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Queen Sugar Producer-Director DeMane Davis on Ava DuVernay’s Support, Paying It Forward, and Why She Can’t Stop Live-Tweeting the Show

For Queen Sugar fans, the end is nigh.

After seven seasons, the beloved OWN series will take a final bow on Nov. 29. But we’re not quite there yet. The penultimate episode, “Be or Be Better,” premieres tonight, and it’s the final contribution to the show from its veteran Producer-Director, DeMane Davis, who has risen to prominence thanks not just to doors she knocked on herself, but to Ava DuVernay, who has seen to it that women, and specifically, women of color, get a shot to showcase their considerable talents.

Davis has directed episodes of For the People, The Red Line, How to Get Away With Murder, Station 19, Self Made: Inspired by The Life of Madam CJ Walker, Clarice, You, and Naomi, all of which followed years spent as a copywriter, director of commercials, and indie filmmaker (Lift, starring Kerry Washington).

Above the Line caught up with Boston-based Davis late last week for a phone interview. She sounded exuberant, exhausted, appreciative, and at times a bit wistful as she recounted her time on Queen Sugar, shared anecdotes about her background, and looked to the future.

DeMane Davis
DeMane Davis image via Michael Rowe

Above the Line: What has Queen Sugar meant to you as a filmmaker, as a woman, and as a woman of color?

DeMane Davis: As a filmmaker, I think Queen Sugar is quite simply one of the most beautiful shows on television. When you talk about the framing that’s done, when you talk about the depth of color, light, and texture picking up the different hues of black skin that I had never seen filmed in that manner before, it’s just gorgeous. We call it luxurious. The pace of the show itself, it feels like New Orleans and Louisiana. Every show, of course, has its own culture, language, visual tone, and feel. This show? You feel like you’re taking a breath. The pace in our 140-character world is so different and wonderful. I adore the show, as a filmmaker, for all of those reasons.

As a woman? What Ava has done… it’s unprecedented to have 42 female directors and make a conscious decision that, ‘I’m going to extend an offer to female filmmakers who have never directed for television before, and I’m going to create a world around them. I will have both a cast and a crew who know that and are there to serve their vision.’ Which is what the cast and crew have done beautifully, every single time.

I was like, ‘Oh, all sets are like this, right?’ The crew asked, ‘What would you like to do?’ I said, ‘Well, I guess we could get a lift and we could come around here, if I come off the back of the sign.’ They’re like, ‘Do you want a crane?’ I went, ‘I can have a crane?’ ‘You can have a crane. We will get the crane to do this.’ Everyone is looking at you and saying, ‘Is this what you want? What is it that you want? We’re going to get it for you.’

Being there to serve the story, material, writers, and actors, to have them serve you as a director, as a crew, working together as a family? That’s what I try to bring to every set. To know that these women got this opportunity, that I got to direct, and then I got to be [a] producing director? I still remember that day so clearly in my mind, when [Ava] called and told me that she wanted me to do it. It’s incredible.

One of the experiences that I loved that I got to be a part of [was], on occasion, the directors who would come in and be a producing director for Season 3 of Queen Sugar, they would come in and they’d say, ‘No, I’m not going to call action or cut.‘ I said, ‘Okay, that’s cool. You don’t have to, but you could try it.’ It was one of the most wonderful things, to have a director come in and not do it, but by the end of the episode, you hear them. They get bass in their voices when they say, “Cut!” or “Action!” It’s watching them [bloom] and come into their own as this incredible cast and crew help to achieve their vision.

And, as a Black woman, it’s rare that you get to see yourself on television. I know that a lot of people say Queen Sugar is the longest-running drama that’s centered around a black family on TV. People are going, “What about The Cosby Show?” It’s a one-hour drama, and it’s the longest-running one. To get to see yourself on television is something that all of us should have the opportunity to do, and that’s what the show has given me, the chance to see myself, but also give my input, have that be on screen, and have it celebrated. I get to celebrate myself, and then I get to celebrate all my sisters who have taken part in helping to create the show.

Queen Sugar
Queen Sugar image via Skip Bolen/Warner Bros.

ATL: Each episode has felt like a mini-film. And when it comes to your episodes specifically, fans live for the dining room scenes. What were your goals in terms of realizing episodes? What would you think as your read the scripts?

Davis: First of all, I read the script as a fan, and then I have to read the script as a director. I’m like, ‘Oh, shit. I’ve got to direct this,’ because there’s a part of me that’s thinking, “Oh my God. This is happening.” My first episode, she’s opening the mill. Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe) is admitting that the farm was left to him. They’re massive moments. That’s the first thing that I do. As I’m reading it for the first time, though, different visual things will come to me. Every episode I direct, I give it a visual theme, which is another layer that can be on top of it. I never like to overpower. Certainly, there’s so much richness there in terms of dialogue, nuance, locations, and actors — all of that. If there’s a place where I can add a little bit of something, that’s what I try to do.

For these two episodes that I had the honor to do this season, Episode 711 and Episode 712, my theme was full-circle, because it’s a full-circle moment for me as a director. This is where I started, and then to come back for the ending of the series? There are places where you’ll see and feel it, but I never like to hit the nail over the head.

The other thing that I do, especially in [the] dining room around those tables, in those situations where people are talking, is [that] I always like the in-between part. If someone is arguing, the standard coverage is, “this person is yelling, and now we go to this other person, and maybe they’re crying or they yell back.” It’s that back and forth. What I love is, I’ll say to the editor, ‘Let me see what she’s doing when he said that,’ or, ‘Let me see at this point… where is she now? I need to clock her, to make sure I’m with her and I know what’s going on.’ Or I’ll even remember being on set, ‘Rutina [Wesley] did something incredible in this moment, and I want to make sure that I honor her and her work, what she’s brought to that moment, and to the script. Let’s start there, and then let’s work around that.’ I tend to dig into those moments — the moments in between the moment.

ATL: Your last episode is titled “Be And Be Better.” Give us a quick preview, and how would you say it sets up the series finale?

Davis: I would say that things are culminating for a lot of the characters. You are finding out where they’re going to end up and what they’re going to do. There’s going to be a lot happening with Ralph Angel, the [Bordelon family] farm, and the Landrys. You can see it in the trailer. As far as how it leads into the final episode, I don’t know. I can’t tell you. Number one, it’s not for me to say, and I would never say. Number two, a lot of different things were happening and I haven’t read it, so I don’t know what’s going to happen. I kind of like it that way because there’s the Me [who] had the honor to direct and produce on the show, but there’s also the Me, as a fan, who’s thinking, “What is going to happen? I have no idea.” [So] I don’t know what’s going to happen.

There’s a lot of speculation on Twitter, too. I love live-tweeting the show. I’ve logged quite a few hours on Twitter. Everyone’s like, ‘Tuesday night, let’s go out to dinner.’ And I say, ‘No. Even if it’s not my episode, I have to live-tweet Queen Sugar.’ ‘Okay, the show’s over at 9 o’clock.’ ‘Well, no. First of all, Cherish the Day comes on after that. Secondly, I have to go back and look at what everyone else has posted about the show, then maybe I have a photo of something that I would want to share.’ So, yeah, I have a live-tweet addiction. I admit it.

Queen Sugar
Queen Sugar image via Skip Bolen/Warner Bros.

ATL: What was your last day on set like? How tough was it to say goodbye to everyone and everything?

Davis: Oh, man. It was definitely emotional. I didn’t cry. I still haven’t cried, which — and I’ve said this a lot — but I can’t believe that I haven’t cried [yet]. I know that something big is coming. [There will] be happy tears, but there will also be an incredulousness about it. That last day on set? There were so many hugs. Absolutely, I should have taken more photos, and I know that I did not. Lots of hugs from Ava, because Ava directed the finale. She was there. Hugs from Shaz Bennett, the Showrunner. She was there. Lots of photos of us together, which is a rare occurrence. I cried a little bit. I did hug a few people and they cried, and then I was gone. She had started shooting, so it wasn’t even like, ‘Okay, it’s over. Wrap, go around, and cajole with everyone.’ Oh, no. I just jumped into a van and took off. I still can’t believe it.

ATL: Ava opened doors for you. How will you pay that forward and perhaps be the Ava in someone else’s life?

Davis: That’s my plan. I want to not only hire people who may not have had a chance, and who deserve a chance to tell their story, but also focus on stories that we haven’t heard, that we don’t know about. That’s my plan. I’m fortunate enough to have this overall deal with Warner Brothers Television. I’m presenting stuff to them. Nothing I can speak about right now, but certainly, the goal is to have shows that I have helped create and executive produce that are out there.

The first people [who] I’m going to look at, to get it off the ground, are going to be my Queen Sugar sisters. I’ll see who’s available out there and then look for other people; people [who] I’ve met, and [already] know. I’m a part of the DGA Women’s Steering Committee. We have a bunch of members there. I know they’re talented directors, and I would love for those ladies to get a shot. It’s really about giving people a shot the way that I was given one. That gave me an opportunity, which, in turn, has given me a career. My goal is to absolutely continue in that tradition that I learned from Ava and that she started, which granted all of us careers.

Queen Sugar
Queen Sugar image via Skip Bolen/Warner Bros.

ATL: You are going on 15 years as a director. How would you say you’ve evolved or improved behind the camera?

Davis: I have become more comfortable. The more I do it, the more comfortable I become. It’s my belief that anyone in any profession, in any situation, the more comfortable you are, then that work you do is your best. You do your best work when you’re comfortable. That’s something I try to do with the cast and crew.

When I’m on set, I go around and introduce myself. I say “good morning” to everyone, every day. I say “goodnight” at the end of the night and thank them for the day. I listen to them. I want their ideas. In my opinion, the best idea wins, so I’m always open to questions like, “How do you think we can achieve this? What do you see here? What would you like?” while being respectful of everyone’s time and making the day. I’ve learned all of those things.

I’ve learned the things that work best in those situations because I’ve done this for so long now, which is pretty incredible. As I become more comfortable, I feel better. I get better, and the work gets better. I can try new things and not have any apprehension around what it is that I’m trying to do visually with the crew, or working through something with an actor.

ATL: You’ve completed a pilot called Found. What’s happening with that?

Davis: Found is a phenomenal show that was created by Nkechi Okoro Carroll, who created All American and All American: Homecoming. She’s the showrunner. She wrote this script. I met Lindsey Dunn at NK’s company — her nickname is NK — Rock My Soul Productions. She said, ‘We would love to work with you.’ Then I got the script and I thought, “This script is out of control.” It was a pilot. So, Found is my first pilot. I shot it in Atlanta, and it got picked up. We got the nod. It will air on NBC on Feb. 19 of next year, at 10 o’clock at night.

I just got a little chill, because when I was little, I was a latchkey kid. I spent a lot of time in front of the TV. I’m over the moon about it. I directed the pilot, and I also directed the second episode. So, I’ll have something else to live-tweet then. It stars Shanola Hampton from Shameless. She is phenomenal. I can’t wait for you to see her run in heels!

DeMane’s episode of Queen Sugar, “Be and Be Better,” premieres tonight on OWN, and the series finale will air on Nov. 29.

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