Tuesday night. Dinner was done, the kitchen was clean. Hubby was on “Get baby ready for bed” duty, and I had hopped in the shower and back out just in time. With 10 minutes to spare until 10pm, I was more than ready to finally watch the heavily promoted premiere of Queen Sugar (the Ava DuVernay-helmed series on OWN). After soaking up all the press over the past few months about the show, I couldn’t wait to drink it all in – but I quickly learned my thirst wasn’t going to be satisfied. OWN Canada, for some nonsensical reason, isn’t airing Queen Sugar. So while I watched my entire Twitter timeline blow up over the wonders of the show, I was left stewing (and cussing) on my couch with an old episode of Criminal Minds staring back at me. Canadian television programming fail.
But where there’s a will, there’s a way. I finally tuned into the first two episodes of Queen Sugar, and I am hooked. Based on the book by Natalie Baszile of the same name, the show chronicles the lives of 3 very different siblings who inherit their father’s sugarcane farm while trying to manage the complexities of their own lives. Quite frankly, this show is like nothing I’ve ever seen.
Our three main players are the Bordelon siblings – Nova, the eldest (played by the inimitable Rutina Wesley – I’ve loved her since True Blood), a journalist and spiritualist; Charley, the middle (played skillfully by Gwen-Lyen Gardner), the wife and manager of David West, a top-level NBA star and mother to son Micah; and Ralph Angel, the baby (played powerfully by Kofi Siriboe); 6 months fresh out of prison and a single dad to adorable son Blue, played by Ethan Hutchison. Blue’s mom Darla is a recovering drug addict played by possible vampire Bianca Lawson (like, how has she looked 17 forever?), and the Bordelon patriarch Ernest is played masterfully by Glynn Turman.
Here are some of my favourite notable aspects from the first two episodes:
The opening scene + overall cinematography
The show opens with one of the most sensual scenes I’ve ever watched – Nova arising from the bed she shares with her lover, Calvin (Greg Vaughan). Instead of the usual sexy scene of getting undressed, we watch Calvin help Nova put her clothes on – and I was sitting there like:
This looked phenomenal, but seeing that Calvin is a white, married police detective means that there will undoubtedly be some rockiness in this love boat. The direction and cinematography in this scene give you an introduction to what the rest of the show looks like. The lighting, colours, shades, and languid pacing ensure that you see every bit of everything – the landscapes, the spaces that the characters inhabit, the emotion on their faces, and above all else, the beauty of Blackness. Black people are lit, shot, and framed in such a gorgeous way – Ava DuVernay spoke on this last year during an interview with Q-Tip:
Skin tones of all kinds are luminous on the Queen Sugar screen, and I’m so thankful for that.
The expressions of masculinity
After Daddy Bordelon suffers a heart attack and ends up in the hospital, Ralph Angel reluctantly brings Blue to see his Pop-Pop – grandfather and grandson share an incredibly special bond. You see how Ralph Angel tries to shield his son from certain realities, how he’s both tender and tough with Blue, and how some of those same traits exist in the relationship between Ernest and Ralph Angel as well. We don’t know where Ralph Angel’s mother is or how long she’s been gone – but in one particular scene (that had me BAWLING), we see 3 generations of Bordelon men who are all just doing the best they can with what they have, showing a love and tenderness between Black men that has rarely been displayed in mainstream media.
In episode 2, Ralph Angel’s Aunt Violet (Tina Lifford) chides him for trying to protect Blue from everything: “Baby, coddlin’ him ain’t doin’ him no favours,” she says. “Ernest always regretted all the coddling he did with you, his only son up on a pedestal,” she continues. “You see how it turns out.”
“How’s that?” Asks Blue.
“Wrestling with the world. A world that ain’t got no pedestal for you.”
An interesting piece of the Ralph Angel/Blue relationship is Kenya – the Barbie doll that Blue carries with him almost everywhere. You see how it’s a comfort to the child and how it creates discomfort for the father, who in one moment obliges his son by helping to prop Kenya on the sink while he cuts Blue’s hair, then in the next takes it out of Blue’s backpack on the way to school, promising to keep her safe at home.
Figuring out who Charley is
Charley is an interesting conundrum of a character. Leaving Louisiana for the bright lights of Los Angeles, she obtained an MBA, married a superstar basketball player, and has been living a life of success and riches ever since. When her husband David gets caught up in a sex scandal that unfolds simultaneously with the death of her father, Charley returns to her hometown and the siblings she left behind. You see the external tension, especially between Nova and Charley, who embrace at the end of episode 1, but engage in combat during episode 2. You see the internal tension as the L.A. Charley and the Louisiana Charley battle for space in one body. You learn that Charley has a different mother than her other two siblings, adding even more context to the issues that arise. Charley is undoubtedly going to be on a journey of self-discovery through the season, and it will be interesting to see how it all unfolds.
The nuances of Blackness
There’s Nova tearing into Charley for hiring servers for their father’s repast: “You ain’t been gone that long – how come you don’t remember how it’s done?” Nova yells. “We don’t honour our father by having strangers serve those grieving. We serve comfort food to those who need comfort and we do it with our own hands!”
There’s the dissonance between the Bordelons and the funeral director when Nova wants to sew a special pouch into the lining of their father’s casket: “We don’t allow that kind of thing, Miss Nova,” says the director. “We run a straight Christian business here.” The juxtaposition between Christianity and diasporic spirituality creates an important moment here.
There’s Ernest Bordelon’s masonic funeral service itself, where the family sits dressed in all white as the patriarch is laid to rest. This Vulture recap references Ernest’s membership in the Prince Hall Affiliated Free and Accepted Mason fraternity, named after Prince Hall, an 18th century Black abolitionist.
Some aspects are familiar to me through disaporic channels, and some are new – but the effort to intertwine varied realities of Black life is both comforting and refreshing.
With an incredible cast and diverse writing and directing teams (Ava DuVernay tapped a lineup of all-women directors for season 1), this show feels like a gift delivered to us from Natalie Baszile, Oprah, Ava DuVernay, and the entire cast and crew. I don’t know about y’all, but I plan to stay tuned and stay sweet – I am 100% here for Queen Sugar.