The land, the legacy, the prodigals returned. Queen Sugar was adapted from a novel by Natalie Baszile, and the best moments of the series have a narrative power rooted in history, national and even biblical. Created by Ava DuVernay and produced by Oprah Winfrey for her OWN network, the series returns Tuesday night for the second half of its second season. (The two-episode premiere begins at 10 p.m. and continues tomorrow in the regular Wednesday-at-10 timeslot.)
It’s a good moment to start watching — or to catch up. Queen Sugar begins with the Bordelon siblings, scattered, sharing little beyond a surname. Their father dies but leaves behind a profound inheritance: a sugarcane farm. The youngest brother, Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe), wants to work the land, spends a not-inconsiderable portion of season 2 talking about soybeans. The middle-child, half-sister Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), dreams of being the first African-American woman to own a sugar mill. And not just growing sugar, but processing sugar, achieving what Marx called “ownership of the means of production.”
The siblings are often at odds, representing two distinct branches of the modern African-American experience: He spent time in prison and never left home, she was the wife-manager of a famous athlete and spent long years in distant Los Angeles. The show suggests they’re opposites with a clever visual palette. Ralph Angel’s often filmed on the land, in long-shot tableaux, suggesting the landscape paintings of a lost agrarian tomorrow. There’s a different sort of power when the show turns to Charley, especially when she gets an office. She dominates the center of the screen, and yet the camera seems to hover above her, suggesting how far she has to go.
There’s a cut in season 2, episode 7, that sums up the two poles of the show perfectly. Ralph Angel’s on the farm — it’s land that is both his birthright and, by this point, a kind of curse. Initially, the show established that the father left the land to all his children, but a discovered handwritten letter bequeathed it to Ralph Angel. Bringing this to his family’s attention — in the middle of a family dinner, in the middle of a prayer! — drove a wedge between the man and his sisters. And now the land is his life, just like the Queen Sugar Mill has become his sister’s life. They’re both framed distantly — the various directors of Queen Sugar, all female, honor the vast spaces surrounding the characters — and so they are both reduced and empowered, holding our attention yet lost in a crowded visual.
There’s much more to Queen Sugar than these two characters, more recognizably modern settings than Farm and Factory. DuVernay directed the first two episodes, and her authorial fascinations run throughout the show. And the second season’s showrunner is Monica Macer, who also worked on Nashville and Deception — which could explain why Queen Sugar has both the inveterate romanticism and the occasional narrative shortcuts of a primetime soap opera. There was the aforementioned secret will, the moment when one character walks by a window and sees ANOTHER character who did not want to be seen. At one point, a famous athlete and a famous singer meet-cute mid-press conference, a moment so hyperbolic that one of the journalists flashes the singer an amiright look.
There’s some cleverness in this moment, though, and it speaks to the show’s deeper resonance. The athlete is Davis West (Timon Kyle Durrett), a star basketball player recovering from a sex scandal. In his marriage to Charley, she had helped brand-build him into a beloved figure nicknamed “The Gentleman.”
Now that brand is tarnished and his marriage is in shambles, but one of the straightforward jokes of the second season is that no one in public seems to care. That press conference is an entirely impromptu moment for Davis — he was just picking up his kid from a Habitat for Humanity event — and the mere fact of his celebrity leads the assembled crowd to pay attention to him. With professional ease, he offers platitudes that sound honorable and then suddenly trend double entendre-ish. “When great artists and advocates join hands, we can do anything, as long as we do it together,” he says, looking meaningfully at the famous singer. “Together we are stronger.”
There are a lot of moments like this in Queen Sugar, the personal and the political clashing wildly. The third Bordelon sibling, Nova (Rutina Wesley), is a journalist and an activist. She’s often been distant from the central action of the show, but her journey is central to the show’s larger investigations of modern African-American life, of life in New Orleans one decade out from Hurricane Katrina. Early in season 2, she’s invited to Atlanta to speak at a symposium on mass incarceration. Onstage, she talks about necropolitics, and she explicitly calls mass incarceration a kind of genocide.
You could cross-reference this with DuVernay’s acclaimed documentary 13th; I think of myself as a not-dumb individual, and I had to look up the word “necropolitics.” But this feast of ideas is also rooted in its own clever meet-cute. There’s an epidemiologist on the panel, Dr. Robert Dubois (played by the insanely endearing Alimi Ballard). Nova and Robert have some differences of opinion; he bristles at the word genocide, talks about the possibility of individual action where she sees a monolithic system of oppression. But they continue their conversation, exchange long-ago memories; Robert worked in New Orleans after Katrina, recalls it with a whisper as a terrible time. Later, they meet again — at the Habitat for Humanity event! Young liberals, this is your politically awakened romantic drama! — and walk through the Ninth Ward, forming a connection that’s made all the more profound because it’s so rooted in a place, a time, an apocalypse that cannot be erased.
Queen Sugar tackles big ideas, sometimes head-on and with a bracing lack of delicacy. Later in the season, their first real date, Robert takes Nova to a meeting of Atlanta grandees, including one Trumpist right-wing journalist who is precisely as one-dimensional as Trumpists tend to be. This is the show in its “a lot” phase, the dinner shot with all the casualness of a demonic Parliament meeting over a Hellmouth:
But the show has earned those big moments so far, grounding itself in the private struggles of the Bordelons. The most fascinating character on the show is Charley, a weekly master class in acting by Gardner. Returned to her fictional hometown of St. Josephine, she’s simultaneously an alien figure and the avatar of a possible future. She makes a commitment to the local farmers but also uses very modern notions of branding and publicity to pitch herself as a transformative figure.
She is a transformative figure, endlessly — seeking a divorce but requiring her husband’s famous name, struggling with the proper way to raise her son. (A key plot point in the first half of season 2 was her search for a new home, and the political undercurrent of real estate: Would she live in the nice neighborhood, with “nice” euphemizing rich-white?) Scenes with Charley often play out as tense interrogations: You’re aware of the facade she’s created of herself, but you’re also aware of how completely the world is trying to penetrate that facade — the husband she can no longer trust, the journalist seeking the story behind the story, the psychologist who wants to find out what makes her tick. When her potential new lover demands to know why she hasn’t gone public with her impending divorce, Charley says simply, “One of the most important things a woman can control is her own story.” The man sees a lie; she has already predicted how the world will lie about her, and so has set about constructing her own truth.
It’s a slippery construction, maybe. When she makes the cover of the magazine, the headline advertises her as “The New Real” and “Authentic.” She looks at the magazine, the picture of her with her straightened hair; she decides to wear her hair curly, “just natural, something different, no big deal.” On Queen Sugar, it’s all a big deal. And with great control, Gardner shows us the supernova burning behind Charley’s practiced reserve. At the grand opening of the mill, there’s a jam in a machine, something about a pressure feeder. In nice clothes designed for a photo-op, Charley dives hands first into the machine’s output, covering herself in sugarcane, desperate as any Douglas Sirk heroine, physically commanding her industry to produce.
In season 2, Charley’s arc has carried the most power. The show has wandered a bit, meandering generously through story lines (Aunt Vi’s pies!) that broaden the world but also occasionally seem to be marking time. There’s an early moment I keep returning to, though. Ralph Angel needs some more cash to buy seed to grow a soybean crop; it’s an attempt to honor his father’s legacy and, maybe, establish himself separately from his sisters. But thus far, he’s depended on Charley for funding. Remy (Dondre Whitfield), a friend of the family, offers him a suggestion. “Why don’t you try to get a micro-loan from the Farm Service Agency?” he asks. “That micro-loan program is for young farmers like yourself: no capital, little credit, but who are actually farming and have small needs here and there. So long as you’ve got a job, a farm to work, and you’ve never been convicted of growing or distributing drugs — which you haven’t been? right? — that means you’re eligible.”
It’s dialogue that sounds straight out of a government PSA, the kind of thing you imagine more self-conscious filmmakers might be too cynical or trendy to avoid. But Queen Sugar is animated by a sincere political passion and a belief. And so Ralph Angel considers Remy’s words, and comes to a conclusion, halting but firm: “So, so… maybe I could, like… do it by myself?” It’s a great line reading by Siriboe, moving and triumphant: the moment an American realizes that he, too, has the chance to dream.