Queen Sugar's hard conversations about criminal justice and Black Lives Matter made it the most political show on TV.

How Queen Sugar Became the Most Political Show on TV

How Queen Sugar Became the Most Political Show on TV

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Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Dec. 2 2016 12:38 PM

Queen Sugar Spent Its First Season Becoming the Most Political Show on TV

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Rutina Wesley as Nova.

OWN

Before the premiere of Queen Sugar, creator Ava DuVernay spoke about the way she intended to depict Black Lives Matter in the domestic sphere. “With the Black Lives Matter movement, a lot of the focus is on the protest and dissent,” she explained. “I’m hoping to dismantle the public notion—for folks outside of the community—of what Black Lives Matter means. It’s really about saying that black lives matter, that humanity is the same when you go inside people’s homes.” It’s a sentiment that resonated across Queen Sugar’s first season. A Southern-set drama sharply attuned to the politics of race and gender, the series debuted on OWN in September to record ratings and remained a strong commercial performer over its debut run, which ended on Wednesday. (A 16-episode second season is scheduled to air in 2017.)

Queen Sugar introduced itself as a poignant exploration of the Bordelon family in rural Louisiana, with languid pacing and gorgeous imagery inviting viewers to dig deeper into its world. The show’s political content was initially subtle, infused into the drama. But something changed along the way. As Queen Sugar built in confidence—as its storylines came into focus, and as DuVernay, a filmmaker tasked with running a series for the first time, became more comfortable with the medium—the series seized an opportunity. With an audience ready to listen and ideas ripe for discussion, the show used its platform to directly address and expand on conversations surrounding gender, criminal justice, and property rights, and it did so in a way that modified the very function of scripted TV.

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These topics were always relevant to Queen Sugar, beginning with the Bordelon siblings: Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe), out of prison for an unmentioned crime and struggling with his parole requirements; Nova (Rutina Wesley), a community activist secretly having an affair with a white cop; and Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), forced to reconsider a glamorous life after her basketball star husband was accused of sexual assault. These starting points were provocative, but as we became more familiar with the characters’ journeys, the big, complicated ideas embedded within them were able to move to the fore.

That process took place most clearly with Nova, a dedicated New Orleans journalist who mixed reporting with political activism. She became invested in protecting Devonte “Too Sweet” Bonclair (Isaac White), a teen from her neighborhood who was wrongly imprisoned and sucked into the violent cycle of the prison-industrial complex; she revealed his tragic story in a wide-ranging article and, from there, worked tirelessly to have him released. Her advocacy brought her celebrity: She was invited to discuss her article on a radio show with Chantal (Reagan Gomez), a Black Lives Matter spokeswoman, and later at a special event with Melissa Harris-Perry. But Nova still did the grunt work, scrambling after Too Sweet was viciously beaten while in prison and begging an overloaded public defender to give his client the attention he needed. (She failed.) DuVernay paid homage to the women and queer people of color who founded Black Lives Matter, provided sweeping commentary on the racist structures in local policing and—through Nova’s laborious quest to help Too Sweet—exposed the cruel insufficiencies of our criminal justice system. The messages were forceful, coming through in polemical monologues and brutal narrative twists.

Just as Queen Sugar succeeded in diversifying the prestige family drama, which has been historically dominated by white faces and writers, its characters’ paths to landowning, to potential wealth, and to influence posed a similar challenge along racial lines, especially in the season’s back half. The siblings’ collective decision to take over the farm led to a startling revelation: The powerful Landry family, rival white farmers vying to take over the Bordelon land, had once owned the Bordelon family as slaves. This development thrust Queen Sugar toward its Season 1 climax. Charley and Nova openly gushed about the prospect of two women of color purchasing and running a sugar mill—asserting independence and, in turn, beginning the process of correcting decades of disenfranchisement. One rousing scene brought black farmers of the community together, preaching solidarity; another found Charley touring the mill she was looking to buy, overwhelmed by the historical significance of the moment. It made for an empowering way to end the season for Nova and Charley, Sugar’s heroines. But the scope of the storyline expanded far beyond them, digging into the persistent inequities and ugly legacy of race in the South before offering an aggressive artistic response.

Queen Sugar spoke to its viewers with frankness and urgency. DuVernay furthered the engagement by laying out her thoughts on social media as new episodes were broadcast live. She tweeted that the Too Sweet plotline allowed her to “comment on criminal justice.” She highlighted a viewer’s observation that the black farmers’ show of unity was a choice of “hope over fear” and “a blueprint for black America.” And in relation to where she took the arc involving Charley and her husband—which eventually tackled assault and privilege head on—she explained her intention “to talk openly about rape, toxic masculinity, [and] consent.” DuVernay strived to extend the dialogue opened by Queen Sugar well beyond its hour-per-week format, just as she did with 13th and Selma.

The difference, of course, is that Queen Sugar is not a sobering, centuries-spanning documentary. It is not a recreation of a seismic historical period. It is long-form fiction, told with a distinct point of view in the vein of DuVernay’s early films such as I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere. The series mined authenticity in the juxtaposition of rich family drama and vibrant political messaging, of feeling and discourse. Because, to reiterate, DuVernay never wavered from her initial desire to whittle Black Lives Matter down to its most intimate form; she explored the perils of new romances, the simmering resentment that persists between siblings, the challenges of parenthood, the shadow of grief—and in doing so, she gave her characters dimension. Through well-executed melodrama, she brought them to life. Where some recent attempts at depicting Black Lives Matter and other political movements have stumbled, Queen Sugar thrived by remembering the key to persuasive communication: Be direct, be bold, and most importantly, be human.