Queen Sugar Is A Chance To Prove You’re Serious About Supporting Black Art And Seeing Us In A New Light
With the Emmys right around the corner, a predictable number of essays will no doubt be written in the coming weeks about diversity in television and how far we still have to go. And while that fact remains true no matter how many nominations stars of color receive, we must also take the time to recognize when a show, its director and actors, and a network get it right. Queen Sugar is that unicorn in a field of cliché representations and series which habitually miss the mark on one point or another.
The Ava DuVernay-directed drama will make its debut on the Oprah Winfrey Network tonight, and despite all of the anticipation and early praise the show has received, DuVernay still has one concern: Will people see it through? It was hurtful to even hear the Academy Award-nominated director share that fear at a screening for the show in New York last week, but given audiences’ track record with television shows it’s a valid one. We say we want to see Black characters that are multi-dimensional, non-monolithic, and above all human — but not superhuman or magical — yet we don’t always recognize when such characters are staring us in the face or pay attention when a new, non-stereotypical kid is on the block. Queen Sugar, however, is your chance to receive what you’ve been asking for and witness Black people through “a sensual lens,” as one of the show’s lead cast members, Kofi Siriboe, shared.
Set in Louisiana, the show, adapted from the book of the same name by Natalie Baszile, follows the lives of the Bordelon siblings — formerly incarcerated single father Ralph Angel, journalist and activist Nova, and professional, take-no-nonsense wife and mother Charley — as they reconnect upon the passing of their father and the inheritance of his sugarcane farm. Having seen the first three episodes of the show, I can confirm Dawn-Lyen Gardner (Charley)’s observation that “each character is it’s own universe.” Underdeveloped personas and forgotten plot lines will not be in issue in this carefully paced offering which gives viewers enough time to digest what’s happening in each scene and feel the emotions of the characters right along with them. “It is luxurious, it is deliberate,” DuVernay explained of her directing technique. “You have to sink your teeth into them. You have to bear witness to them.”
The beauty of Queen Sugar doesn’t solely rest in the faces of its leading stars or cinematography, though each deserves praise in their own right. There’s something equally magical happening behind the camera, however, namely in the fact that every single one of Queen Sugar‘s episodes is directed by a woman — 11 of whom had never directed an episode of television before. And DuVernay plans to continue that initiative for the second season of the show which has already been picked up by OWN for 16 episodes. Even more icing on the cake is the fact that Meshell Ndegeocello composed the musical score for the series because DuVernay simply said, “I need a sister!” And she got one.
See why you have to see this through? So often we complain about diversity on screen and argue that it starts behind the camera. Here we have a Black woman on a Black woman’s network employing up-and-coming women in the industry behind the scenes so that more stories like this one, which is intentionally not for the white male gaze, as Gardner pointed out, can be told. We owe it to Ava, Oprah, the stars of this show, and ourselves to see this through. We have a chance to stop complaining about everything we aren’t when we see us depicted on TV and actually embrace and celebrate everything we are through consistent viewership. Tune in to Queen Sugar‘s commercial-free debut tonight on OWN at 10 pm.