Ava DuVernay's 'Queen Sugar' Is a Stunning Show About Black Lives on the Bayou

The new OWN TV show about a black-owned Louisiana farm is a cinematic look at inheritance that's both familial and cultural.

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Sep 6 2016, 4:00am

All photos courtesy of OWN TV

I remember seeing the first narrative feature film by Ava DuVernay, 2011's I Will Follow. I was a film student at CalArts, excited to drive down to LA to support a black female filmmaker I'd heard so much about. When I arrived, a long line overflowed from the Egyptian Theatre. I watched as DuVernay greeted friends and family in the line, glowing. That movie, about a successful black woman returning home to care for her cancer-ridden aunt, was personal, intimate, and unconcerned with mainstream film conventions. I couldn't remember the last time I'd seen a movie so attuned to the internal desires of a black woman, without falling back on sensationalism.

Premiering commercial-free on September 6, the new OWN TV series Queen Sugar brings back the work of DuVernay in novel and stunning ways, infusing it with strikingly personal rendering of story and image. Though adapted from a preexisting book, the first two episodes echo DuVernay's previous work in I Will Follow and 2012's Middle of Nowhere, films about black women who take on the loss of loved ones while also navigating complicated dynamics related to illness, incarceration, and familial discord.

In an era of endless displacement and redevelopment of urban cities and New Orleans itself, it's fascinating to watch a show about farmland owned by black people.

Queen Sugar is based on the novel of the same name by Natalie Baszile, and DuVernay and her writing team have taken liberties with the source material to create a rich black family drama about three siblings— self-assured Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), brooding Nova (Rutina Wesley), and troubled Ralph Angel Bordelon (Kofi Siriboe)—who inherit an 800-acre sugarcane farm in the wake of their father's death from a stroke. Each sibling is at a turning point in his or her own life—Ralph Angel, a formerly incarcerated father of a young son, Blue (Ethan Hutchinson), and Nova (who doesn't appear in the novel), a journalist having an affair with a married white detective.

Set against the sprawling fields and murky back-bayous of the New Orleans–surrounding parish Saint Josephine, Queen Sugar is also about land and about legacy. In an era of endless displacement and redevelopment of urban cities and New Orleans itself, it's fascinating to watch a show about land owned by black people. What does it mean to be a black landowner? How does this ownership inform one's identity? My father is from Louisiana, where his family also owned land. His stories of growing up, raising chickens, and running through fields are special to me because I've come of age in big cities, where people who look like me don't usually own much. This is the crux of the show: how to tend, how to preserve and love this land, which serves as a metaphor for the fragile familial bonds surrounding it. In a later episode, when a wealthy white farmer attempts to buy the land for less than it's worth, the Bordelons must decide if their family history is worth the sale, or if they will tend to it in their fractured state.

The pilot first shuttles between Louisiana and Los Angeles, where we are introduced to Charley, a beautiful, smart wife who manages her husband's basketball career, while being recruited for a popular reality TV series. When a scandal involving her husband erupts, her once pristine image is compromised. This storyline will strike a chord for many as it touches on sexual assault and consent, mirroring the recent Nate Parker headlines in an almost eerie fashion. Its addition into the narrative also allows DuVernay to work her magic with public and personal moments of betrayal, which she does so well in Middle of Nowhere.

In one of the pilot's most heightened scenes, Charley learns something about her husband during one of his games—the same husband who romanced her by their mansion pool the night before—and her reaction to this discovery is performed with a level of intensity that helps form the emotional core of the show. I was reminded of a similar scene in Middle of Nowhere, in which a med student learns that her incarcerated husband had an affair with a female prison guard. She learns this publicly, while sitting at his court hearing, beside her sister. DuVernay finds a way to fashion public revelations into daggers that cut at the soul of main characters, pushing them toward growth, discovery, and, occasionally, further destruction.

Nova, played with a calm, measured intensity by Wesley, appears to be the most grounded of the siblings, but her activism and ancestral traditions run counter to the impossibility of being the mistress of a white man. Ralph Angel, on the other hand, struggles to make a way for himself as a parolee, and as the father to a son of a recovering addict, Darla (Bianca Lawson), whom he still has a painful love for. Cast in blue light over the Alabama Shakes' "Gemini," he stands outside of her small trailer, drinking a can of beer before knocking on the door. She opens it, they stare at each other, and she unbuckles his pants. The sexual tension in this scene, and others, is lush, palpable. Ralph Angel is a troubled, pensive character whose pulsing interaction with two white men in the third episode will have viewers on the edge of their seats.

Although high-octane scenes like that one inject a needed urgency, the series favors a more cinematic, sensuous approach. Characters are often framed in shots with extra headroom, their environments looming large over their heads, like the history they dare to dig up after their father's death. DuVernay is a master of moments, of details, of the way light dances on brown skin, or the way three generations of black men embrace in a hospital room, their faces layered in natural light. These personal touches, which have been present in her work from the beginning, make this series distinct and well-timed for our current moment.

We are in a black artistic renaissance, and DuVernay and her team are leading a movement toward films and television that privilege black women's lives and innermost desires.

Follow Nijla Mu'min on Twitter.

Queen Sugar premieres on Tuesday, September 6 on OWN TV.

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