‘Queen Sugar’ Is Unlike Anything Else On TV

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.

The Cinematography

I think you can judge the success of a show featuring black characters based on the cinematography. Hear me out. So often black actors’ skintones are muddied, washed out which usually ends up reflecting the storylines. This is something I felt in watching the screeners for Luke Cage — a show full of black actors that only seems to light them in a way that demonstrates their range of tones and beauty about half the time. In this manner Queen Sugar feels revelatory. Its color palette, framing, and the way the actors are lit is downright lush. In an interview with Vulture DuVernay said, “The terrain of the face is the most dynamic thing you can point the camera at, to me.” Watching the show is a testament to this. The most powerful moments on Queen Sugar are often when the actors faces fill the frame unraveling the history of their characters with hardly a word spoken. Many shows get called “cinematic” but Queen Sugar is one of the few shows that earn that label.

The Languid Pacing

Queen Sugar has some of the most reflective, drawn out pacing I’ve seen on a television show in a long time. Looking at the episodes as a whole it can sometimes come across as if DuVernay isn’t so sure what story she wants to tell. There’s no urgency, little forward movement, and not that much plot development in its first three episodes. But within individual scenes the languid pace works to the show’s benefit, letting actors sit with moments. What makes this fascinating is how so often on television black characters can tip over into farce, existing in nighttime soap operas or sitcoms whose need for twists and lots of forward plot movement leave little room for character development. Just look at the most highly rated shows with black leads and predominantly black casts including Empire, How to Get Away with Murder, and Scandal. All three of these shows share plots that go at a breakneck speed. While that can be a lot of fun to watch, it often means focusing on the internal lives of the characters gets lost in the shuffle or at worst, is exploited as another flashy plot point that gets forgotten when the new twist arrives (the treatment of Olivia Pope’s undiagnosed PTSD comes to mind). There’s a place for these kinds of shows. But Queen Sugar — which prides itself on mood and exploring the emotional states of its characters — provides a completely different option for audiences more interested in an intimate view on the black experience.

How It Deals With What It Means To Be A Black Woman Today

Queen Sugar joins a few shows currently on TV that are at their best when interrogating what it means to be a black woman. But one of the benefits of Queen Sugar is that the characters it’s focusing on come from different age groups, professions, and places in life — including Charley, Nova, and their older aunt played by Tina Lifford. In just three episodes, the show has touched on infidelity, how a Southern upbringing has shaped the personalities of its leads, the limits of love, activism, and marriage all through the lens of black women. Few shows recognize the variety and depth of the black female experience like Queen Sugar does, let alone with several different characters.

The Performances

The writing and tonal shifts may veer from on-the-nose to subtle. But the acting on the show is stellar across the board with Rutina Wesley and Kofi Sirobie being clear standouts. Wesley has been an actress I’ve paid attention to since True Blood didn’t know what to do with her. More than anyone else on Queen Sugar she embodies the voice I think the show is trying to inhabit — passionate, decadent, hurt, and yearning. Sirobie may have the harder job to pull off since Ralph Angel gets some of the worst writing — he’s a man quick to rage with several complicated relationships. The writing works mostly to show him as angry or falling apart. But Sirobie finds beauty between these ends of a spectrum putting vulnerability into his character in unexpected ways.

The Intimacy

From the opening of the series, which shows Nova in bed with her married lover Calvin (Greg Vaughan), I felt the greatest strength of Queen Sugar was its intimacy. The series may get heavy-handed at times (just look at the scene where Charley discovers her husband’s infidelity and storms onto the basketball court). But it isn’t afraid to show the ugliness and wonder of what it means to black in the American South today in a way its television peers don’t quite match. Its interest in close-ups, deft understanding of the character’s moods, and the cinematography all make up a compelling portrait of the power a show can find by taking its time. It feels like a story being told between longtime friends or family members who haven’t seen each other in ages but fall into old habits. Queen Sugar isn’t trying to speak for everyone, instead by focusing on the specific qualities of Southern rural living, it’s giving audiences a very different perspective. With Queen Sugar, Ava DuVernay and her collaborators are broadening the black experience on television by focusing on a slice-of-life television rarely delves into. They’re asking us to bear witness to the lives and inner workings of characters that usually color the margins of other shows. It’s this intimacy and unique perspective more than any other aspect of Queen Sugar that makes it one of the best new shows on television.