In the West African tradition, griots carry on the history of their people by telling the stories that need to be told. Stories that give black people energy and hope when they are tired, and courage when they are afraid. This is the role that Ava DuVernay has taken on with each his television and cinematographic efforts.
From his Oscar-winning film Selma to his Emmy-winning Netflix series When they see us, DuVernay curated stories where tragedy fueled triumphs and black and brown protagonists broke the boundaries of systemic racism forced upon them. Fans of his beloved family drama Queen Sugar can expect the same attention when the own series she created returns for season 5 on Tuesday, February 16.
“I was interested in using this season as a time capsule on what happened to black people in 2020,” DuVernay told TVLine. “It would be dishonest and strange to create stories in an era with a narrative that do not about that. With all of these things going on, you need to fix it.
This means the Bordelons and those they love will face the COVID pandemic and everything it has caused – from food shortages and job loss, to concomitant police brutality and calculus. racial. (Watch a trailer.)
“A moment ago [in Season 5] when they wake up to find out about the murder of George Floyd. There is a time when there are protests against Breonna Taylor, ”said DuVernay. “There’s an episode where Trump says something upsetting, and another where people lose their jobs and someone gets sick, and it goes as it did. Our goal was to create a time capsule of the lives of black Americans in 2020, and I think we did.
Turning the show into a snapshot in time was not easy. DuVernay, the cast and crew had filmed the first two episodes of Season 5 in March 2020, before the pandemic shut down production for them and the industry as a whole. And that’s when, says Duvernay, that life continued to pass.
“History has changed,” says DuVernay. “We came back and we shot scenes to reflect what really happened to people. It was becoming a pandemic and heading towards us. It was in China, then in Seattle, but a lot of us thought, “Too bad for them.” We’re starting to track COVID as it approaches Louisiana by running it in the background on radio news and then showing how it started to affect them one by one.
DuVernay and showrunner Anthony Sparks have also had to write new scripts to reflect the ever-changing lifestyle around the world, from masks and quarantines to Black Lives Matter protests erupting in the streets.
“It was difficult because we had written the whole season before it all stopped. We thought we would be back in a few weeks, ”she said. “But between the shutdown and back in the fall, the world changed and it was crazy trying to do those old scripts. I had already paid off all of these writers and our writing budget was wiped out because we had finished the season. So there was no one to write. We started from zero in early August with three writers.
One of those writers had to leave in the middle of the rewrite because he had another contract.
“Then it was just me and the showrunner (Sparks), and we finished the full season, just the two of us,” says DuVernay. “You know, Hollywood writers’ rooms have 10 to 12 people at a time. It was just us, but we were committed to doing it, and I tip my hat to him. He was an incredible partner. We went through these episodes, and as soon as we put the pages back, the actors were talking about them. It was this tight to try to meet this challenge of writing history as it turned out.
The cast, which includes Rutina Wesley as Nova, Dawn-Lyen Gardner as Charley, and Kofi Siriboe as Ralph Angel, had to pivot in turn.
“It was a big challenge for them because they couldn’t interact with each other,” says DuVernay. “The way we organized the story is the way it was in real life. People had to go home and stay with the people they lived with. Ralph Angel and Darla (played by Bianca Lawson) are in their house with Blue (Ethan Hutchison), Vi (Tina Lifford) is with Hollywood (Omar J. Dorsey), Charley is with Micah (Nicholas L. Ashe, whose character is home from college), and Nova is with her man Calvin (Greg Vaughan). And they are all at home.
This meant that the actors also had to stay in their quarantine pods in real life. To make it happen, the producers found a small, bankrupt Louisiana bed-and-breakfast and rented it out for three months. Nailed up there, the actors couldn’t get anywhere and had to be led to and from the set. Everything from laundry to mints and food had to be brought to them.
At work, “actors really had to limit their conversations to the screen, and a lot of them had a lead stage partner,” says DuVernay. “We did a lot of phone calls and zooms, like people did in real life. We also did a few things where they saw each other in masks, but in reality we tried to capture the way we all really lived in those days – those of us who were adhering to the protocols.
“The cast is an amazing cast and they all made a commitment to do it and they did it,” says the Emmy-winning EP. “It was difficult, but we did it. In the end, we felt a sense of accomplishment because we got there.
Queen Sugar is just one of many projects DuVernay is working on at his production company, ARRAY. There is Colin in black and white, a Netflix limited series that highlights former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s journey from professional football to activism, as well as Sovereign, a Native American family drama for NBC. The docuseries A perfect shot is on the horizon at HBO Max, as is the DC Comics property DMZ. The CW just enlightened a pilot for Naomi, another DC Comics-based project. And The sweetness of the home, which is slated for NBC, is described as a social life exchange experience.
“Work saved me,” says industrious DuVernay. “I was able to put all my frustration, my fears and my anxiety into my job. I do not make films and television beyond my responsibility; I follow my interests. But when something interests me, I take the weight to make sure it’s presented responsibly. They go hand in hand, but my interest comes before my sense of duty. Once I’m interested, it becomes mine and I’m responsible for how it is rendered and presented. “
Don’t compare DuVernay to Oprah Winfrey or Shonda Rhimes, who she’s worked with and who she admires.
“I’m the little sister that’s way behind those two big ones…” DuVernay said with a chuckle. “Someone said to me the other day, ‘You are the new Shonda.’ And I said, “With a big difference – about $ 200 million.” Zeros make all the difference. “
“I’m far from where they are, but I work hard too, so I’m happy to be thought of in that same space,” she concedes. “But I don’t think of myself that way unless someone tells me something.” I’ll be mentioned or included in an article and think, “Gosh. Why am I with these names? It’s strange to me. I have the impression that people are sometimes wrong. But it’s an amazing time for black designers, and to see it come out that way for black designers. People want to make deals and they want to see the content, and a lot of it is because of Oprah and Shonda’s groundwork. I’m just riding on pigtails.
Also read our Black + Bold profiles of Gina Yashere (Bob Hearts Abishola) and Yvette Lee Bowser (Live single, run the world).