Ava DuVernay's 'Queen Sugar' brilliantly shatters your image of the black family
Whenever I hug my father there’s a silence there. There is no grandfather. A part of the puzzle of our internment is missing. I only hear sparse tales about him — how he left after my daddy was born and how he left a young girl to take care of a baby in the tin-roofed shanties of Trenchtown, Jamaica. He’s a ghost of so much spite and rum, and my father once carried his leaving like an old, brown church suit. A lot unfolded after. My dad had to fend for himself. He did, somehow. And when he was of age he made a promise to himself that he would never forsake his children that way
Ava DuVernay's Queen Sugar is a complex, well-paced drama that could have withered under its hype. It absolutely didn't, delivering a stand-out piece of television with the black family treated as carefully and tenderly as DuVernay has treated any project she's done
We gon’ be alrightPromises are at the heart of Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of Natalie Baszile’s Queen Sugar for the Oprah Winfrey Network. The ones that bind us to each other, and alchemy with blood and family as the medium. The book and series are about a father and his children, who come home to take on the business of building a legacy out of his sprawling sugar cane farm. There’s a tension in the show that could easily skirt into melodrama, but DuVernay prunes the pace to molasses. The opening scene is a complex tapestry. The up-close portrait of a woman’s locs zooms out to her in bed, which then zooms out to her in bed with someone else. Morning pours in through blinds. It’s subtle. There is no immediate beat-you-over-the-head with events kind of television narrative. Things unfold the way real life unfolds; nothing really happens until something does
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You’d be surprised how many times people talk about a tragedy by mentioning how normal things were before anything happened. Queen Sugar draws you into the world of the Bordelon family that way, peeling away each layer sensuously, like the way, Nova Bordelon is dressed by her lover, the white police officer, Calvin. It’s a gem of sweet sensuality marked by the stain of infidelity. People are people, after all
We next find Ralph Bordelon taking care of his son Blue on a playground. He tells him that he can have a churro every time those men on the basketball court over yonder run five plays, then he robs a convenience story. His pained face in the opening shot comes into focus, then. He had money on his mind and no other way of getting it. The way he uses the money is an example of the subtle way in which black people portray themselves versus the way other media portrays us. He first tries to give the money to his Aunt Violet, who waves it away with knowing. Then he heads to his father, who takes the money but knows something’s up. This passing of the collection plate is dope. If this were another network, he may have used that loot to buy some Jordans. DuVernay does a masterful job of keeping those kinds of stereotypical shenanigans out of the show
Laying of handsBut now things are happening. The patriarch, Ernest Bordelon, has a sudden stroke during Blue’s birthday party. He’s rushed to the hospital, and the siblings gather in earnest. Nova and Ralph are first. Nova grabs her father’s head in her hands. A tender show of affection so many shows featuring black families lack. How many times did Carl Winslow do more than put a hand on someone’s shoulder? I’ll wait
Last comes Charley Bordelon, the MBA grad with the posh, glass house in the Hollywood Hills. Her life comes undone when she realizes the gang-rape scandal her husband’s teammates are involved in features him, front-and-center. After she makes national news by running onto the court to confront him, she’s told her father lay dying. She arrives too late, and though Nova said they weren’t close, she runs to meet her, hold her. Charley never got to say goodbye
SilenceThen there’s the silence. Three generations of men in a hospital room. Ernest uses flashcards to tell Ralph to bring Blue. He holds him in his lap as Ralph looks on. Mi’chelle Ndegeocello’s “Oysters” plays. There’s no ghost in the Bordelon family. More than that, though, are the characters
Although, DuVernay strays from the exact details of the book in many parts, Charley, Nova, and Ralph are all three-dimensional depictions of actual black folks. Their stories do not carry them. Instead, DuVernay invites the watcher to see how these characters bloom in times of distress. They are contradictory, multidimensional folks with their own selfish narratives happening as they try to play at togetherness. There are no easy answers. Nothing that a good hug from grandma can fix. These are real challenges for challenging people looking for redemption and it shows. Nova is an activist and a journalist, and yet she's involved in a relationship with a white police detective that can only end badly. She's the anchor. The glue, and I can't wait to see what she does next week. The key will be how DuVernay has expanded the universe of "Queen Sugar" to fit a 13-episode format. I, for one, am here for it