Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar follows the life of three siblings – Nova Bordelon (Rutina Wesley), Charley Bordelon (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), and their brother, Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe) – who inherit an 800-acre sugarcane farm in Louisiana. Now in its second season, the series, which airs on OWN, tackles delicate issues of race and politics from a grassroots, personal level focusing on the trials and tribulations of a black family trying to adjust to life in the deep south.
Based on a novel of the same name by Natalie Baszile, the series premiered last September with 13 episodes. Before it even premiered, it was greenlit for a second 16-episode season, which premiered on June 20. Avril Beukes was one of three editors on season 2 of the show, along with Shannon Baker Davis and Shoshanah Tanzer. On season 1, Beukes joined editors Spencer Averick, ACE, and JoAnne Yarrow. Incidentally, Davis and Paul Alderman (who also edited one episode on season 1) are alums of the ACE Diversity Mentorship Program.
Beukes explains that a few years back, even though she knew DuVernay always worked with Averick, she mentioned that if the two of them ever needed any help, “I’m available.” Early last year, she got the call. The editors work from editorial suites in Sherman Oaks, Calif. The equipment (running Avid version 8.6.3) is supplied and supported by Hula Post. The series itself is filmed in New Orleans, and every night, FotoKem New Orleans uploads the dailies for the Los Angeles area-based editorial team to get working early the next morning. Each editor tackles a complete episode, in the order they come in, and they have roughly a month to work on each show. “By the time I’ve finished my producer’s cut, I’ve started editing my next show, so there’s a constant rollover. There’s never any slack time. You keep in the space; you just set out to work and you keep your momentum going,” Beukes says. She notes that each editor works differently. “For me, I like to have my assistant do a line cut for me.” Initially her assistant was Amy Parks, but she had to leave and Sean Linal Peterkin took over. “They are both awesome.
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Sean basically takes care of everything for me so I can just arrive in the morning and get right into cutting. He keeps everything else at bay. And when I finish the first cut, we’ll work in tandem on laying up sound effects and music.” The other assistant editors on season 2 are Halima Gilliam and Alexander Aquino. “We have a great team led by our co-producer, Christiana Hooks. Our post supervisor is Ryan Stephens,” she adds.
“We’re in contact with each other every day so we’re up-to-date on everything. It’s like a family.” Writer, director and producer DuVernay is very involved in the editing process. “Ava gets involved once we’ve done the first producer’s cut. She’s a powerhouse. She comes up with ideas and solutions to problems and it’s amazing. She’s the reason we’re all here. And the final cut is pretty much Ava’s cut.” “I think since she adapted the book and created a few of these characters, she knows them inside out, and if there was anything that was not true to the character, Ava would pick up on that,” Beukes adds.
Indeed, the series is a character-driven story that invites viewers into the characters’ lives and gives a glimpse of the personal struggles. “It’s what Ava calls a ‘slow burn,’” says Beukes. “It’s like you’re just spending time with these people as if you were visiting the family. That’s a sensibility that’s very important to this show and it’s evident in the style in which it’s being shot and the style in which it’s being edited. “We all lock into that style. When I’m editing, I close the door and I don’t communicate much with people because I get into that space and immerse myself in the family’s world.”
Stylistically, that calls for a very naturalistic approach, without gimmickry or fast cuts. “You’re trying to make the cuts about the story and not the technical aspects of the creation of the story,” says Beukes. “That is the most important thing. We don’t want to draw people away from the story. We don’t want people to sit there and say, ‘Oh look at that shot.’ We want people to be immersed in the world of Queen Sugar.” “We use a variety of different angles and the series has a cinematic look,” she adds. “As an editor you have to try differ- ent things. You try it and then you say, ‘No … that’s not what this series is,’ and then you just do it again.”
For Beukes, whose background is feature films, she had to find her way into the style of Queen Sugar. “I have to remember that this is real life, so you’re slowing it down. To remain true to the vision of the show is always the challenge,” she says. “I think that’s true of every production that you work on. The production speaks to you. The production tells you how it needs to be edited. It’s not about you imposing your style on the picture – the picture tells you what it wants to be. That’s always the challenge of editing, being able to give it what it wants. “For me the crucial thing about Queen Sugar is that it’s a series that is trying to change people’s minds, to bring about change, so it’s a series that matters,” concludes Beukes. “It is entertainment. It’s wonderful entertainment but I think it has the ability to activate people and to make them want to go out there and change things in the world. That’s why I love it. I want to work on productions that have an effect on people’s lives. That is something that Ava does so well.”