If you’re paying attention to television’s shifting landscape you may believe the medium is going through a black renaissance. There are, of course, established shows like Black-ish, Empire, and How to Get Away with Murder. But more fascinating are the new crop from this fall including OWN’s Queen Sugar. Produced by Oprah Winfrey, the series marks writer/director Ava DuVernay’s first foray into television as a showrunner. The show follows three strikingly different Bordelon siblings as they inherit an 800-acre sugarcane farm from their father — the voodoo practicing journalist Nova (Rutina Wesley), the highly accomplished Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) whose perfect L.A. life falls apart, and the hot-headed Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe). There’s a lot to love about Queen Sugar even with its occasionally frustrating contradictions like how its tone veers from subtle intimacy to arch melodrama. Here’s why it feels like no other show on TV.
It Could Help Usher In A New Age Of Television
There’s been a lot of conversation around why television has become great thanks to supposed “auteurs.” This started in the 1990s with showrunners like Joss Whedon and Aaron Sorkin. It’s only increased as film directors have jumped into the fray to direct every episode of a given show like Cary Fukunaga with the first season of True Detective. It’s Fukunaga and TV’s growing auteurism that Ava DuVernay credits in getting her interested with taking a project like Queen Sugar on in the first place.
But Queen Sugar isn’t an auteur creation (it can be argued that no show really is) and it isn’t marketed as such. The press around Queen Sugar has touched on how important Winfrey’s input as a producer was to the ways DuVernay’s scripts were formed. Furthermore, DuVernay decided not to direct any of this season beyond the first two episodes, choosing to hand it off to female directors. “For her to be able to not just advocate for women in film, and people of color in film, but to really [do it] just in a way that is matter of fact and unapologetic, I think, is fabulous,” the novelist whose work the show is based on, Natalie Baszile, said to Vanity Fair. What makes Queen Sugar great is how it prides itself on collaboration not framing it as the work of a lone auteur — in the marketing and making of the series. As Yohana Desta in Vanity Fair states, “DuVernay has a cheerleader-like (emphasis on “leader”) quality when she talks about the people involved in her projects. She seems determined to share every inch of the spotlight, pulling in as many collaborators as possible to stand in the glow with her.” In a time when the obsession with auteurism in TV can put a chokehold on collaboration and the kind of voices that get to be heard, DuVernay and Queen Sugar operate as a powerful antidote.
It’s An Important Part In A Growing Conversation About Diversity
Thanks to shows like Jane the Virgin, Fresh Off the Boat, and now Queen Sugar it feels like television is making huge strides when it comes to depicting the stories of people of color. But when you look at statistics this sort of narrative falls apart. While the growing amount of diversity — behind and in front of the camera —is great, it should be only the beginning. Sometimes the conversation around diversity feels incredibly narrow, only focusing on the mere existence of characters of color. As critics and audiences, we need to pay attention to who is telling these stories and whether they are bringing anything new to the table. We shouldn’t settle for the small strides we’re seeing today especially since there is still a great lack in stories about Asian, Latino, and mixed race characters. Diversity isn’t just about black and white.