It was March 2020, and the cast and crew of Queen Sugar had just started working on the second episode of the upcoming season when Ava DuVernay and fellow producer Paul Garnes shut it all down because of the encroaching COVID-19 pandemic.
"And I remember, I think we were shooting at Xavier [University of Louisiana]," DuVernay, the show's creator, said during The Paley Center for Media's Paley Front Row presented by Citi. "We were shooting a scene somewhere in that episode where we dropped everything and literally thought, 'We'll be back in two weeks.' It'll be April, and we'll be back, and we’ll just pick it up."
By the time they returned in October — with many precautions in place — Americans were reeling not only from the pandemic but from racial injustice, which was under a renewed spotlight following the death of George Floyd in police custody and the protests across the country that followed. Suddenly, the episodes that had already been written seemed out of touch.
"It felt disingenuous to try to engage in this conversation, this story about Black life, contemporary Black life, without mentioning at all what was happening," DuVernay said. "But we had already written the season, and we were shooting. So, in order to make it true to the experience of Black people in this moment in this country, we had to take the show down to the studs narratively and rewrite the season."
There were some serious obstacles to doing that, beginning with the fact that there were only two writers who remained on contract. Still, DuVernay said she's proud of the way it turned out.
"Three writers wrote the whole season. Three directors directed the whole season," DuVernay said. "And this cast, at different times, sometimes were directed by two and three people in one day, based on the way that we had to shoot in this COVID craziness."
It was a real team effort.
"I asked the cast to just join me in creating a time capsule of this moment, so that when future generations look back, they’re able to see something that was written in 2020, shot in 2020. This is not done three years later in hindsight," she said. "We were shooting as the election was happening, food scarcity, you know, Trumpism, the "racial reckoning”... you know, the numbers going crazy. Not quite knowing how to navigate it. All of that was poured into the scripts and just came out of these actors in ways that are truly remarkable, as I watched the performances, and deeply moving.”
DuVernay is also creating something special behind the scenes by seeking out Black women to write and direct for the show. Having directed an episode of Shonda Rhimes's Scandal early in her career, DuVernay remembered what it was like to feel like an outsider when you're not a permanent part of the production.
"So what we tried to put together was, I wanted everyone to only feel 100 percent supported," she said. "And that really comes from all the crew being on board, saying, 'We're doing something special here.' And this cast respecting every single woman who’s come in."
For many of those women, an episode of Queen Sugar was their first to direct ever. But they soon go on to helm shows such as Ozark, Westworld and the new Clarice.
"I get a lot of credit for handpicking them and putting them on, but if they didn't feel the whole production rise to support them, then they wouldn't be able to go out into the world with the confidence to do the things that they do. And they tell me, 'I walk on these sets and I'm like, this ain't the way it should work,'" DuVernay said. "'Let's do it differently. Let's make it more humane and more inclusive and more kinds of people supporting everyone's work.' And so that's been infectious. And it’s the crew and the cast. You know, I can hire them and put them in that place, but I’m not there every day working with them."
The new season of Queen Sugar premieres Tuesday, Feb. 16 at 8 p.m. on OWN.
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