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Ava Duvernay, Oprah For ‘Inclusion’

Tackling important issues beyond hashtags

« Everybody gets caught up in the slogan and the protest, » says Winfrey as she and DuVernay sit for a joint interview around TV series ‘Queen Sugar.’ Adds the director: « If you treat being black as a plight, it affects your creativity. »

« Don’t count on me, I’m one person, » says Ava DuVernay, with a light shrug that suggests she’s sorry to disappoint. « That’s not change. That’s an anomaly. »

She’s back in New Orleans, where she has spent a sizable portion of her spring filming the first 13 episodes of the forthcoming cable series Queen Sugar — a present-day drama about a family of sugarcane farmers in Louisiana — and the conversation has turned to Hollywood’s “diversity” problem. It is a word that she bemoans but a subject on which she has become the industry’s reluctant expert ever since her star-making turn as the director of 2014 Academy Award nominee Selma. In the nearly two years since, the former publicist has been courted for (and passed on) a Marvel superhero movie, inspired a Barbie doll of her likeness and, in signing on to direct Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time, will become the first woman of color tapped to helm a $100 million live-action movie. She adds with the kind of steely confidence that has earned her a bevy of followers (197,000 of them on Twitter) and a platform that commands the industry’s attention: « The fact that the mainstream starts to gaze at this space doesn’t make it a moment. It makes it a moment for them. »

Rather than diversity, « inclusion » is the 43-year-old writer-director’s preferred term, and though she has seen no evidence of a sea change for the women and people of color thirsty for work and recognition in film and TV, she’s committed to making one happen. Hence DuVernay’s Selma follow-up is not another Oscar hopeful but rather a slow-burn television series, premiering Sept. 6, for her pal and Selma producer Oprah Winfrey, 62, and Winfrey’s 5-year-old OWN network. And Sugar is inclusive — from its largely unfamiliar black cast to the small army of TV newcomers, all of them female, behind the camera. Before making their first big pitch to the drama’s target demographic at Essence Fest on this sultry July afternoon, the collaborators sat down to discuss their hopes for a different kind of serialized storytelling, finding the right ways to finesse Black Lives Matter in entertainment and the misconception that on-air diversity is anywhere near a tipping point.

« Forward-thinking people and allies of this cause within the industry have the common sense to know that this is systemic, » says DuVernay. « There needs to be more done than applauding one or two people who make it through your door. »

 

Oprah Winfrey & Ava Duvernay

Oprah Winfrey & Ava Duvernay

 

Oprah, was it always your plan following Selma to lure Ava to OWN?

WINFREY I never, capital N-E-two-Vs-A-H, ask anybody for anything. The price you have to pay in return is never what I want to do. So it was really difficult for me to say, « Would you do this for me and for OWN? »

DUVERNAY I made it known in the industry that I wanted to do a show and was being approached by some of the notables that most people would want to do a show with, but when your friend owns a network, you know, it might be good to just go over there. (Laughter.)

 

Oprah originally was set for a recurring role on Queen Sugar, but she ultimately chose to appear on this summer’s OWN series Greenleaf instead. Is there room for Oprah on multiple OWN shows?

WINFREY Nuh-uh! There’s not room, nor time. I think my role on Greenleaf is going to be it for me for a while. I’m working on Henrietta Lacks [at HBO] and other things coming up. It’s funny, because Gayle [King] saw the first episode of Sugar, and she goes, « How come you didn’t play Aunt Vi? » Originally, I was going to. Then Greenleafgot done first.

DUVERNAY And Aunt Vi is in every episode. When you run a billion-dollar empire, you might not want to be a series regular.

 

Ava, Oprah will appear in your next project, A Wrinkle in Time, for Disney. In signing on to direct, you become the first woman of color to helm a $100 million live-action movie. How did that aspect factor into your decision-making process — both the significance of it and the weight of it?

DUVERNAY It doesn’t figure into my storytelling. The way I tell a story is the same at $100-plus million as it was for my first movie [I Will Follow], which was $50,000. I have more tools to do it and more planks to build the house now, but ultimately if the story is not solid, it doesn’t matter how much money you have. So the headlines don’t really impact what I’m doing in the room as I work with actors and my collaborators.

 

 

But whenever you are the first, as you know, there are many, many more eyes on you and your outcome. That doesn’t come with pressure?

DUVERNAY « Pressure » is the wrong word. I’m in a space where I’m able to do the things that I want to do and the start of that was doing it on my own and working independently without permission. Even though I have more folks, more money and more infrastructure around me now, I made a decision [long ago] to work from a place of protecting my own voice by collaborating with people who nurture and value that — and not trying to spend my time knocking on doors that were closed to me, begging people for things that put me at a disadvantage because they had it and I didn’t.

 

Do you feel there are doors that still are closed to you?

DUVERNAY No, no one’s going to stop me from doing what I want to do; I just have to figure out a way to do it that might not be the easy route that my counterparts who don’t look like me and identify as I do have. They have a bit of an easier time of it, an easier road, but it doesn’t mean I can’t do it. It may just take me a bit. Part of the challenge that I find when I enter these conversations with journalists is that [you’ve] thought about it in a way that society thinks about it: « the plight of the woman filmmaker, » « the plight of the black artist, » « the plight of whoever is on the outside. » But if you receive it and treat it as a plight, that starts to manifest in you and your work, and it affects your creativity.

 

 

Courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter

 

venicia.guinot@tropics-magazine.com

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