DeMane Davis loves directing commercials and branded content via production house Sweet Rickey. But she won’t be able to do so for about a six-month stretch, a prospect which she welcomes because a new opportunity beckons, one which she feels will enable her to bring even more to the ad arena when she returns.
Davis has been named producing director for season three of Queen Sugar, Ava DuVernay’s acclaimed primetime series on Oprah Winfrey’s network OWN. Davis is currently in New Orleans where she will not only direct a pair of episodes this season but also oversee and lend support to the other female directors on the series, figure out locations and other logistics, and work closely with the show’s two DPs, Antonio Calvache and Kira Kelly, as well as production designer Ina Mayhew. Davis is responsible for maintaining the look of the show and serves as a self-described “keeper of the story.”
DuVernay first reached out to Davis for season two, entrusting her to direct a couple of episodes. DuVernay has committed to female filmmakers for the entire run of Queen Sugar, affording many of them their first opportunities in primetime TV. Davis shined in season two and now assumes greater responsibilities for season three.
Adapted for TV from the novel of the same title by Natalie Baszile, Queen Sugar follows the lives of a black family, centering on three siblings: two sisters, Nova Bordelon (played by Rutina Wesley), a journalist and activist from New Orleans, and Charley Bordelon (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), a woman who, with her teenage son Micah, leaves her upscale home in Los Angeles and moves to the heart of Louisiana to claim an inheritance—an 800-acre sugarcane farm—from her recently departed father; and their brother Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe), a struggling single dad.
Davis brings broad-based filmmaking experience to Queen Sugar. She and Khari Streeter directed Kerry Washington in LIFT, a feature which premiered at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. Davis also owned two small ad agencies and worked at stalwart shops such as Hill Holliday, Arnold Worldwide and what is now KBS. She’s freelanced as a writer on Nike, McDonald’s, Citibank, Marshall’s, CVS and American Eagle. She has directed campaigns for such clients as Bank of America, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Tidy Cats and Cigna.
Davis is also no stranger to producing, having done so on her feature directorial debut (helmed in tandem with Streeter and Harry McCoy), Black & White & Red All Over, which screened at the Sundance and Edinborough film festivals, and ran on the Sundance Network.
DuVernay first reached out to Davis via Twitter back in 2015. Noting that she has a screen grab of that tweet, Davis recalled that DeVernay appreciated her work on LIFT, asking her to be part of “Array Day” where people ask filmmakers about their process. “Array Day” is a Twitter takeover by DuVernay’s releasing company Array. Following a second “Array Day,” Davis was welcomed as part of the directing talent for season two of Queen Sugar.
“I got that call from Paul Garnes,” recalled Davis. “What I didn’t tell him was that I had recently broken my ankle. I didn’t tell anyone until I arrived, showing up on crutches. I assured everyone that everything’s fine. And it was. Directing Queen Sugar was simply a great experience. And now I feel fortunate to be invited back. Getting to work with this crew and cast again is a treat. They’ve become my family. To see this family, the conflicts the characters face, the subject matter they’re dealing with, is wonderful. Each episode is like watching an hourlong film. It’s a very ambitious show. We’re literally building a house right now in three weeks on set. Everybody comes together on this show.”
Perhaps most fulfilling, though, about her new role on Queen Sugar, shared Davis, “is getting to work with all these female directors, It feels a bit like being Santa Claus. I’m not allowed to tell you her name but when Ava told one filmmaker she would get the chance to direct an episode, working with all these great people, she cried. It’s a wonderful opportunity. The scripts and actors are great, you get to play with all these tools. It’s a magical place.”
As for her biggest takeaway thus far from Queen Sugar, Davis related, “First, TV series work moves faster than commercials. Unlike trying to achieve perfection in 30, 60 or 90 seconds, here you have two takes per setup and have to move on. I had to adjust. But more importantly is something I’ve learned from Ava—that it’s okay to share. I like to share anyway—sharing resources, knowledge. That’s a big part of what everybody does here. But sometimes you get in a bubble and you are wary that if you share, someone else will take your idea. Ava taught me that you are an individual and will see something differently than anyone else. When you have that unique perspective, you don’t have to worry about sharing anything. And that feeling, that vibe is what we have on set. It’s a familial vibe, different from what I’ve heard exists on other sets. I want to re-create this experience for the rest of my life—to maintain sharing, my calmness, my demeanor and to help inspire creativity in everyone else. I want to take that vibe, all the knowledge I’ve gained and apply it to everything I do, including commercials.”