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‘Queen Sugar’: Director Neema Barnette is Ava Duvernay’s Secret Weapon In Shattering the Glass Ceiling

The pioneering director has been mentoring indie filmmakers transitioning to TV on the set of the new OWN drama.

Queen Sugar Rutina Wesley OWN

Photo by Patti Perret © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc / Courtesy of OWN.

There’s a Catch-22 for indie film directors trying to break into television.  To direct, episodic television networks and showrunners often require previous experience working in television, which is impossible to get if no one will hire you. It’s an experience barrier that is most often pointed to when Hollywood tries to explain how few minority and female directors there are working in TV.

READ MORE: Break Hollywood Barriers, and She’s The Perfect Person To Do It – Girl Talk

Ava DuVernay decided to blow up this roadblock when hiring her all-female directing team — many of whom are women of color and have little-to-no TV experience — to shoot her new show “Queen Sugar.” DuVernay, whose roots are in Sundance and indie film, recently explained on a conference call why she reached for festival filmmakers like So Yong Kim (“Lovesong”), Tina Marby (“Mississippi Damned”) and Kat Candler (“Hellion”).

Ava DuVernay on the set of "Selma"

Ava DuVernay on the set of “Selma”

Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount

“I chose them because they’re just filmmakers who I knew were dope, basically — it was a dopeness scale that I rated people on,” said DuVernay.

Unlike some TV creators, DuVernay was drawn to directors incorporating their own strong visual and personal filmmaking sensibilities into her creation, but she also knew that they would need help bridging the experience gap between low budget personal filmmaking and episodic television.  To accomplish this, DuVernay had a secret weapon: veteran director Neema Barnette.

READ MORE: 7 Indie Filmmakers Making Must-See TV This Fall

Barnette is a Hollywood pioneer who knows a thing or two about breaking down barriers. In 1986, while only 25 years old, Barnette became the first African-American woman to direct a sitcom, and, years later, the first to earn a production deal from a major studio. Along the way she’d also racked up a host of accolades including an Emmy, Peabody and NAACP Image Award.

Neema Barnette, "Queen Sugar"

Director Neema Barnette on the set of “Queen Sugar”

© 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc / Courtesy of OWN.

In her director/producer role, Barnette directed two episodes herself — including Episode 3, which airs tonight — but stayed in New Orleans throughout production to help mentor the other directors in their transition to television.

“A show with all women directors, I didn’t think I would live to see it,” said Barnette in a recent interview with IndieWire. “These were all wonderful, young directors who wanted to get into TV for years and who couldn’t get arrested. I thought this was something amazing Ava was doing and I was so honored she asked me to be part of it.”

READ MORE: How Do You Create a TV Industry That Supports Women Directors? You Try

Before “Queen Sugar,” Candler’s filmmaking experience largely came from making the handful of shorts and feature films she’d premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.  The director told IndieWire her indie background turned her into a pre-production organization freak, but she quickly realized TV would require a completely different mindset.

Queen Sugar Dondre Whitfield & Dawn-Lyen Gardner

Luckily, the first person she met when she arrived at the “Queen Sugar” production office was Barnette, who quickly became a “fierce mentor.”

“After having just met me, [Neema] said ‘I’ve got your back,'” recalled Candler.  “She quickly sat me down and explained how prep and shooting would unfold. She explained certain terms and answered questions, no matter how silly they were. She gave me the confidence and support I needed at every turn.”

Right from the start, Barnette could see why DuVernay was drawn to these filmmakers, having been blown away by the extremely strong visual ideas they had of how to shoot their episodes. Barnette said the biggest thing she needed to do was help the directors condense their visual plans to something that could be executed in six to seven days, a key part of which was identifying ahead of time which scenes would require more time.

READ MORE: 13 Female Filmmakers Who Are Ready To Direct A Blockbuster

“Sometimes when people come from independent film they just shoot and shoot and shoot,” said Barnette. “You need to have confidence in your work to know you can’t over-shoot.”

Neema Barnette directing "Queen Sugar"

Neema Barnette directing “Queen Sugar”

© 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc / Courtesy of OWN

Confidence was a key in general.  On indie films the director is the center of everything, while in the TV it’s the exact opposite.

“It’s not like when we make our movies, where you are choosing the DP and other department heads,” explained Barnette. “In TV, the director is the rotating part. I’m not saying you don’t keep your niceness or congeniality, but you have to be firm. You need to learn to take control. People hire directors for their point-of-view. They might not agree with your point-of-view, but you need to come in with one and you can’t please everyone and don’t waste time trying.”

READ MORE: ‘Atlanta’ Review – Donald Glover’s First Series Is Already Essential Viewing

To keep the first-time directors confident, Barnette helped them create a plan they knew they could execute during the condensed shooting period. With directors shooting two episodes and needing the cross board (overlapping the shooting schedules of both episodes), she created an emotional beat sheet so directors could keep track of where the characters were in the story.  She would also send many notes of encouragement.

“My favorite texts from Neema started with, ‘Diva Kat’ and always had some form of, ‘You got this. You’ll be fantastic.'” said Candler. “Those words of encouragement meant everything.”

Neema Barnette with "Queen Sugar" crew.

Neema Barnette with “Queen Sugar” crew.

© 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc / Courtesy of OWN

On set, Barnette kept her distance, saying that in general it was an unusual environment, as all the producers gave the directors space to work. Still, she was there when the first-timers need her.

“If I ever got into a bind, she was immediately there to give advice,” said Tina Mabry. “She’s the consummate directing teacher. She watches, but lets you do what you were creatively brought on the show to do. She was always nearby to make sure I had an advocate and mentor on set, for which I will be forever grateful.”

Barnette marvels at the opportunity DuVernay has given these directors, and at the supportive and diverse “Queen Sugar” crew which became like family. It’s a stark contrast to her first directing gig.

“People don’t understand how it feels to walk on a set with a bunch of strangers who look at you like you’re from another planet,” said an emotional Barnette, remembering her first time directing “What’s Happening Now,” an ’80s sitcom featuring an African American cast.

Queen Sugar Rutina Wesley & Dawn-Lyen Gardner

“I had an AD who wasn’t very nice,” said Barnette. “I went to the bathroom, I was 25, I cried. And Shirley [Hemphill, the star of the show] came into the bathroom and said ‘What’s wrong Neema?’ [I told her] ‘I’m just trying to get through to this guy,’ and she said, ‘don’t you worry, we gotch you.”  And from that point on, I went out there, the cast supported me 100 percent. For Ava to give me the opportunity to be there for these directors when they have these moments, and be able to tell them, we gotch you, you can overcome this — it was the biggest gift Ava could ever give me.”

READ MORE: ‘Atlanta’: Donald Glover Wants You To Feel What It’s Like to Be Black

Despite her accomplishments and accolades, Barnette says her directing career never took hold the way she assumed it would, saying she and fellow pioneering directors like Julie Dash (“Daughters of the Dust”) experienced a tremendous about of sexism and racism. After leaving Los Angeles briefly to take care of her dying mother and losing her agent at CAA, Barnette eventually turned to teaching film students at UCLA and AFI as a creative outlet, where she could work with the next generation of female filmmakers.

When she saw DuVernay’s career start to rise, she quickly reached out. Sending her notes of encouragement as she did the “Queen Sugar” directors, letting her know that she was there for her if she needed support in any way. As DuVernay’s star started to really take off, Barnette was stunned that she started to shine a light on pioneers like Dash and herself.

Queen Sugar Kofi Siriboe & Ethan Hutchison

“When Ava said, ‘I stand because they stood,’ I can’t tell you what that meant to me,” said Barnette. “Nobody has ever given a damn about us.  Nobody said, ‘they were the first,’ but for her to use her limelight and say these women came before me, they paved the way, I never thought I’d see the day. I never thought I’d see a day that someone like Ava, who stood for what she stands for, would have the power to make something like ‘Queen Sugar.’ I never thought there would be a black woman as powerful as Oprah to back her and own her own station. It’s incredible. It gives me such hope for the future.”

What also gives Barnette hope is the young directors she helped mentor. She signed the papers for three of them to get into the DGA and all of them, because of the “Queen Sugar” experience, are now booking directing jobs on shows like “Transparent,” “12 Monkeys” and “Dear White People.”

“Keep an eye on these ladies, tell your readers — I guarantee you they are going to make something real special,” said Barnette.

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