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Oprah Winfrey & Ava DuVernay: A TV Dream Team Talks ‘Queen Sugar’

The Writers Guild Foundation screening of “Queen Sugar” attracted a packed house at Arclight Cinemas Hollywood as Oprah Winfrey moderated the panel given her close bond with executive producer/director Ava DuVernay. The biggest takeaway of the afternoon was the sincere and heartfelt support Winfrey, DuVernay and author Natalie Baszile have for each other as the show moves from book to television and continues to evolve as a series. “This is the fruition of a dream,” said Winfrey. “It’s what I wanted when I agreed to do the Oprah Winfrey Network.”

Winfrey praised DuVernay, calling her “a role model for our times for having a seed of a dream inside you and the will and courage to follow it.” The two talked about DuVernay’s path from publicist to film director and how she kept her day job as she began her filmmaking career. Noting how one project begat another, after directing “Selma,” DuVernay met Winfrey, who persuaded her to take a short break in Maui. Winfrey just read “Queen Sugar” and loved the book, so in a not-so-subtle hint, she left copies of it all around the house for DuVernay to find and read. Hesitant at first, DuVernay finally read it and “saw the character nuance. I sent Oprah an outline from the plane on the way home.”

Cast members Kofi Siriboe, Dawn-Lyen Gardner and Rutina Wesley and author Natalie Baszile, who wrote the book, joined the panel to talk about their characters, the Bordelon siblings: Nova (Rutina Wesley), a journalist and activist; Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), the wife and manager of a professional basketball star; and Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe), a formerly incarcerated young father in search of a better life for himself and his young son Blue. After their father dies, the Bordelon siblings must overcome their strained relationships and learn to work together to run the family’s ailing sugarcane farm in the New South. Asked how each actor was cast in their respective roles, DuVernay said, “I’m looking for spirit that goes with talent. Kofi Siriboe walked in like a shimmering black prince of spirit.” DuVernay liked Rutina Wesley’s work in “True Blood” but when she came in for “Queen Sugar,” DuVernay saw that “Wesley’s power off camera had caught up on camera.”

DuVernay recalled the pilot writing process as “a pride-swallowing siege” and says she does not enjoy the process of writing. When Winfrey received the first draft of the pilot, she told DuVernay, “I thought there would be more.” The second draft of the pilot had added elements of voodoo rituals and Winfrey told DuVernay, “I don’t think the public is ready for this.” Winfrey’s key note to DuVernay was a simple question, “What do you want to say?” DuVernay’s answer was crystal clear: “I wanted to tell the story of formerly incarcerated people, of a matriarch who, like Oprah, is 60 and sexy, of a self-determined woman building an empire. I wanted permission to build on what Natalie Baszile had done.”

DuVernay also recalled nervously telling Baszile about the changes she’d made translating the book to teleplay and how “giving and gracious she was.” Baszile said, “The changes made sense to me. Nothing was random, gratuitous or superficial. It had intention and spirit.”

DuVernay recounted how she watched a lot of “Six Feet Under” episodes while writing the “Queen Sugar” pilot and she loved the framing device of the funeral home as the backdrop for the family’s struggles and knew the sugar farm would work the same way in this show. DuVernay was also watching “Game of Thrones” while writing the pilot and was angry the show had no female directors, which is why she decided season one of “Queen Sugar” would have only female directors. (That roster included Neema Barnette, Kat Candler, Tina Mabry, Salli Richardson-Whitfield, Victoria Mahoney, So Yong Kim and Tanya Hamilton.)

Season two of “Queen Sugar,” which will consist of sixteen episodes, will also have a behind the scenes change as DuVernay is currently directing the feature film “A Wrinkle in Time.” Monica Macer will step in as showrunner.

Audience questions led DuVernay to re-emphasize her point about writing characters that are real. Pointing to the emotional scene in the pilot where Ralph Angel, his son Blue and Ralph Angel’s ailing father are in a hospital room, DuVernay said, “We know who black men are at their core; they’re much more than the stereotypes usually portrayed in the media. I want people to feel the interior of us.”

“Queen Sugar” airs Wednesday nights on OWN.

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