It isn't often that two mystical beings kick it in the same space. You never see a baby unicorn and Idris Elba on the same day. But it happened recently when the mystical black goddess that is Oprah Winfrey and God's favorite film director, Ava DuVernay, combined their forces to make OWN's Queen Sugar. Winfrey is one of the executive producers of DuVernay's Queen Sugar, and when these two team up, expect nothing less than magic. Just look at the latest cover of the Hollywood Reporter!
DuVernay has taken Natalie Baszile's epic book, Queen Sugar, and flipped it into a 13-episode layer cake of strife, triumph, family bonds (that break and bond over and over again), redemption and truth. Debuting Sept. 6 in a special two-night event during which the first two episodes will air, Queen Sugar is a new drama that is sure to grab your attention in an unbreakable choke hold.
The show follows the Borderlon family, who are faced with a major loss, and the siblings—Nova (Rutina Wesley), Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) and Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe)—must figure out how to keep their father's ailing sugarcane farm afloat. Of course, that's not the only tragedy this family must lift itself up from—there are individual struggles that pepper each character's life with almost more than each can bear.
I got a chance to catch up with this beautiful black cast, and the cast members explained why working with Ava DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey is everything and why Queen Sugar is worth the watch (DuVernay tapped an all-woman team of directors for each episode).
The Root: What has been your proudest moment being a part of this dynamically black production?
Dondre Whitfield (Remy Newell): First and foremost, being able to be on a black-owned network is phenomenal. And then to have leadership like that from Miss O and leadership from someone like Ava DuVernay, it doesn’t get any better than that. As a black man, being able to help be the usher of what this energy and storytelling is, having our stories be told from top to bottom from black and brown folks, is everything. Everyone who gets a chance to see this is going to be able to feel and see all of that.
Omar J. Dorsey (Hollywood Desonier): The empowerment of having two black women—one who owns the network and the other, an executive showrunner and head writer and director, everything—is just fabulous. The fact that we have all-female directors is just something that’s astonishing. I’ve done TV for 20 years, and I can probably count on my one hand how many women directors I’ve been directed by. To have 13 episodes directed by women is just something that is totally different. Every woman who came through, including Dondre’s wife, brought their own sense of artistry to it. It’s an amazing experience.
Tina Lifford (Aunt Violet): And when you think about excellence really being the driver, you know watching Oprah Winfrey over the last 20-30 years, she’s all about excellence, and you certainly know from Ava DuVernay’s work that she’s all about excellence, so it’s exciting that we get to represent the excellence that is living in people of color. The excellence that hasn’t necessarily had a platform before, which is why Ava is championing the whole inclusive movement. She is saying, there’s all of these stories and talents in every face of talent-making to tell those stories, and we’re going to show you who they are! That’s exciting!
TR: What was a moment in working with Ava that you felt like she pulled something new out of you?
DW: She never had to because the material I’ve done with her does it for you. As an actor, as soon as you read it, it resonates with you. It’s so real. The thing I love about working with her is that everything feels so real—I’ve either gone through it, seen it or experienced it in one way or another. My job is to allow myself to be her [Ava] instrument and just play.
OJD: I was lucky enough to be in Selma—I played James Orange—but this one, I read the pilot and I was like, "Oh, this is what’s going on. You’re showing humanity. You’re showing real life and not hyper-reality. It’s showing real-life people. This is a family." It has all the things that go with family—the ups and the downs, the goods and the bads, the ins and outs. She wrote the pilot episode, and it’s like the stuff you go through with your cousins and them. It’s the type of nuance that she has. Tina Lifford’s character and myself, we’re together, so it’s all of our things we go through—you see a relationship. It’s not all good or all bad. It’s a thread in everything Ava writes.
TL: Ava allows the actors to bring their best to the set. She’s really good at sharing, not just the tone, but the essence or heart of the important scenes. We had a conversation about a scene and she said, "I really think it’s important that we go beyond the theater—beyond what people think belongs in this moment and really tap into what you’re feeling and what this woman is going through, calculating and accessing that doesn’t come out verbally." And that’s the job of an actor, and it was a way in which she took my performance and made it better, by giving me those things to think about.
Rutina Wesley (Nova Bordelon): It’s all love, though, and [it] starts from the top down. I think Ava creates from a place of love, heart and a true sense of storytelling, and that trickles all the way down to us, so we can’t do nothing but be in our truth. You can watch a show or film and you know when actors are in their truth and they’re really connected.
Dawn-Lyen Gardner (Charley Bordelon): We’re story, tone and aesthetic first. Believing in [the] possibility that this medium can offer is a big part of it, and embracing that it’s an episodic medium. It can be a 13-hour film.
TR: Why should we watch Queen Sugar?
OJD: The thing about it with Queen Sugar is that it really reflects life so heavy. You can relate to everybody on the show.
TL: People should watch because people are ready to feel. People are ready to be with themselves in meaningful ways. They’re ready to see themselves in meaningful ways. People are looking for something real as opposed to sensationalized. Queen Sugar is going to make you feel, drop into a place inside of yourself that heals and feels tender, and yet powerful. It’s going to allow you to accept all that is a part of you and your culture.
Check out the extended trailer: