Ava DuVernay talks to Salon about her revolutionary — but not political — series "Cherish the Day"

Salon talks to DuVernay about the thirst to see Black romance on TV and why she's into "Love Is Blind"

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published March 24, 2020 5:35PM (EDT)

Ava DuVernay (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
Ava DuVernay (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Every love story comes to a close. Not all of them end with a "happily ever after." Ava DuVernay knows how appealing that mystery can be, keeping viewers attached to their favorite series as they root for the couple they so badly want to win — or lose — at love.

This is the core appeal of the "Queen Sugar" creator's second TV series for OWN, "Cherish the Day," which closes out its freshman season this week, airing its finale episode Tuesday night. In that hour at long last, the drama answers the question viewers asked from its opening scene: Will its starring couple Evan (Alano Miller) and Gently (Xosha Roquemore) go the distance?

Romantic stories are a fine distraction from worldly anxieties, which is why "Cherish" has clicked with a small but devoted audience.  "I feel like so often we are centering our stories outside of us, that we have these extraordinary external forces that are changing and shaping our stories," DuVernay told Salon during a phone conversation this week. "And it's important to also have stories that are untouched by the outside world."

Tuesday's finale is a glittery Gilded Age-style fantasy in celebration of Cicely Tyson's scene-stealing character Luma Langston, a retired film actress from Hollywood's Golden Era. Her milestone birthday party features such celebrity guests as Lorette Devine and Quincy Jones, both appearing as themselves.

Meanwhile, the broader American viewership is glued to a popular unscripted series about the fickle nature of love that's currently streaming on Netflix. No doubt someone in your life is addicted to "Love Is Blind." Indeed, the very mention of that title leads DuVernay to enthusiastically speak up.

"First of all, listen to me," she said.  "...I don't watch a lot of TV. I mean, because I'm working... I'm really not a reality TV person and I'm really not a dating show reality person — I mean, not me, but my sister said, "Oh my gosh, you've got to watch 'Love Is Blind.'" She's been telling me this forever. I get home. I'm saying, you know what? I'm going to let my mind rest for a couple of days before I start to kind of go hysterical about everything that's going on. So I started to watch this thing."

Long story short, she's rationing out her "Love Is Blind" experience to make it last, allowing herself one episode per day instead of bingeing it in a sitting.

That matches the pace of Evan and Gently's love affair, one that blossoms, fades and rekindles over the course of five years and examined in eight significant days, each one corresponding to an episode. Gently's upbringing and way of life is worlds apart from the one Evan was raised and lives in. She's a creative woman from a working class family who prioritizes caring for people over flashiness; he comes from an image-obsessed upper-middle class black family that doesn't full accept the relationship, even after they commit to one another.

Evan, you see, is considered by many to be the perfect man: a Stanford graduate and an independently wealthy tech entrepreneur. His initial instinct is to woo Gently with grand, romantic gestures which she rebuffs, forcing him to pull back and simplify. He showers her with expensive gifts and a lovely home; she supports his risk-taking wholeheartedly. At the same time, he can also be stifling and tacitly expects her to keep her goals and dreams secondary to his.

As the season travels through their slow burn of a love story, its devoted viewers connected on social media with their reactions to each twist, heartwarming turn and frustrating misstep. But the fact of that connection isn't as interesting as what comes up in those conversations. In a very real way DuVernay's series holds a mirror up to its audience, one that's largely composed of Black women, and allows each person to examine her own emotional expectations and self-worth when it comes to being a relationship.

And the "Cherish" viewership has responded enthusiastically to that approach. "I just got a note from the network yesterday saying it's the top freshman scripted series on basic cable," DuVernay said, adding, "It's so funny. They give you, like, 'It's the top scripted freshman series on basic cable where, you know, made by a show runner whose birthday in August.'"

She added after a laugh, "But you know, a lot of things came out during the same time as we did. And we've had a small but mighty and dedicated audience. And so it's been fun to watch them watch it."  DuVernay says that OWN has yet to green-light a second season of the series, which isn't unusual; nearly every TV production is on hold right now as the nation reacts to the pandemic.

DuVernay spoke with Salon about the relaxed, methodical approach of "Cherish the Day," why taking it slow with Gently and Evan matters, and how it contrasts with that other unscripted romance everybody's obsessed with.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

As "Cherish the Day" has moved through its season, it's been interesting to see the ways that people have been connecting online around the show. A lot of series have devoted audiences that live tweet during episodes, but there have been many observations about what the show means to each person, and really connecting to Evan and Gently and their trajectory. What's it been like for you to witness that? Have you been watching that at all?

It's been really gorgeous to watch the connection to the characters unfold online. I mean, I enjoy that across all of the shows and anything that I'm doing. It's such a joy to be able to hear what people think in real time as they're watching it — you don't get that with the theatrical experience, you get it with television.

There's been such an intimacy to the conversation that has been really fantastic to watch unfold, particularly because we have so many Black women watching the show. And Black women are grappling with, you know, questions of love and family in ways that aren't usually articulated [on other shows] because those narratives are not at the forefront of our industry. You know what I mean?

Usually our romances are seen in romantic comedies or they're something light or, you know, not really addressing those deep intimacies. I think folks that aren't Black, particularly white folks, get to see every iteration of their love, forever. And we don't. So to see sisters embracing it and talking about it and congregating around it has been a real joy.

I'm going to ask a little bit more about that, but I'm actually going to pivot to another show for a moment, because there's a comparison to be made here. A lot of people been talking about "Love Is Blind" on Netflix...

First of all, completely hooked. Have to tell myself, "You know what? You're only gonna watch one a day. OK? Don't get crazy." Well now I'm on episode eight, and I've really been disciplined not to go to the next one. I just love this show. So what is your question?

OK. Wow. What do you love about it?

Well, from a creative standpoint, I think it does a lot well in terms of a re-imagining these dating show tropes.

I like that everything's kind of collapsed and that it's moving quickly. I also really thought it did [a good job] of showing different kinds of people. Usually with those shows you're congregating around one core person or you've got the same type of people. I like the fact that you have a lot of different classes and kinds of people there, whether it's by race, whether it's by style, whether it's like, the cool people! The nerdy people! The interracial folks! The folks that are Black-on-Black or white-on-white folks! All of that felt like, oh gosh, everyone can watch this and see someone that they identify with.

Would love to have seen some Asian folks, some other folks in it. But overall I thought they were different types of people and I enjoyed that.

The other piece of it is this idea of, you know, what really matters? For me, I'm always interrogating culture and class, race and gender. To kind of get into something where we're really holding our feet to the fire as to what matters to us, as a core concept, was interesting. It's kind of gotten away from that as the episodes have gone on. But as an initial experiment, I thought it was interesting.

And I just fell in love with Lauren and Cameron.

That's the couple that I was going to talk about. Here's the interesting thing about them. Very early on, they were the first couple to reveal themselves to each other. And they brought up throughout their relationship, the fact that Lauren said, "I've never dated a white guy." Those kinds of things.

The reason I bring that up is that, we're more likely to see a Black woman dating a white man on TV shows these days or vice versa, Black man with white woman. But I also think of like  what "This Is Us" is doing where you have a Black couple going through the experience of their marriage through the filter of their larger family.

And there are so many other elements on top of that.

There's much more about that relationship on "This Is Us," that has to do with the struggles that Randall goes through in terms of emotional wellness, but also these ideas of career and family and those kinds of things.

Bringing this back to "Cherish," in the same way that you've seen people react and interact with your show — and I don't know if you've gotten online and seen people's reactions to "Love Is Blind" and "This Is Us," but I'm wondering if you're seeing any differences with regard to what people are connecting with in those shows versus Evan and Gently's story in "Cherish"?

No. I've been staying off Twitter on purpose with "Love Is Blind" because I don't want anyone to tell me what's happened, and I'm not caught up on "This Is Us." So I haven't delved into those.

The thing that I would say, and one of the things I'm proudest of on "Cherish" as it relates to this whole idea of Black love, is that it's really focused on that, completely outside of any cultural, societal paradigm. You know, there is no racial component to their intimacy that needs to be tackled. There are no external forces that we're exploring in the show, whether it be criminalization of Black men or you know, police brutality or you know, disenfranchisement in housing or on the job.

All those things that could be addressed, and I address them a lot of my other work, I purposely I didn't address here because I just want it to be about love and intimacy between Black folk. And I feel like so often we are centering our stories outside of us, that we have these extraordinary external forces that are changing and shaping our stories. And it's important to also have stories that are untouched by the outside world.

And so, yes, they have familial issues in terms of ideas about their education between each other and family structure between each other. But we purposely didn't want to address things like Lauren and Cameron have got to deal with, or whatever's happening on "This Is Us," where their intimacy is all in the context of a larger societal construct. And so I think that's one of the things that has been really refreshing in making it.

Because usually I'm all, you know, deep in history and politics and civics and the societal and social mores of it all. This has just been two people and the intimacies of the heart.

And when you really think about it, Caucasian folks and their love stories never have to contend with those things. Never, ever! Their love stories are unburdened by the way society sees them. It's just the love. And you may get a story about class, the classic, I don't know, "Notebook," "West Side Story," "Romeo and Juliet" tropes, whatever. But our stories as Black folks seem to be so tethered to notions of Blackness as they're perceived by other people. So it's just nice to watch love stories like "Love Jones," like "Love and Basketball," like "Mo' Better Blues," some of the classic Black love stories and dramatic movies that we just don't get anymore. That's kind of what we were trying to bring back.

One of the things that I loved about the penultimate episode was all the various trips that they made to different therapists. There's still so much of a stigma among Black folks in terms of going to therapy in the first place, even marriage counseling.

That hour also worked really well as a retrospective synopsis of Evan and Gently's relationship, just to remind the audience of everything that brought them to that point. So can you talk a little bit about conceiving that particular chapter?

Yes. Well, I definitely wanted to just show Black people in therapy. There's a stigma around therapy in general in our society, but truly in the Black community it is a big mountain to climb for a lot of people.

And when you look back historically as to why so many Black folk think negatively about therapy and counseling, its real root is in segregation. "This is something that is not for you and you cannot do." And that took hold generationally. So within whole families of people, it is thought of to be something that is not for us. And so it was really important for us to try to deconstruct that. But then within the story itself, I really wanted to get down to that therapy [is] a vehicle for each person, each character, to voice their truth.

We have a lot of people watching the show, a lot of Black women, who are really critical of Gently. There was a great opinion piece that was done on this site that I love called Shadow and Act that's run by Black folks who write about film ... about a Black woman taking the opposite view of Gently and being more critical of Evan. It's been really fascinating to me how Black women are so blinded by Evan that they cannot see his weaknesses.

They can't. All I'm getting online is, "Girl, if you don't want him..!" Hey, sis. Wait a minute, look at what's happening here. And so that episode was really to allow for us to stop and for them both to be able to voice, in a really constructive manner, what was wrong with the way the other character was proceeding, and with the goal being, there's always another side to the story especially within our relationships. And we need to take a minute to really digest and hear what the other person is saying.

We got tremendous feedback from that episode. I think one of the biggest compliments from the episode was, gosh, I don't know, I got maybe a hundred or so tweets just dedicated to folks saying, "Wow, I've never been in a therapy session before. That's how it is?" You know, and, "Oh goodness, that's not that bad." And, "Oh wow, this is interesting." And so just kind of pulling back that veil, it worked on multiple levels. I think it came out nicely. I'm happy with it.

Have you been surprised at the reaction to Evan or were you expecting it?

I was expecting it. I mean, we built him to be what he is. But I don't know if I was expecting so much [from] women — I mean, I should have! — just allowing the bad or the challenging behavior because of everything else he's got that's right. And not being able to see the ways in which he silences her, the ways in which he kind of dominates. Folks are seeing that as her weakness as opposed to his, which is interesting.

But it's been interesting and fun to read some of these different blogs and opinions of folks finally starting to be like, "Okay, well maybe she's not just being defensive and ridiculous," and to really listen to her. Because I think in listening to her, we have a person who's emotionally closed off, but he is as well. They're just exhibiting in different ways. So, I don't know, it's been an interesting social experiment. Not as juicy as "Love Is Blind," but I've learned a lot from watching people's reactions to "Cherish the Day."

The season finale of "Cherish the Day" airs Tuesday, March 24 at 10 p.m. on OWN.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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