3% touched base with director and writer DeMane Davis on directing Queen Sugar, diversity in advertising, social change, being woke—and how there's no going back to sleep.
Tell us a little bit about your background and ties to the advertising world?
I worked my way from secretary to copywriter at my first ad agency in Boston. In NYC, I wrote Snapple spots during the day while scripting my first feature at night, Black & White & Red All Over. Heater Advertising hired me back in Boston and graciously granted time off during production. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and internationally at Edinburgh.
Since then, I’ve directed over 50 commercials and a second feature (Lift starring Kerry Washington, streaming on Amazon) all while freelance copywriting for agencies and clients worldwide. I’m repped as a commercial director by a female-helmed production company called Sweet Rickey.
I heard Ava DuVernay hired female directors for the entire first season of her TV series Queen Sugar and it inspired me to work with my first ever female director of photography. This past spring, Ava asked me to direct two episodes of Queen Sugar (which still seems nuts when I type it but, yeah, that happened.)
How did Queen Sugar come to fruition?
Ava was invited to stay at Oprah Winfrey’s house after production wrapped on her Oscar-nominated Film, Selma, and the novel (Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile) was on the nightstand in the bedroom. The next night the same book was on the other nightstand. Ava read it, loved the story of three siblings who inherit their father’s sugar cane farm in Louisiana, and re-envisioned it for television. Queen Sugar is currently in its second season on OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network) and was picked up for a third.
How does the portrayal of these characters connect to the issue of diversity in advertising?
When I was little I remember print ads for McDonald’s celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. and car commercials with a primarily black cast, but that was only on MLK Day and during black award shows. Never any other time.
Having the opportunity to direct a TV show featuring people and women of color, both in front of and behind the camera, was transformational. This is what the world looks like. It shouldn’t be foreign to see that reflected in the casts and crews of commercials where they’re working hard to sell an audience something. We should have the benefit of knowing how a Latina family or a family from China lives and breathes. Those families have stories worth telling. They watch TV and buy products too.
How do you balance all of your pursuits—copywriting, directing, voice over—say what!?
I think everyone can and should do whatever they feel excited about and I’m both excited and fortunate enough to be able to do those things. What I like the most is that they all inform one another. When I’m doing a voiceover as talent I’ll think, “If I were the copywriter I’d want the VO to try the line this way.” When I’m directing a commercial
I’ll think, “If I were the client (agency) I’d want to highlight this particular attribute.”
It’s all cumulative. And I get to meet three times the amount of craftspeople and creatives than I normally would which is educational and fun.
What is the role of brands with regard to social change?
If companies want your money they have an obligation to (at the least) listen to you and (at the most) address your issue should you have one. I think it’s important that a brand understands what you hold dear when it comes to how they advertise, what they create, how it impacts the world and who they hire.
I spend a lot of cheddar on avocados. If the grocery store where I get them does something I can’t get on board with, and I tell them and they blow me off my first thought is: oh, they must not want my cheddar. My second thought is: where else can I buy avocados?
How can advertising creatives and directors effect change both within the industry and on screen?
I don’t think any creative person wants to do exactly what’s been done before. For me, the only way to do that is to work with new people, get different perspectives, go to other sources.
When you do that—immerse yourself in something or someone different and stay open—it will bring you places. Places you never thought you’d go or get to on your own. You’ll end up with work you didn’t think was inside you and relationships that will make your work evolve.
Business as usual does not yield the unusual.
Do you think the political climate will inspire or ignite change in the creative industries at a more rapid clip?
If this climate has done one thing it has made all of us more aware of how other groups of people feel. I hope this will encourage us to talk to each other more. Industries will have to evolve to keep up.
Put it this way—I’ve never spoken to more people (all ages, genders, and all ethnicities) about politics than I do right now. There is no going back to sleep.