Sowing the Seeds

In fall 2014, director Ava DuVernay was relaxing at Oprah's house after completing her feature film Selma. "Making that movie was an intense physical and mental process, so Ms. Winfrey"—who coproduced and appeared in the film—"suggested I take some time to recuperate and invited me to her place in Maui," says the director. "We were sitting around one day when she casually handed me a book and said, 'I just got this. Check it out.'" So much for downtime. Queen Sugar, Natalie Baszile's stirring family drama set in the fictional Saint Josephine, Louisiana, instantly spoke to DuVernay's sensibilities. "The collision of class and culture in this one scattered family was really interesting to me," she says. "I felt like it could be turned into the kind of TV series I wanted to see—one about the everyday magnificence of life."

The cover of Natalie Baszile's book, Queen Sugar

The Plot Thickens

Baszile's novel follows the estranged Bordelon siblings—the steel-willed West Coast transplant Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) and her troubled half brother, Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe)—as Charley struggles to bring their late father's sugarcane farm back from the brink while they try to support their own families. To transform Queen Sugar from a page-turner into an evocative episodic show, DuVernay, who adapted the 2014 novel and directed the first two episodes, carefully expanded upon Baszile's rich, emotional landscape. "Adapting a book is like setting up a maze," says DuVernay. "I had to figure out how to turn what could have been a two-hour film into a 13-hour series." A notable addition: a third sibling, Nova (Rutina Wesley), a steadfast community activist and journalist who serves as Charley's foil.

Who Runs the Set?

One of DuVernay's biggest ambitions was to recruit an all-female directorial team. "I wanted to make something in my likeness," she says, "which meant asking, can I bring in women who've never directed television before? Can that be done? We proved it can." Another goal: sidestepping Southern stereotypes. "Louisiana is often used as a character on a surface level," says DuVernay. "You've got the French Quarter, the partying, the trauma after Katrina. We wanted to find the places beyond where folks normally look."

Members of DuVernay's family visit the set in Vacherie, Louisiana.

The Big Idea

By design, Queen Sugar's tone is more patient, hushed, and haunting than that of the typical heavy hitters of prime time. "I love heightened TV shows, whether they're action, mysteries, or thrillers," says DuVernay. "But I also love and long to see, especially with people of color and women–centric narratives, how beautiful ordinary life can be. My hope for Queen Sugar is that it triggers a memory, a smile—that it sticks to your ribs a little bit."

Scenes from the premiere, featuring siblings Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe), Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), and Nova (Rutina Wesley), and Ralph's son Blue (Ethan Hutchison).


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