Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar focuses on three siblings who must come together to care for their father’s sugar cane farm after his sudden death. The OWN series is based on a novel by Natalie Baszile, but DuVernay, with the help of executive producer Oprah Winfrey, took many liberties in order to tell a story that was relevant to her life and the issues that matter to her. None of it came easy. The writer/director wrote three drafts of the pilot before Winfrey gave her the green light. Below is an excerpt of an exchange between DuVernay and Winfrey on the topic of rewriting.
DuVernay: The first time I pounded it out, adapted the book, and gave it to her very proudly. And she said, “Oh, I thought it was going to be more than this.” That’s what she said. I thought, “Yeah, okay, I’m going back and adding something.” Second one, I added people doing voodoo, murders, stabbing, a frickin’ hurricane. I added a lot. What does she want?
Winfrey: I’m not down with the voodoo.
DuVernay: She was like, “Whaaat?” In true Oprah fashion, she said, “What do you want to say? This is a show that will be on every week in people’s homes.” I drilled into that. And I told her, “This is the last one I will do. And I’m going to put in what I want to say, and if it’s not it, then I don’t know.” And that was the pilot.
Winfrey: That was the one. I remembered Toni Morrison said to me that she wrote her first novel because that book wasn’t available to read. She wrote a book that she would want to read. With that in mind, I said to Ava, “What is the story you would most want to see that came from you that you would most want to tell?” I can be down with that.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: That’s got to be hard among friends. Were there any hurt feelings when she kept sending you back to try again?
DuVernay: There are so few people you can get a real answer from. I don’t show my cuts, my drafts to a lot of people because they will tell me it’s good. When someone says, “It’s alright, I think you can do better,” at first you’re like, “Ahhh,” but then you’re like, “Okay.”
Winfrey: My friendship with Ava meant more to me then her writing a script, although, with me trying to build a network, Ava DuVernay coming to lend her name and talent to the network would be a huge asset. But I wouldn’t let myself go there because if it didn’t work out, I still wanted to maintain my friendship with her. I was willing for it to be whatever it needed to be, including for it to not be.
DuVernay chose to make considerable changes to the book’s plot. A big one was giving sibling Ralph Angel Bordelon the back story of being a former inmate. “It’s a story we both wanted to tell,” says DuVernay, whose first documentary, The 13th, explores the skyrocketing incarceration rates in the U.S. and will debut at the New York Film Festival later this month. “How long do you have to pay the price after you’ve served your time?”
Viewers familiar with Baszile’s book will notice additional changes in the series. The primary protagonist in the novel, Charley Bordelon (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), is a school teacher. In the series, Charley is the middle child, transplanted to Los Angeles as the high-class society wife to an NBA player who becomes embroiled in a sex scandal. She retreats to the South to both help her family and escape the life she’s created.
DuVernay also added an older sister, Nova, an activist/healer played by True Blood’s Rutina Wesley. The novel also featured a grandmother in addition to an aunt, but DuVernay consolidated the two into one family matriarch, Violet Bordelon, played by Tina Lifford (Parenthood).
Explains DuVernay: “I feel like the intention of the book, to amplify the everyday magnificence of these people and the tragedies and triumphs of the family, is still there.”
Queen Sugar will debut Sept. 6 at 10 p.m. ET on OWN. The two-part premiere concludes Sept. 7 at 10 p.m., with the remaining episodes airing Wednesdays at 10 p.m.
For more from Oprah Winfrey and Ava DuVernay, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands Friday, or buy it now – and don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.