More than once while watching Queen Sugar, I realized I’d been holding my breath … and then let out a long, satisfied exhale.
There isn’t much TV that can compel me to sit down and embrace its world like I’m sinking into a hot bath, but that’s exactly what it feels like to watch the warm and all-consuming Queen Sugar. Under creator and director Ava DuVernay’s careful and deeply empathetic watch, it’s the rare family drama that feels both incredibly intimate and wonderfully grand.
Queen Sugar sweeps you into the world of the Bordelon family, who are forced to come together in Louisiana after the death of their beloved father, who owned the sugar plantation behind their childhood home.
As directed by DuVernay, Queen Sugar hardly lets a glance go by without a purpose, without making you feel the joy or wrenching pain that comes with it.
The show draws you close physically and emotionally, letting you witness its characters’ most vulnerable moments — the better to help you understand exactly what’s going on in their heads even when they try desperately to keep their thoughts to themselves. It mourns the loss of the Bordelon family patriarch but, more importantly, celebrates the family he left behind.
Every frame of Queen Sugar feels lovingly made. This isn’t necessarily a requirement for family dramas, but after watching the series — which imbues every frame of the caring, complex, specifically black Bordelon family’s story with so much warmth — it’s hard to argue otherwise.
Queen Sugar and its talented cast understand that most families are complex, messy, angry, and loving, all at once
Queen Sugar — an OWN collaboration between DuVernay and executive producer Oprah — is inspired by Natalie Baszile’s book by the same name. The story centers on a woman named Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), who returns home to the Louisiana sugar plantation where she grew up, in the aftermath of her father’s death. And as she quickly realizes, she’s been gone long enough that she's almost forgotten what home felt like in the first place.
As reimagined by DuVernay, Queen Sugar complicates Charley’s life by expanding on the show’s source material with a famous basketball player husband (Timon Kyle Durett) who gets caught on tape partying with his teammates and a lone drunken woman, who’s now alleging gang rape.
Charley’s attempts to reconcile the man she thought she knew with the one on the tape make for some of Queen Sugar’s most riveting moments, especially when Gardner throws her entire body into a tearful rage on the basketball court. Getting the hell out of LA and escaping to Louisiana is about more than grieving her father’s death; it’s about survival.
The show also adds an entirely new Bordelon sister — Nova, played by True Blood’s Rutina Wesley — who is fiercely protective of her family’s legacy and distrustful of what Charley might want to do with it.
Charley and Nova form the backbone of Queen Sugar’s story. Still, the show manages to keep a much wider focus by staying mindful of the fact that family tragedies on the scale of a beloved patriarch dying or a loved one being accused of unforgivable things have rippling effects for anyone who touches them.
So as they both struggle to find their places within a new family order, Queen Sugar takes care to show how the fabric of lives shift, tear, and stitch themselves back up again by making everyone onscreen feel as real as if you’d grown up with them yourselves.
There’s Charley and Nova’s younger brother Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe), who’s trying his best to create a family for his young son Blue (the impossibly cute Ethan Hutchison), while the child’s mother (Bianca Lawson) fights to reclaim her life from drug addiction.
There’s Charley’s teenage son, Micah (Nicholas L. Ashe), who’s grappling with what his father might have done as he adjusts from his slick life in LA to a quieter one in Louisiana.
There’s Aunt Vi (Tina Lifford), who’s watching the younger generation flail with a furrowed brow, but also — thanks in part to her devoted younger boyfriend, who goes by the name Hollywood (Omar J. Dorsey) — maintaining a strong sense of humor besides.
The immediate familiarity and sense of real, lived-in history that radiates off the screen whenever the Bordelons are on it is in large part thanks to Queen Sugar’s incredible actors. Wesley, Gardner, and Siriboe are particularly convincing as the show’s main trio of siblings, wearing love and frustration on their faces in equal measure as their characters cast about for answers.
All of them get ample space to act of their characters’ deepest wants, fears, and shames — and for that, they have DuVernay to thank.
Ava DuVernay is clearly telling a story she believes in, on her terms. It shows.
Some were surprised when DuVernay chose to adapt Queen Sugar, out of every possible project she could have taken on next.
The Selma director — who was snubbed by the Oscars in 2015 when the movie was nominated for Best Picture but she was passed over for Best Director — has been circling several higher-profile opportunities, including directing Marvel’s Black Panther. (She eventually turned it down over creative differences, allowing Creed’s Ryan Coogler to step in instead.) Currently, she’s also working on a big-screen adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, making her the first woman of color to direct a movie with a budget over $100 million.
So what made her want to create a television show for cable?
Watching Queen Sugar, it’s easy to understand its appeal. As DuVernay told the Phoenix New Times in 2012, she’s always been concerned with the theme of "lost love, and how it affects you when it’s gone." In interviews, she is often quick to point out that she wants to tell the kinds of black stories that a general of lack representation in pop culture — or even halfhearted tokenism — doesn’t allow. As she said then:
…we still have to show that black people actually love each other. We're in such the toddler phase of the themes and characterizations we're exploring because not enough of our filmmakers have been allowed to mature, to explore their artistry, to push the themes that interest them.
With a slow but steady family drama centering on a black family, DuVernay has far more space to delve into what makes every person in her camera’s purview tick than a single movie could ever provide.
It’s also plainly true that DuVernay’s efforts to prioritize nonwhite stories and talent makes Queen Sugar a rarity in and of itself. DuVernay recruited a slate of all-female directors and a cast of actors who largely haven’t gotten a chance to show off their formidable skill to tell an intimate story about a specifically black family.
We rarely get to see black families on television in the kinds of hyper-realistic stories Queen Sugar relishes, so it’s exciting to watch a show get the room it needs to explore in the same way as distinctly white shows like The Sopranos and Parenthood. (If you need a reference for Queen Sugar, though, think Friday Night Lights by way of Six Feet Under.)
But DuVernay deserves recognition beyond the basic facts of the show. Though there are some jarring transitional moments due to some clumsy music cues, her direction on the first two episodes of Queen Sugar brings the Bordelons’ story to vivid, aching life.
The camera takes its time, endlessly patient as it tracks the characters’ smiles and tears, the wisps of wind rustling the sugarcane fields, the smooth glamour of Charley’s life in Los Angeles versus the familiar clutter of her childhood home in Louisiana.
The Bordelons are specific, fully realized and fully human in all their grief and joy alike. There’s not much more you can ask for from a family drama than that.
Queen Sugar premiered September 6 on OWN, and is airing its first and second episodes back to back at 9 and 10 pm on September 7. It will air regularly on Wednesdays at 10 pm beginning September 14.