Ava DuVernay, the director extraordinaire, has done it yet again with her newest project on OWN, Queen Sugar. I’m of the mindset that the best art should evoke beauty or haunt the audience. So far, the two-part premiere of Queen Sugar successfully does both.
The show features three main POV characters, the Bordelons – Nova, Charley, and Ralph Angel. Nova is a journalist (who deals weed on the side) who respects older Afro/Vodou/Voodoo traditions while simultaneously being in love with a married man. Charley is a modern woman and mother who’s married to an NBA player (no, she’s not a VH1 Basketball Wife) while acting as his consigliere of sorts. Ralph Angel is a single father and ex-convict struggling to raise his only son while dealing with his drug addicted baby mama. A tragedy unites all these characters via the death of their father, which sets them out on their quest to save their inheritance – a 800 acre sugarcane farm in New Orleans.
At first glance, one would surmise that this is not too dissimilar a premise to a crappy Tyler Perry movie, which usually has a cast of imperfect characters in a southern setting. The corporate woman is miserable, the dark-skinned Black man ain’t shit, and the spiritual/religious Black woman always finds happiness through her love of Jesus. Oh, and there’s Madea and her antics.
Well, Ava avoids all these temptations and instead adds a level of multidimensionality to these characters that we don’t see too often in other shows about Black people. Unlike a Tyler Perry movie, neither adhering to the Christian religion nor following upper class respectability politics are going to save these characters from any real world perdition. Instead, their challenges go beyond the usual Black fiction motifs (i.e., the hood/black-on-black violence, racism, cyclical African wars, etc.,) and beyond the stereotypical archetypes (i.e., magical negro, funny Black guy, sexual chocolate thug, etc.,). They have to deal with life, love, survival, and serenity in an otherwise chaotic world that is unfair to Black life, especially in the South.
With her masterful cinematography, she successfully evokes a sort of visceral beauty of this same southern landscape. The vast green rows of sugar crops, the sunsets, and the seemingly endless view of nature are sights to behold and appreciated. The scenery and cinematography instantly recalls Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991) and Kasi Lemmons’s Eve’s Bayou (1997), both films directed by Black women about Black women living in the rural South. Of course, Beyoncé’s Lemonade visual masterpiece released earlier this year utilizes the same imagery while featuring Black womanhood as the central narrative.
However, when i saw Ralph and his father walk the vast fields of crops together, I could not help but recall the horrendous history slavery. Four centuries of Black bodies of toiling in the fields as well as their theft of freedom by their White enslavers created the backbone of the state that governs it to this day. Seeing Ralph Angel and his son endure the poverty, exacerbated by the shameful institution of the carcel state as well as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, only made me weep for the two. Yet, it’s necessary that art creates discomfort amongst the audience, which occurs when their father dies from heart failure, adding to their personal turmoil.
Juxtaposing the rural landscape are the cities of Los Angeles, where Charley lives, and New Orleans, where Nova and Ralph Angel reside. It’s within the cities that we find our characters being at their most miserable. Nova is not regularly appreciated by her newspaper for her labor, since she wants to write serious stories as opposed to trivial celebrity gossip. As she brilliantly stated to her exploitative editor, “stop wasting my gas money” and “I am not a source.” Contrasting this, her sister Charley lives in relative economic security in nice house LA with her husband and son. This is until her husband becomes involved in a possible sexual assault, which brings down a mountain of public scrutiny upon her family’s shoulders. On the other hand, Ralph Angel, dealing with New Orleans’s shameful levels of unemployment, has to rob a liquor store in broad day just to survive in a city still affected by the levee failure and state abandonment in 2006.
The farm of which our main characters inherit has not grown a crop in two years and it is riddled in almost insurmountable debt. Yet, the property offers more than just financial profit, but also potential redemption for our main characters. Can Nova find peace from her ailing and exploitative job while utilizing the land for a common good? Can Charley learn how to honor older traditions while finding serenity from her husband’s public failings? Can Ralph Angel provide a stable environment for his young son away from the city’s ills and his own personal misfortunes? Can all three of our characters resolve their major tensions amongst themselves and bond as a family for once while learning how to actually work the land?
Of course, what caused the farm to fail in the first place? Why are the Bordelons estranged to begin with? Are there any enemies lurking in the dark, waiting to take advantage of our characters’ misfortunes?
We’ll find out soon enough.
This show is from Black women (since it features an exclusively women team of directors) and about Black women and thank Ava DuVernay for it. It is long overdue that us brothas all recognize and encourage sistas to creating art that explores their humanity. After all, Black women have been and shall continue to be the backbone of our community in damn near everything from art to activism. The notion of “behind every great Black man is a Black woman” is not only dated, but harmful in that it limits how we perceive them. They cannot just simply just boost us up into “taking on the White man’s world” or whatever other sexist hotep logic we use to limit them. Rather, Black women will continue to drive the culture and community further if we give them the support they need.
It is only right that we support our filmmakers, writers, and other artists alike if we are to see a new vision of our people going forward. Queen Sugar offers us something we rarely see on television: a drama with a haunting atmosphere, beautiful film-like cinematography, and compelling humane characters we can all empathize with. Judging by the two-part premiere, the best is yet to come.