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Ava DuVernay on Queen Sugar and Her Hollywood Journey

It’s been a busy five years for Ava DuVernay. She's my actual Twitter friend, but in my head we meet for coffee in Brooklyn and talk about currents. Since winning the Best Director Award at Sundance Film Festival in 2012, she has accrued many “firsts”: becoming the first black female director to have a movie (Selma) nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, to be nominated for a Golden Globe Award, and now to helm a film with a $100 million budget (Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time). DuVernay’s work goes beyond feature movies, to include 13th, the award-winning documentary on mass incarceration, a forthcoming Netflix limited series about the Central Park Five, and a TV and digital-media deal with Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Films.

Though DuVernay is juggling projects across different platforms, she tends to focus on history and injustice. Perhaps none of her works better melds experimentation and realism than the television drama Queen Sugar, which aired its emotional mid-season finale on Wednesday. The Louisiana-set series follows the Bordelon siblings—Nova, Charley, and Ralph Angel—as they work to take care of the sugarcane farm they inherited from their father and debate whether the land is more of a burden or a chance for a fresh start. The show also touches on issues such as incarceration, police abuse, class, and the legacy of slavery as it persists in the South. In the latest episode “Freedom’s Plow,” the siblings are still reeling from the recent discovery that their father bequeathed the farm solely to Ralph Angel, instead of all three children. In subtle ways, the Bordelons are testing whether they can overcome the fractures in their relationships—or whether those divides will calcify in the absence of a common goal.

As her works have garnered buzz and critical acclaim, DuVernay has used her spotlight to call attention to the dearth of opportunities for women and people of color in the entertainment industry. “Of the 900 top-grossing films that hit screens in the last 9 years, only 34 women held the directing position,” she tweeted this week on Black Women’s Equal Pay Day. She also tweeted that just three black women directed a top-grossing film between 2007 and 2016, adding, “Being one of these doesn’t make me proud. It upsets me.” DuVernay herself has made it a point to include women and people of color in front of and behind the camera; for example, she hired all female directors for both seasons of Queen Sugar, many of whom were women of color.

While it appears that DuVernay’s ascendance as a director was swift, the beginning of her career was somewhat untraditional. She studied African American history, not film, at UCLA, and didn’t direct her first short film until the age of 32. I spoke with DuVernay about the plot twists in this season of Queen Sugar, her secret to finding success in Hollywood, and why black stories are timeless. Read the full interview at The Atlantic

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