Meet Nova Bordelon
Unlike the other Bordelon siblings, Nova is a character that wasn’t originally featured in the novel by Natalie Baszille. Portrayed by the actress Rutina Wesley, Nova is a byproduct of DuVernay’s own creative spirit. Though originally missing from the storyline, it’s hard to imagine Queen Sugar without the presence of Nova Bordelon. While Charley struggles to reconstruct her identity without her husband, Nova, the oldest of the siblings, struggles to negotiate her personal life with her identity as a Black Lives Matter activist. Described by Wesley in a 2016 HuffPost interview as a “brown girl’s dream,” Nova is the very first character introduced in the series. The opening scene of “First Things First” is a closeup frame of Nova laying face down in a bed, her neatly kept, shiny dreadlocks cascading down her back. The camera pans down her body revealing the radiance of her tattooed, dark brown skin. A wider frame soon reveals that a man is laying in the bed beside her. This man is later formally introduced as Louisiana police officer Calvin, her forbidden, married, love interest throughout the first half of the season. Nova wakes up from her slumber and proceeds to put her clothes on as Calvin admires her from afar before getting out of bed to help. Though few words are spoken in this opening scene, facial expressions, body language, and tender interactions clearly suggest that their relationship is special yet far from simple.
The first of Nova’s roles within the community depicted in the series is that of a healer as she is shown in the first episode praying over an elderly woman identified as Ms. Blanch. Throughout the season it is revealed that Nova’s religious practices are rooted in traditional religions within the African Diaspora, signaling her connection to both the people and the rich, historically rooted culture of Louisiana. Her compassion is illustrated through her refusal to accept payment from Ms. Blanch in exchange for the prayer. Instead, Nova walks over to her shelves filled with jars of miscellaneous spices and herbs and hands Ms. Blanch a joint advising her to use it for any experienced pain. In a comedic exchange between she and Ms. Blanch, it becomes clear that in addition to healing, Nova is the community herbalist. Nova’s identity as both an activist and journalist is first introduced as she is shown sitting on her front porch typing up an article with a headline reading “Louisiana Police Brutality Rates Triple.” Within the first three scenes featuring Nova, it becomes clear that her conflicting multidimensionality commands a presence that has largely gone unexplored in representations of Black womanhood in television.
Depicting the Movement
It is through the narrative of Nova that activism culture within the era of Black Lives Matter are brought to the forefront in Queen Sugar. In David Leonard’s examination of consciousness on television in the 1970s, he argues that the Black sitcom, Good Times, captured sentiments within the Black community during the civil rights movement. While most programming overwhelmingly ignored the political experiences and perspectives of Blackness, Leonard (2013) argues that programming such as Good Times “documents and gives voice to the trials, tribulations, and joys of a working class African-American family living in the 1970s” (p. 17). Queen Sugar performs a similar though slightly more complex function for African American families in the current era of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Identifying the realities of racism, focusing on state violence, and documenting various forms of resistance, ‘Good Times’ elucidated a shared experience often ignored by the majority of white America. (Leonard, 2013, p. 18)
However, as mentioned by Leonard (2013), the potential for politically poignant representations of Blackness in Good Times was limited due to its dominant comedic focus and its “reliance” on depictions of meritocracy (p. 18). Queen Sugar is able to avoid these limitations as it is a drama series allowing room for more complex character and plot development. Furthermore, DuVernay’s directional decisions ensure that representations are never reduced or simplified to resolutions rooted in meritocracy. Instead, the implications and complexity of the Black Lives Matter Movement are thoroughly explored through Nova’s development and navigation as an activist.
The Fight for Too Sweet: Nova vs. the Prison Industrial Complex
In a much less traditional sense, Nova embodies a unique version of a superwoman most illustrated in her drive to fulfill the multiple roles she assumes in her life. Unlike Charley, Nova completely reject the ideal heteronormative life. Rather, Nova’s roles lie in her commitment to community organizing in support of Black and Brown marginalized groups. In the first season, this is demonstrated through her compassion and advocacy for Too Sweet, a Black teenager whose innocence and inability to get a trial date resonate with both Nova and viewers aware of the ways in which the criminal justice system disproportionately targets Black and Brown bodies with plea bargains. In the exchange between Nova and Too Sweet, it is clear that Nova is willing to take the burden as both nurturer and fighter for Too Sweet. Her words of encouragement paint a picture of the physical and mental health effects of incarceration capturing the sentiments behind the importance of Black Lives Matter.
Nova, the Nurturer
One of the characteristics separating Nova from traditional representations of Black womanhood is that she has no children. While controlling images like the mammy, matriarch, and welfare mother, are rooted in centralizing Black women as mothers, Nova manages to escape direct embodiments of these pervasive images. However, even without children, she continues to nurture and care for young people in her family and community such as Too Sweet. Though I would hardly interpret Nova’s role as a controlling image, she does continue to embody the maternal nature often constructed around Black womanhood. In addition to fulfilling this role for Too Sweet, it is also revealed that she’s assumed this role for her formerly incarcerated, younger brother, Ralph Angel. When Ralph Angel expresses his resentment toward Nova for not supporting him when he was locked up, Nova must grapple with the ways in which her lack of support for her own brother contradict her activism for the community.
In this instance, Nova’s constructed identity as the activist superwoman takes a hit as it seems that in her commitment to activism in her community, she’ s lost sight of the need for her support in her family. Perhaps part of her commitment to community activism is rooted in the guilt she has for not helping Ralph Angel as much as she could’ve. Throughout the series, viewers witness the growth of their relationship as both Charley and Nova begin to give Ralph Angel the space to more fully express his needs and concerns.
Nova’s Love Affair
Though Nova’s nature is that of a nurturer, this isn’t accompanied with any aspect of sexual repression. Rather, Nova’s sexual liberation is expressed through her relationships with both men and women throughout the series. Similar to the interracial relationship of Olivia and Fitz in Scandal, Nova’s relationship with Calvin is forbidden given the fact that Calvin is a married man. However, their relationship is even further complicated by their two contradicting careers. While Nova is a journalist and activist hoping to effect change in the injustices of the Louisiana police department, Calvin is a police officer within that very department. Though Calvin’s marriage also complicates their relationship, it is their career differences which ultimately lead to them breaking up.
Nova’s vulnerability and need for support is depicted in her relationship with Calvin. However, she refuses to sacrifice her community activism for a relationship with him. In an analysis of postfeminism’s “New Woman,” Stéphanie Genz (2010) mentions that “The PFW wants to ‘have it all’ as she refuses to dichotomize and choose between her public and private, feminist, and feminine identities” (p. 98). Similarly, Nova doesn’t want to give up her identity and work as a feminist and activist in pursuit of a relationship with Calvin. She wants to have both. As Nova engages in an inner struggle between her oftentimes contradicting desires, viewers observe unique barriers and experiences of Black womanhood which aren’t often depicted in mainstream media. Nova’s conflict with Calvin comes to a climax in the season 1 finale when a reconnected Nova and Calvin are confronted at a bar by one of Calvin’s fellow police officers. When he discovers that Nova is the journalist responsible for the article prompting an investigation into the police department, he disrespects Nova in multiple ways all within the matter of seconds.
The historically rooted controlling images that Nova actively rejects are used as a weapon against her by another white man. In a brief and violent interaction, Bruce dehumanizes Nova calling her a “bitch,” then proceeds to violate and hyper sexualize her by grabbing her, arrogantly claiming that the only reason why Calvin must be dating her is for sex. Before being dragged out of the bar, Bruce spits in Nova’s face at which point Nova is left speechlessly shaking. As Nova wipes the spit from her face, viewers are forced into the realities of how Black womanhood is appropriated, manipulated, and violated by the outside world. However, watching Nova relentlessly reclaim and rebuild her identity in a world that is threatened by her very existence is one of the most empowering experiences I’ve ever had watching a series. Though imperfect, Nova’s constant evolution depicts the resiliency and multiplicity of Black womanhood.