At least some women directors working on the small screen have packed slates. That good news came out at Tribeca’s first-ever, TV-only festival that ran from September 22–24 in New York City. Kyra Sedgwick
, whose new ABC series “Ten Days in the Valley
” had its premiere at the fest, told the audience that the opportunity to work with women drew her to the project, created by Tassie Cameron
and executive produced by Marcy Ross
, Jill Littmann, and Sedgwick. Having women directors on board was very important to her, too.
“When you hear the numbers [of female directors], you can’t help but feel responsible,” said Sedgwick. “The statistics are staggering and depressing. You need to make choices based on that knowledge.” So she and her creative team reached out to female directors, only to discover that they could not get as many as they wanted because the female directors they knew were all booked up. Four of the ten episodes ended up being directed by women, far better than the industry average.
A similar point was made about Own’s hit series “Queen Sugar
,” which had its mid-season premiere at the festival. Creator Ava DuVernay
, along with fellow executive producers Oprah Winfrey
and Monica Macer
, committed from the outset to hire only female directors for the family drama. Though none of the seven directors DuVernay hired for Season 1 had the opportunity to direct for television before, an Own-tc spokesperson reported that all of them went on to direct episodes of other TV series following their gigs on “Queen Sugar
.” That opened up the opportunity for eight new directors to come on board for Season 2 (along with “Daughters of the Dust
” director Julie Dash
and returning director Kat Candler
, for four episodes), which had been DuVernay’s goal all along. “We always committed to a whole new slate of directors in Season 2,” DuVernay wrote in an email. “But it’s also true that all the Season 1 directors are very busy.”
The screening of “Queen Sugar
” was packed. The saga of the Bordelon siblings — uber businesswoman Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner
), prickly investigative reporter Nova (Rutina Wesley
), and new parolee Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe
) — as they carry on the legacy of managing their family’s Louisiana sugar plantation addresses pressing contemporary issues including police brutality, sexual assault, and Southern racism.
Asked in the panel discussion what it’s like to work with all female directors, Wesley said that women bring a special sensitivity, but added that should not imply weakness. “These women directors are fierce, they know how to run a set, too,” she emphasized. For Gardner, “It does something immediate, something physical to your system. It changes the game, creates an inclusive environment so that people open to ideas differently, listening differently, not assuming. It’s not a frat boy environment.”
“I don’t even remember how it feels to be directed by a man,” Siriboe admitted. “With women,” he said, “there’s meticulousness, an emotional resonance; they understand. And they want to talk about it — they want to get into the details, [and] want to make sure you’re good. It feels like a relationship.” Noting that he’s worked on 29 episodes so far, Siriboe added, “I feel like I’ve had 29 relationships.”
A fraught mother-daughter relationship figures prominently in “Queen Sugar
’s” new season, as Charley’s mother, who we’ve heard about a lot about — and not in a good way — finally appears. Turns out, she’s white. The portrayal of their relationship is powerful not only for Charley, but for Gardner as well. “I’m biracial,” Gardner told the audience. “There’s an assumption about biracial and multiracial folks since Obama, that we’re all fine.” But growing up biracial wasn’t “all fine” for Charley or for Gardner. “It was a complicated experience around belonging, feeling apart from, [and] othered within your own family, and doing what you can to integrate yourself and reconcile yourself and being completely alone in that, even with your mother,” she revealed. For Gardner, “bringing that part of Charley’s story to the fore, it felt very, very vulnerable.”
A mother-daughter relationship also figures into the gripping, fast-moving thriller “Ten Days in the Valley
.” The idea for the show about a driven TV producer and single mom Jane Sadler came out of creator Cameron’s recurring nightmare. In her dream, she would be working in her writing shed while her daughter was asleep — which Cameron assured us, she never, ever does when her daughter is asleep — and when she came back into the house, she’d have to get through a locked door and her daughter would be gone. That’s exactly what happens to Jane.
In the panel discussion, focus went to Jane’s moral character (she’s not averse to snorting some coke), especially as a mother. “I had to go through a lot of soul searching to write a character this complicated,” said Cameron, who found herself judging the character and herself. “It’s easy to write a male character with all of these flaws,” Cameron observed, “but it’s harder even for women to write women this way.” The other panelists defended flawed female characters like Jane, especially the tendency to judge a woman by her parenting skills. “Did we ever ask if [“Breaking Bad’s”] Walter White was a good father?” asked Sedgwick.
TruTV’s “At Home
with Amy Sedaris
” also screened at the fest. The series sees the “Strangers with Candy
” actress playing different characters and showing off her wildly variable talents — like making “potato ships” out of paper, glue, sour cream, and potatoes — and entertaining guests, including Paul Giamatti
, Jane Krakowski
, and Justin Theroux
. Think of it as a how-to, hospitality, cooking, and crafts show with what co-creator Sedaris described as a “Lawrence Welk
An international perspective was represented in the Vr premiere of “Look But with Love,” a five-part documentary live-action series created by two-time Oscar winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy
. Tribeca made two episodes — both about women working for change in Pakistan — available. Tazzy Phe, one of three YouTube “Creators of Change” whose work was shown at the festival, also brought an international focus in her clever visual essay chronicling her journey to make peace with being a Muslim living in America and an American-Muslim visiting Pakistan.
As for how participants in this weekend festival felt about playing roles in the second — and more inclusive — Golden Age of television, the question was put most pointedly by an audience member during the “Queen Sugar
” panel. “This is a very important show,” she said. “How does it feel to be a part of this revolution in TV with women and people of color, bringing fullness and realness to the screen?”
Gardner responded, “As an actor you yearn to see yourself, to have an opportunity to speak to your experience, your family’s experience, your neighborhood’s experience…to shine a light on what you find unendingly beautiful and dimensional…You miss it for so long, you’re hungry for it for so long, it’s almost a shocking experience [when you finally have it].” She added, “Thank you Ava
, thank you Oprah
…They are absolutely revolutionizing an industry, with no apology.”
Tribeca’s First-Ever TV Festival Reflected Changing Tides for Women in TV was originally published in Women and Hollywood on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.