Director Julie Dash on ‘Queen Sugar’ Midseason Premiere and Changing the Hollywood Game (Exclusive)

Julie Dash
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The longtime filmmaker opens up to ET about joining Ava DuVernay's all-female directing squad on 'Queen Sugar.'

Queen Sugar creator Ava DuVernay is changing the Hollywood game by enlisting an all-female team to direct the OWN series, making good on the filmmaker’s mission to create opportunities for women of color. For the two-part midseason premiere, she called on director Julie Dash, whose 1991 film about three generations of Gullah women, Daughters of the Dust, was the first feature-length film directed by an African-American woman to receive theatrical distribution in the U.S. -- and later, was heavily referenced in Beyoncé's visual album, Lemonade

Despite making history in the ‘90s and helming TV movies, like The Rosa Parks Story starring Angela Bassett, this was her first time directing an episodic series. “I didn’t think we’d still be having these conversations in 2017. The conversation did not change until Ava changed it,” Dash tells ET.

The 64-year-old director admits that getting the call from DuVernay was a dream come true, even if it took a little longer to come to fruition. “I was like, ‘Hell yeah!’ She actually asked me the first season, but I was teaching at Morehouse [College] at the time, so I had to pass,” Dash reveals. “But this year she made sure there was room for me after graduation in the spring. That’s how I was able to secure two spots.”

Joining the team and unleashing her brand of storytelling magic on the first two episodes of Queen Sugar is exactly what Dash says DuVernay instructed her to do. “It was simple. She said, ‘Make some beautiful pictures, tell a wonderful and meaningful story.’”

On the first part of the season two midseason premiere, “Yet Do I Marvel,” the tangled web of relationships continues as each Bordelon sibling and those around them face challenges from a lifelong commitment, a breakdown, a breakthrough, resentment and finally a moment of peace.

Darla (Bianca Lawson) reaches out to her family to share her engagement news, as she and Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe) celebrate their love. “The party at the High Yellow took us two days to shoot. The moment when Darla was talking to her parents on the phone, that was heart-wrenching,” Dash reveals.  

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Aunt Violet’s (Tina Lifford) condition worsens as she dismisses her hair falling out, something Dash says she and Lifford used to their advantage by exposing Vi’s vulnerability. “Tina Lifford allowed herself to be exposed to allow me to do that. She let me get all up in her hair, even down to her roots,” she reveals. “We were crammed in a tiny bathroom and everything was exposed.  It was almost like doing a nude scene to have all of those people surrounding you, with your wig off. It was incredibly brave of her. She said she wanted to be eating a bag of popcorn while the woman was doing her hair and I was worried about the sound. She used that popcorn and her sweet tea and played off of it.”

Meanwhile, Nova’s (Rutina Wesley) story on the Zika virus causes an uproar in the community and she begins to question her own journalistic integrity; Micah (Nicholas L. Ashe) finally begins to come to terms with his emotions over being assaulted; and Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) gets an unexpected visit from her mother, Lorna (Sharon Lawrence). Despite so much going on, emotional bonding was at the center of the premiere, Dash says. “A lot of this episode was about intimacy. Having the veil pulled back.”

For Dash, the entire series is full of life lessons, which also make it important to continue telling African-American women’s stories onscreen. “It’s important because it’s also a healing moment, a truth-telling healing moment. We all need and go through it,” she says. “Yeah, it’s painful, but it has to be done. In many ways these episodes of Queen Sugar can also be said to be instructional in a way to help you get through it,” she says.

The second part of the premiere, “Drums at Dusk,” highlights Ralph Angel’s resentment of Darla’s past. The presence of Charley’s mother stirs up old tensions with Aunt Vi as Nova and Dr. Robert Dubois (Alimi Ballard) grow closer.

There were several key moments Dash enjoyed directing over the course of the two episodes, including the love scene with Nova and Robert since it allowed the audience to see a more intimate side of Nova. “It was about them communicating,” she says. “They were having a deeper conversation with their bodies. Nova is finally finding someone who gets her and allows her to be herself and it was just intense.”

Now that she’s got the two TV episodes on her resume, Dash says she hopes that this just proves that women are making power moves when it comes to directing. “Women can do it and we can do it well. We enjoy telling stories and making beautiful pictures.”