SPOILER ALERT: This article contains details of tonight’s series penultimate episode of Queen Sugar on OWN.
EXCLUSIVE: “You just have to look just a little past making the money of producing a show, a movie, and you look at how to make change,” says Queen Sugar creator Ava DuVernay of the near end of the Oprah Winfrey executive produced family drama and the afterlife the ARRAY founder wants the series to have. “It’s a small reach and it doesn’t take much.”
Besides a NAACP Image Awards winning show that airs its penultimate episode on OWN tonight and concludes after seven all female directed seasons on November 29, that reach for Queen Sugar now includes a learning companion that ARRAY unveiled online this week (see it here).
This next curated iteration of the saga of siblings Nova Bordelon (Rutina Wesley), Ralph Angel Bordelon (Kofi Siriboe), and Charley Bordelon (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), and their extended rural Louisiana family delves into topics such as the Legacy of the Land, Art as Activism, Gender, Rights of the Formerly Incarcerated, Ancestry and more – as you can also see in the video below:
“Queen Sugar has made an undeniable mark on the lives of its millions of viewers during its seven seasons on television through storylines reflective of the Black American experience,” states Tammy Garnes, VP of Education and Understanding at ARRAY. “Through dynamic conversation starters and deep-dives into the history of land ownership, migration of the formerly enslaved, African rituals and traditions, our ARRAY 101 learning companion strives to provide easily digestible historical context to issues still experienced by Americans today through the lens of the beloved Bordelon family.”
To that, DuVernay chatted with me about the end of Queen Sugar, the process of getting there and putting the learning companion. In an America that often appears to be fraying at a furious pace, the filmmaker also pulled back the curtain her POV on reaching out and how Hollywood can truly get in the game with hard lessons and some well considered soft power
DEADLINE: It’s no secret that you penned and directed next week’s finale, a full bookend to the premiere back in September 2016, but with tonight’s penultimate episode to your first full-on TV series, where are you at now about the end of Sugar?
DUVERNAY: You know, we had a lot to tie up, but we didn’t want to force drama and make anything that felt that it wasn’t authentic to the story and lives of these characters. So, it’s a slow unfolding of this tension between Micah (Nicholas L. Ashe) and his mother, and really wanting to be an adult, to stand on his own and be supported in the life that he chooses. It’s Nova and Dominic (McKinley Freeman) , your namesake, coming to the end of their journey. Which begs the question, what is next for her? Hollywood (Omar Dorsey) and Vi (Tina Lifford), they’re the bedrock of the family, and they’ve wanted to start their own. Does that happen for them, and what does that look like when it does, without there being big, crazy twists and turns.
DEADLINE: And riding into the finale itself?
DUVERNAY: What I hope that finale is just a beautiful, satisfying culmination of these stories, where you get to the end, and you feel like, right, okay, got it. This is what they’re doing next. You know, it was really satisfying, but it was also trying to have restraint in not conjuring a bunch of conflict and crazy stuff, just to end it. Just to let it be a kind of a beautiful unfolding, and let them all go on with their lives from after we’ve been observing them for seven seasons.
DEADLINE: But, even as we go into November 29’s series end, you given Queen Sugar an afterlife of sorts with this new learning guide ARRAY just dropped this week. Obviously, this isn’t the first time you’ve created such a learning guide, you did it with Selma, with Colin In Black & White, ARRAY distributed releases and more, but what is the focus here out of Queen Sugar?
DUVERNAY: We always knew that we wanted to wait to the end to encapsulate the whole story. I always said that Sugar, I felt, was a time capsule for Black America in this moment. So, we wanted to have a learning companion for learners of all ages in and out of school. Anyone that seen the work and wants to go deeper or is interested in a certain aspect, you know, this Queen Sugar 101 or ARRAY101 program is just to connect the dots between the work that we make, and you know, people thinking about it, and doing something about it afterwards.
DEADLINE: It’s a pretty big swing, even for you ..
DUVERNAY: Yeah, this guide spans everything from incarceration as a human rights issue, to land rights for black folk and native folks, to gender-fluid toys for kids — all of which were a part of the Sugar phenomenon. That phenomenon is a quiet one that really just resonated within the African American community more than anywhere else, but it really is deeply felt in that world as something that can testament to the power of black family.
DEADLINE: One of the themes of the Sugar learning companion is Art as Activism, which is kind of the streamlined definition of your career in many ways. In this final Sugar season, that and the concept of ancestry are incredibly important, especially the work we see Nova doing, and the direction we see Micah going in this penultimate episode as he finds his identity as he finds his sense of community in his desire to go live in New York and create a life for himself there.
DUVERNAY: Over the course of the show, the culmination of the character of Micah has in some ways taken on the things that I really believe about the way we work and how the work that we do can change the world, whether you’re an artist or not.
DEADLINE: How so?
DUVERNAY: You know, your intention, what you put out in the world, the way you treat people, no matter what you’re doing, has resonance and echoes through your community, your culture, the world, and the artists that’s writ large. I’s amplified. It’s in stereo.
So, the idea that Micah is reckoning with that in the same way that Nova did with her book, in the same way that Charley is doing by amplifying her ideas on the political stage. Also, you have someone like Vi, who’s a small-town entrepreneur, and how her intentionality reverberates through her small business. Or Ralph Angel, a farmer with no platform, who is still finding ways to be intentional with his activism and being active and actionable in the world. So, I think all of them touch on that idea of what we do matters no matter what you do, and that’s been the goal of the series from the start and an essential part of the learning companion for me.
DEADLINE: To that, having put together several other learning companions for other projects in the past, what lessons did they provide for the Queen Sugar learning companion?
DUVERNAY: Well, one of our main things was that most learning companions, I learned just from my work as a publicist have to jump through a lot of hoops to reach their audience. They have to go through this process of being approved by school boards. We said early on, we’re not going to do that.
DUVERNAY: Because that waters them down and makes it boring, to be frank. The process takes out all the edge because it has to be this homogenous, like no one’s offended. It’s so vanilla, it’s so nothing, that no one wants to even engage with it.
So, we said, you know what? This is for learners of all kinds. We don’t have to this vetted by schools. We’re going to put it online. We’re going to work with institutions that are interested in it, individual teachers. We are going to work with organizations like, Google, and teachers’ unions, activists, and Boys and Girls Clubs. So, we’ve learned now, that there are all the different places that we move the guide around to, but then also make it available so that you don’t have to be affiliated with anything – just take it on your own terms.
DEADLINE: How have you seen that play out?
DUVERNAY: So many ways. I mean, we have a 63-year-old woman who told me she was interested in learning more about voting rights, a white woman. She wanted to know what some of the history, why it was so hard and what gerrymandering was? What was redistricting? What was it all about? So, she went to the Selma Learning Companion and it was all there. She’s not in school. She learned.
So early on, to answer your question, like I said, we decided we would not go through the standard American education system to have the thing approved. That we would just put it out. And guess what? Large school districts, multiple school districts, have taken to putting the guides in their schools. We just went around the normal way, and just went independent, and put the thing out. And now we have all kinds of teachers groups, and community groups, but also full school districts that are embracing the guides and using them.
You just have to look just a little past making the money of producing a show, a movie, and you look at how to make change. It’s a small reach and it doesn’t take much.
You know, the Queen Sugar learning companion was us working on the guide for about six months with a very small team. But we’ve been doing this for the last couple of years with great success, and not a lot of paint. It just takes a little bit of attention, and I just hope that it is more than what it does with people who are learning and expanding their awareness about the themes in the show. I hope it is a signal to other folks in our industry, that we can be doing more. That we can be doing more without even really taking on a lot more.
We can be making more of a difference.
DEADLINE: Talking about embracing and making a difference, was next week’s Queen Sugar finale the end you always envisioned for the show?
DUVERNAY: I will say this, I’m really, really satisfied with the end. I feel, you know, it’s a tear jerker. There’s no one who’s seen the last 30 minutes of, I don’t know, the last 15 minutes of the finale that isn’t in tears. If you’ve watched the show, and you know the show, I think it’s going to be something that might leave people feeling very satisfied with the journey.
I looked at all of my favorite shows, and how they ended. You know, I love the way that Six Feet Under ended. There are some series finales where you just like, yeah, yeah I wanted that to be the case for our audience, and I feel happy. I think we got there.
DEADLINE: Not to sweat the technique, to quote Rakim, but with that, are some big surprises on that finale journey?
DUVERNAY: Well, we made a movie for the finale.
DEADLINE: A movie?
DUVERNAY: I mean, it really is a film. It’s 90 minutes. It’s not an hour like a regular episode. I don’t think they’ve announced that yet, but it’s an hour and a half, it’s 90 minutes. We shot it in the time of a regular episode. That cast and crew just pushed forward because we needed extra time to finish up the story.
DEADLINE: That must add a whole other element.
DUVERNAY: Well, just to be able to come back to direct the last one, and have everything in between to be so intentional. All of these women directors, he same DP that stayed with it through seven seasons, and department heads who stayed with the thing for seven seasons, it was just a glorious time.
DEADLINE: One of the things I always appreciated and respected about Sugar was how deep the dives were season after season. Socioeconomic and cultural topics and realities weren’t weaved into the narrative. It was often the other way round, with more emotional resonance that ever, from the heart and head. How does the learning companion fit into that discourse?
DUVERNAY: I just think that we are leaving so much on the table as an industry, when it comes to connecting the dots between the inflection point of the release dates or the debut date, and you know, the clicks, the subscribers, the dollars, and that long tail connection with people so that they can learn from it, take action from it. I want to really let it sink into being something more than just passing entertainment on the night that you watched it.
That’s something that I felt personally with Selma, with 13th, with When They See Us, and with Sugar. People want to talk about it years later, people want to talk about how connected to them. Someone walked up to me today on a scout, and talked to me about 13th, and how she had no idea that prison wasn’t just the place where bad people went. That there were other things going on with who is there and who is not.
DEADLINE: So, what’s the next move?
DUVERNAY: Well, the idea that we have the power to do this, and that every single, show, every single thing that’s out there that has something to say along these lines, doesn’t do it. It’s something that we feel is a lost opportunity.
So, for ARRAY, we’re going to do it with everything we put out, we’re going to do with everything that I make, everything we release through ARRAY Releasing, we distribute through ARRAY Releasing. Because it doesn’t take more than just a little bit of leaning into the point past the money making.