2016 has been an incredibly black year. From Beyoncé’s world-changing “Lemonade” to FX’s new dramedy “Atlanta,” a diverse range of stories, and storytellers, that proudly declare their blackness are finally getting the pop culture attention they deserve.
“Queen Sugar” takes advantage of this surge, in the best possible way — and creates an incredibly powerful, unique family drama in the process.
The show’s talented cast and evocative imagery feel like a return to the true slow-burning family drama genre. Ava Duvernay’s first foray into television, “Queen Sugar” feels like an alternate road “Empire” could’ve taken, before it settled into its celebrity-centric, soapy final form: A nuanced but focused look at a complex black family, that realistically captures just what that blackness means.
Two sisters and one brother, reuniting on a Louisiana sugarcane farm so reminiscent of “Lemonade’s” sparse plantations, dusty roads and sunlight, you might wonder if Duvernay could’ve borrowed some of Beyoncé’s b-roll. Add to this names like Winfrey and Duvernay, and you might worry you’re looking at the southern franchise of Shondaland: Joining “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder” as an achievement in black female diversity on TV, that will be perceived as mostly enjoyed by black women OWN viewers (no matter how untrue that perception is).
It’s not unfair, those shows certainly set off the larger cultural moment that’s led to the expansion of black stories on TV — but it simplifies the story, and not just the one in front of the camera.
Because Duvernay has taken care to make sure the crew behind “Queen Sugar” is just as diverse as its cast: Female directors, many of whom had not directed TV before, have helmed every episode. This new energy is felt throughout the storytelling, just as Meshell Ndegeocello’s careful score never overwhelms it. The direction is never overbearing, nor heavy-handed, even during reveals that, bluntly presented, might seem like nothing more than tropes. It’s an important difference that gives each character a subtlety other shows wouldn’t think to afford them.
The show’s three siblings –– Nova, Ralph Angel and Charley Bordelon –– tease us with stereotypes they know they should be playing against realities that are far deeper and more interesting. The sister who opens the premiere, before retreating from the stage enough to introduce the others, is the family’s heart.
Rutina Wesley’s Nova is a journalist and activist, who also practices mystical healing rituals. She speaks sweetly to the drug dealers she supplies, extorting community involvement and protest from them in return for her wares. She’s defiant, but soft –– viewers are introduced to her, and the show, through a heavily romantic, near-wordless morning scene with a lover.
Over the show’s two-night premiere, we meet Nova as a caretaker, a lover, a leader, a mystic, a hustler, a daughter and a sister. A living embodiment of the bonds of family, she’ll rage at sister Charley’s disconnection from her roots, while simultaneously slipping their unlucky brother financial help; sometimes literally and concretely, she holds the family together, and has her secrets.
It’s like someone drained all the witchcraft race-war camp from Angela Basset’s portrayal of Marie Laveau in “American Horror Story: Coven,” leaving all the grace, strength and power Wesley brings out in Nova, with depth and subtlety. She is loving and honest with her boyfriend, to a fault — even as complications present themselves to us, changing our ideas about Nova, her lover and the way Nova sees herself.
“Queen Sugar” knows Nova can be angry, and difficult to love. The difference, for a black woman, is that the show lets her be so much more.
In the opening shot of the show, the camera lingers on Nova’s dreadlocks before tracing a path of tattoos down her body. The moment feels incredibly intimate. It’s like we’re being granted a look into not only Nova’s personal space, but also the private sphere where black women are allowed to simply exist. Where they can simply be, rather than perform.
It felt like an invasion, too, like the moment someone runs their hands in your afro without asking; Duvernay recreated all of this feeling within mere seconds of the show’s opening.
“How to Get Away With Murder” captured a similar vulnerable moment with Annalise’s private moment with her wig and eyelashes in Season 1, but that scene was meant to feel like an explosive unveiling: Here, it’s a celebration and a chance to know the characters before they are put on display: Nova is intuitive, unique, physical, verbal and deeply honest … And there’s still so much for the audience to uncover.
But the other Bordelon siblings shouldn’t be overlooked. Within moments of introducing us to Ralph Angel and his son Blue, the show makes his frustrations, as a recent ex-inmate, and intentions, as a single black father, crystal clear. The show buys back its honest portrayal of black poverty by leaping over the usual tropes — overly aggressive, emotionally distant — and instead putting him at the story’s emotional center.
As smart and almost as honest as his sisters, and burdened in some ways just as heavily, Ralph Angel is at his best when filled with love — in fact, he is the focus of one of the premiere’s most emotional turns, as the dying patriarch (Glynn Turman) embraces first his grandson Blue (Ethan Hutchison), and then Ralph Angel himself, in his final moments.
It’s an intimate look at black male bonding that’s rarely, if ever, shown on television. Black women are afforded more vulnerability in recent portrayals, but there are few moments between black men that come to mind on TV dramas. The Shakespearean “Empire” pits the Lyons’ male egos against each other so frequently, and brings them back together so sparingly, that it’s easy to forget the connection that keeps them together. But “Queen Sugar” lets the camera linger in this moment: A set piece that tells us more of Ralph Angel’s secret self than the whole hour before.
Then there’s Charley. Charley returns to Louisiana from Los Angeles when her basketball star husband is involved in a sex crime. It’s difficult to pin Charley’s character down, both for the audience and for her family, who seem to resent her success, and more importantly, her distance.
Among her fellow basketball wives, she’s the type-A leader, but back home, Charley’s out of her league. A central appeal is the chance to understand Charley more deeply as the season continues — after all, she’s going through two separate, life-changing traumas in the first two hours alone — not least because the character, and her portrayal, deserve all that time to settle, and find her way home.
It’s wonderful to see a show set its own pace like this. The care “Queen Sugar” takes with its characters, specifically, is reminiscent of the truly great television family dramas, like “Six Feet Under”: Thrilling character study that moves beyond the broad themes of the black Southern experience, and well into the details. It handles these subjects with care and reverence, and with detail and knowledge, and perhaps most importantly: With confidence.
“Queen Sugar” airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on OWN.