, “I hired you because I want your voice in the room.” Candler leads with “the best idea goes,” Hung says. “When we’re in the room and spitting out ideas, there is no hierarchy.”
The writer’s room is collaborative, Candler says, but at least one person owns each episode. This season, each writer commanded two episodes. One of Hung’s episodes, “A Little Lower Than Angels,” debuted on June 20. The storyline included some complicated moments for Charley. Since the beginning of the show, Charley’s ex-husband has thrown hurtful and emotionally draining curve balls at her. Hung had to pen an episode that revealed one of his biggest betrayals. After the episode aired, Gardner thanked Hung and the episode’s director, Shaz Bennett, on Twitter.
“That episode was a tough one for me to navigate,” Gardner says. But Hung and Bennett listened to her concerns, she says. When Gardner needed more specifics, they gave them to her. Their diligence resulted in a memorable performance from Gardner, so much so that when Hung asked her mother if she’d seen the episode — Hung’s first writing credit for TV — she “could not stop talking about Dawn.”
Gardner’s character, Charley, is one of “Queen Sugar’s” four female leads. Violet – or “Aunt Vi,” who is effectively the Bordelons’ matriarch – is portrayed by Tina Lifford. Vi is growing into herself as a businesswoman and romantic partner who refuses to compromise her goals for a man, even if he is a good man. Rutina Wesley portrays Nova, a queer activist, herbalist and journalist. Nova protects and nurtures black life, keeping the soul of New Orleans alive. Then there’s Bianca Lawson’s character, Darla.
Darla is trying to gain control of her life after having a fallout with Ralph Angel, the father of her son. But because of Darla’s history with addiction and past mistakes, no one in the Bordelon family trusts her. In telling Darla’s story, Lawson says, “Queen Sugar” writers aren’t glossing over the “real, nuanced, layered, complex” struggles addicts face. Even if an addict is clean, “people really judge you,” Lawson says. “It’s like they almost never really want to let you move on.”
This season, when Trinh Phan (Vivien Ngô) returns to Louisiana to help her family run its fish market, “Queen Sugar” shines a light on New Orleans’ Vietnamese community. The show, which has also highlighted the plight of migrant farmworkers, never forgets one of its most important characters: its location.
When Baszile wrote the book the TV show is based off, she wanted to “explore all of the cultures that made south Louisiana unique. There’s no way to experience south Louisiana these days without experiencing it intersectionality.”
Without Baszile’s story, DuVernay would never have been able to bring “Queen Sugar” land to life – but she still would have found a way to foster an environment of inclusivity elsewhere on TV or in film. At least that’s what she’s shown Davis, the producing director.
“I had a director friend who said, ‘You know, you’re in Ava land. It’s really hard in the real world. It’s still hard for women to do what they do,’” Davis says. “I said, ‘No. 1, I am in Ava land, and I’m grateful. I love it here. No. 2 is it’s now my goal to bring this feeling, to make every set that I step onto, to make every environment that I’m part of as supporting and encouraging and creative and energized as it has been working for her on ‘Queen Sugar.’”
“That’s my own personal goal,” Davis adds. “Because I know that it exists. It doesn’t have to be an anomaly. It can be everywhere. It can be in every industry. All we have to do is ask why it’s not, and then start to create it ourselves and start to make it happen.”
Natalie Baszile, author of the book, “Queen Sugar”: “There’s a delicious Vietnamese restaurant in New Orleans called Magasin. It’s a neighborhood cafe near the Garden District. Every time I’m there, I have to go. But honestly, some of the best meals I’ve had have been cooked in people’s homes. They make something like a crab boil, and you lay down some newspaper, and you lay dump that vat of crawfish and potatoes and corn on the table, and everyone has at it. It’s the food, but it’s also the people. … I think that’s what Louisiana does – probably better than most. Everything is a cause for celebration there.”
Kat Candler, showrunner: “Mother’s has really good biscuits and really good breakfast. … Biscuits are my downfall. You inevitably gain 5 or 10 pounds within even a weekend of being there. The food is addictive.”
Dawn-Lyen Gardner, actress: “From this season, I was pleasantly surprised and delighted to go to a restaurant called Maypop, which is not very talked about. It doesn’t seem to be a big shiny pin on people’s map in terms of foodies in New Orleans, but it was totally a discovery … and sort of exquisite.”
Chloé Hung, writer: “This last time that I went, there happened to be an oyster festival in the French Quarter. I love oysters. I had charbroiled oysters from Drago’s, which is very famous. I was about to leave after stuffing my face with oysters, but then I saw somebody walk by with crawfish, and I was like, ‘I must have that.’”
Bianca Lawson, actress: “There’s extraordinary food there — but there’s this one thing I’ve never had before. It was late at night, and I spotted a place with a huge pelican. They have these things called frosés. It’s a slushy with rosé. It became like my favorite thing, and everyone laughs at me. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I love these frosés.’” (Lawson was talking about Flamingo A-Go-Go. She also recommends Peche for “really wonderful seafood.”)
“Queen Sugar” airs Wednesday nights on OWN at 10 p.m. ET, and the first two seasons are available to stream on Hulu. The 90-minute Season 3 finale will air Aug. 22.
This article has been updated to specify that the character of Nova Bordelon is queer, not genderfluid.