Gimme Some Sugar
Nova Borderlon’s dreadlocks are silky and her skin shimmers like the cosmos.
We know this because director Ava DuVernay’s lens glides gently, methodically over her body in the opening scene of Queen Sugar, the new series airing on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), an adaptation of the Natalie Baszile novel of the same name.
Nova, played with pure grace by Rutina Wesley, is the eldest of three siblings whose lives are upended by the sudden death of their father Ernest (Glynn Turman). Complicating matters even further is that each sibling is already in the midst of a personal crisis that exacerbates the distances between them. Now, they must come together to decide what must be done with the Louisiana sugar cane farm they inherited.
Nova, a journalist — and also something more unconventional but no less important — is the heartbeat and bloodrush of not only the family, but also of the show itself. Wesley invests the character with such quiet power that it’s difficult to look anywhere else when she’s on the screen. This magnetism is bolstered by DuVernay’s ability to render Blackness as it is: magnificent. Nova is romantically involved with a white New Orleans police officer named Calvin (Greg Vaughan) and his occupation, as well as other situations he’s involved in, don’t bode well for their future together.
Ernest’s passing couldn’t have come at a worse time for Charley Bordelon-West (Dawn-Lyen Gardner). Only a day before, she discovers, with the rest of the TMZ-obssesed world, that her husband, NBA player Davis West (Timon Kyle Durrett), may be involved in some dirty dealings. Charley, fortunately, is not the stand-by-your-man-even-when-he’s-dead-ass-wrong kind of woman. She allows herself a reaction that will forever be known as the most epic un-Hillary-Clinton move imaginable, as their son — elegant, mellow, Micah (Nicholas L. Ashe) — sympathetic to his mother’s turmoil, watches from a distance. When Charley finally makes it home only to discover that her father died while she was in transit, her collapse into her sister’s arms feels like a blues unleashed, a testament to Gardner’s skill.
Ralph-Angel Bordelon (Kofi Siriboe) has his own demons. The single father, fresh from under the oppressive weight of the prison industrial complex, is on a quest to provide for his son, Blue (Ethan Hutchison) — a cherub-faced kindergartner with a burgeoning identity (which, at least for now, appears to a natural part of the landscape) — by any means necessary. This man, in one scene rough-and-tumble and, in the next, nurturing and vulnerable, is the locus for a complex rendering of masculinity. Within him, there’s a bit of the rigid, hegemonic maleness that defines itself through the domination of others. But there’s also an inner warmth that allows him to embrace, full-on, his father, and lovingly welcome his son. Siriboe mines that liminal space for all it’s worth, glowing from every angle.
There are many other layers to this series, which, in ways large and small, celebrate and interrogate black sensuality. This is exemplified in Violet Bordelon (Tina Lifford), the siblings’ aunt, who is loved and doted on by a younger suitor, Hollywood Desonier (Omar J. Dorsey) in a way that isn’t awkward or self-conscious, and doesn’t operate under a particular kind of gaze. In fact, the genius of this show is that it doesn’t operate under any gazes, whether white, male, or cisheterosexual.
Queen Sugar is an astute meditation on the black humanity Hollywood is stubbornly unwilling to render. But this treatise on behalf of Blackness is not new for DuVernay. Operating from a place of love for her people, and a desire to tell the exquisite, funky truth about us, the dimensions captured by her lens are inevitable. From the way she frames her subjects (off center, giving them room to imagine) to how patiently the camera lingers on them, the viewer is confronted by an unshakeable, but long-denied reality in which black people are merely people — in a landscape that takes on a life of its own, thanks to the stunning cinematography of Antonio Calvache.
Floating smoothly over all of this, as well as girding it from beneath, is an ethereal, rhythmic score by musical prodigy Me’Shell N’Degeocello. Matching the director point for point, N’Degeocello’s compositions make the highs higher and the lows lower, articulating, profoundly, the yearning that dwells at the fringes.
DuVernay called Queen Sugar an experiment, a litmus test to determine if Americans are ready to stare into the darkness and acknowledge this kind of beauty, which, in all honesty, has always been there; slandered, but there. And now, finally, portrayed.
It’s remarkable that in this I must call Duvernay visionary when this should, in fact, be the industry standard. Hopefully, recognition of her genius will make it so.
OWN has steadily raised the bar on its original programming, from reality shows to Tyler Perry melodramas to the entertaining Greenleaf. We must thank Oprah Winfrey for her perceptiveness. With Queen Sugar, she and her network have reached a pinnacle unlike any ever achieved in the medium.
It’s a must watch.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Queen Sugar will have a two-night premiere on OWN. The first episode airs commercial free on Tuesday, September 6 at 10 p.m. EST/9 p.m. Central. The second episode airs Wednesday, September 7 at 10 p.m. EST./9 p.m. Central.