Ava DuVernay, Lea Thompson and More Women Who Are Changing the Tide in Television
By Latifah Muhammad
Women are making waves in television.
The topic of inclusion and diversity were running themes during PaleyFest Los Angeles Q&A sessions with Ava DuVernay, creator of Queen Sugar, and Gemma Baker, creator of the CBS comedy Mom, held inside the Dolby Theater in Hollywood on Saturday.
DuVernay prides herself on not only providing a platform for marginalized voices but offering job opportunities to women directors typically “shut out” from television. The Oscar-nominated director appeared at PaleyFest alongside the Queen Sugarcast, including Rutina Wesley, Bianca Lawson, Kofi Sirboe, Dondre Whitfield and showrunner Kat Candler, where she spoke on her decision to only hire women directors for the show and how she championed “inclusion” riders long before Frances McDormand mentioned the clause in her Oscars speech last month.
“I was overjoyed to hear Frances say that,” DuVernay told ET's Nischelle Turner, who moderated the panel. “She didn’t have to, and to utter those words on an international stage so that people can dig into the thing that so many of us, [McDormand] included, have been working on for a while: the idea that everyone should be able to see themselves, not only in front of the camera, but to know that all kinds of cultures of people [behind the camera] made what you’re watching.”
“Luckily we’re on OWN, a network owned by a black woman, and when you walk into our offices, our sets, [it] reflects different kinds and cultures of people,” she said of Queen Sugar.
On hiring women directors for all three seasons of the show, DuVernay jokingly explained, “In the same way, it just turned out that decades and decades of shows were hiring men, it just happened. That’s who was around. We couldn’t find any others.”
Getting more serious, she pointed out that women directors are often overlooked for television projects, and for women of color, the goal post is even further away.
“Dynamic women directors so often have doors closed to them,” DuVernay said, using Real Women Have Curves director Patricia Cardoso as an example. Cardoso helmed a forthcoming episode of Queen Sugar, which will premiere its third season during a two-night event beginning on May 29.
“This is a classic film, a film that is in many national archives and libraries; it’s gorgeous, and yet she couldn’t get an episode of television,” DuVernay gushed about the 2002 film starring America Ferrera. “The doors were closed to her because she didn’t go through the kind of usual ’boy’s club’ of it all, so we’re honored to have her direct an episode. She just directed episode two of season three."
“These are the kind of voices that are shut out so often, but we don’t close the doors, we welcome them in,” said DuVernay.
Baker and Mom cast members Allison Janney, Anna Faris, Jaime Pressly, Mimi Kennedy and Beth Hall also detailed the “rare” experience of working on a network show led by women.
But despite its predominately female ensemble, Mom has had mostly male directors since the series debuted in 2013. However, Lea Thompson directed an upcoming episode titled “Esta Loca and a Little Klingon,” which debuts on March 29. Thompson is the second woman to helm an episode of the comedy series, and was seated in the crowd during the PaleyFest panel discussion.
“We all recognized that this is so rare for five women to be acting together on a network show,” said Faris, while Pressly added that it “feels to good to work with a bunch of bad a** women.”
Working with mostly women co-stars has provided a special support system for the cast, one that made Pressly emotional as she detailed how Janney and Faris helped her through a particularly challenging day.
“I had a huge show that night and I just could not relax, I had so much anxiety,” said the mother of three, who welcomed twins last fall. Janney and Faris helping to calm Pressly's anxiety resulted in what she declared to be one of her best performances on the show.
Hall revealed her years-long struggle to secure a series before she finally landed a role on Mom.
“I was a struggling actress for 20 years, just hoping that some day I would be able to be on a show like this, and for it to happen, and for them to welcome me in such a warming way, I’ve learned a lot,” she said.
Now that it's becoming commonplace to see more women seated in the director's chair and the writer's room thanks to shows like Queen Sugar, Mom, Jessica Jones, Insecure,Grey’s Anatomy, Black Lightning, Scandal, Black-ish, the previously narrow space for women creatives in television keeps getting bigger.