The seemingly endless conversations about diversity in Hollywood often fail to acknowledge that casting actors of color is only half the battle. “Queen Sugar,” the new OWN drama from filmmaker Ava DuVernay, is a shining example of how effective diversity — or, as the “Selma” director prefers to say, “inclusion” — can be behind the scenes.
Based on Natalie Baszile’s novel of the same name, “Queen Sugar” revolves around three siblings who unexpectedly inherit their father’s sprawling and neglected Louisiana sugar cane farm. The show’s depiction of loss feels universal, but at the heart of “Queen Sugar” is a rich and powerful portrait of a black American family.
DuVernay created the series with OWN founder Oprah Winfrey (who also produced “Selma”) and directed the first two episodes, which air in a two-night premiere starting Tuesday. The first season’s 13 episodes were helmed by an all-female slate of directors, and the writing and production teams also reflect the show’s commitment to incorporating underrepresented voices.
Rutina Wesley (“True Blood”) stars as Nova Bordelon, a New Orleans-based journalist and activist with a side hustle I won’t spoil here. Nova is the first Bordelon sibling we meet — as she’s waking up next to her lover (Greg Vaughan), in a scene with equally distributed nudity (imagine that) and punctuated by Meshell Ndegeocello’s haunting vocals. Ndegeocello, who grew up in the Washington area and attended Duke Ellington School of the Arts, composed the drama’s heady score.
Nova’s brother Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe) is a parolee struggling to rebuild his life after prison while raising his young son, Blue (Ethan Hutchison). Their sister Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) lives a glamorous life in Los Angeles with her NBA player husband and their teenage son, but her seemingly strong marriage is tested when a team scandal emerges. As Charley prepares to deal with the fallout, she gets a call about her ailing father and makes a long-delayed trip to visit him.
“Queen Sugar” lets each of the siblings’ stories unfold slowly, ensuring that we also feel the gravity of their father’s death on their individual, and collective, lives.
After watching the three episodes made available for review, there is a lot I still don’t know: the crime Ralph Angel committed, the reason for the pronounced distance between Charley and her siblings, Nova’s history with the man she wakes up next to in “Queen Sugar’s” opening scene. The slow and steady pace is refreshing amid so many shows that turbo-charge story lines (looking at you, “Empire”), each one more ridiculous than the next.
“Queen Sugar” also proves itself more adept than other shows at weaving timely context — on issues such as sexual consent and race — into its narrative. The show doesn’t explicitly reference the Black Lives Matter movement but, like a growing number of television shows, evokes the country’s ongoing conversations about racial bias in law enforcement.
DuVernay recently told Variety that she sought to challenge public perception of Black Lives Matter through her storytelling by conveying that the movement is really about how “humanity is the same when you go inside people’s homes.”
Nova’s role as a community activist offers a strong, if obvious, tie-in, although it seems at odds with her job at a newspaper. (Traditional papers don’t typically allow journalists to participate in activism, and so far it’s unclear where, or if, Nova draws the line.) Ralph Angel’s perpetual struggle between his criminal past and the future it inherently limits yields more subtle commentary.
The show also offers insight into less-publicized current events as the Bordelon family’s struggling farm provides a window to the economic disparities between white farmers and their black counterparts.
But “Queen Sugar’s” biggest strength lies in its exploration of family dynamics. Siriboe gives a standout performance as a father whose dedication to his son is often at odds with his darkest vices. Ralph Angel’s relationship with Blue — and Blue’s recovering-addict mother, Darla (Bianca Lawson) — is a complex and affecting portrayal of fatherhood.
As the Bordelon siblings plan their father’s funeral, the emotional turmoil makes for several hair-raising scenes. In one, Nova dresses her sister down for hiring a catering service for the post-funeral gathering, which Nova sees as an affront to their family’s hospitable Southern traditions.
“We don’t honor our father by sitting friends and family outside at fancy tables. We don’t honor our father by having strangers serve those grieving,” Nova tells Charley. “We serve comfort food to those who need comfort, and we do it with our own hands!”
“Queen Sugar” follows OWN’s soapier megachurch drama “Greenleaf,” which delivered the network’s highest-ever ratings for a premiere when it debuted in June.
Like “Queen Sugar,” “Greenleaf,” which aired its first-season finale on Aug. 31, has already been renewed for a second season. It’s easy to see the overlap between the two shows, which focus on Southern black families. But anyone tapped into those ongoing conversations about diversity — er, inclusion — should consider it a win that both exist.
Queen Sugar (one hour) premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. on OWN. The second episode will air in the show’s regular time slot on Wednesday at 10 p.m.