Best of 2017 (Behind the Scenes): How Queen Sugar explored the painful consequences of police brutality
Star Dawn-Lyen Gardner talks to EW about the potent, harrowing story line
Ava DuVernay’s excellent OWN series Queen Sugar saw main character Micah (Nicholas L. Ashe) encounter police brutality firsthand this season in a powerful, relevant story line. About halfway through the season, his mother, played by Dawn-Lyen Gardner, finds out the extent of her son’s terrible experience; here, EW talks to that actress about this powerful arc and how it reflects very present, very real issues in modern America.
In an emotionally devastating season of Queen Sugar, one particular story line stood out: young Micah’s experience of police brutality.
In the season 2 premiere, Micah (Nicholas L. Ashe), driving a nice car in rural Louisiana, is pulled over by a white cop and promptly thrown in jail without cause. The scene in which he’s confronted and eventually handcuffed is filmed with brutal intimacy by director Kat Candler, and subsequent episodes dig into the trauma of his experience.
Yet as we soon learn, we only knew part of the story. As Micah harrowingly confides near the season’s midpoint, the officer forced him to go on a “drive” after handcuffing him, telling Micah he despises “fancy-talking n—ers” before stopping in a dark alleyway and saying, “I’m going to take that spoon out of your mouth and put something else in it.” The officer then pulled a gun on him.
Micah recounts the story first to his father and then his mother, Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), with all of the raw pain you’d expect. It’s one of the most potent, immediate, and unflinching examples of TV tackling police brutality to date.
This also kicks Charley’s character arc into gear. She spends season 2 rediscovering her blackness, having been born to a white mother and lived a separate life from the rest of her family in Los Angeles until recently, and her son’s exposure to racism wakes her up, in a way, to her fragmented sense of self.
Gardner gives a brilliant performance throughout the second season, as a woman establishing herself as a powerful entrepreneur — the first black woman ever to own a sugar mill — in a landscape littered with reminders of slavery and patriarchy. The actress provides Charley with a calm, steely exterior that’s undone by her brush-ups with sexism, racism, and most sharply, family tragedy. Charley learns with the audience about Micah’s experience, internalizing the surface of it in the season premiere before coming to terms with the full weight of it later on. That journey is played with astonishing intensity by Gardner, giving it new resonance by realizing it through the eyes of a flawed but loving parent whose conception of race and power is ever-evolving.
Gardner revisited the police brutality story line in an extensive interview with EW. She reveals that the season premiere aired just as she learned of the not-guilty verdict for the officer who shot Philando Castile, creating the strange kind of synergy between fact and fiction which only powerful art can provide. Overall, Gardner says, Micah and Charley’s experience hit so close to home that she struggled through it, shouldering the burden of an experience that’s felt on the ground every day in actual communities. And she channeled that difficulty into her performance.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your initial reaction to finding out about this story line, and its impact on the show and your character?
DAWN-LYEN GARDNER: When I first found out about it, I was excited and grateful. I think like many of us in the country, I was looking for ways to process a lot of these events in the past few years that are stemming from police brutality. I remember when the show premiered season 2, Philando Castile’s verdict had just come in the week before. I didn’t realize how little time I’d given myself to process it until I saw the show. That’s when the gratitude really hit, is when I saw what we were doing. But I thought that early on. I was also looking forward to what it would mean for Charley’s character, because so much of her first season is spent confronting things that she had avoided in some ways, that she had built structures in her life to keep out, in a way.
How does the experience fit into her arc this season?
By moving herself and her son to the South, I just thought she was on a journey of confronting herself, which is what you see happen in season 2. In its way, it expedited that journey. She began to unpack certain things — I don’t know if she would have looked at it as deeply. Mainly, her choice to move to the South without really preparing Micah, and how much that choice is about her. She wasn’t listening, necessarily, to what her son needed in those moments. It was a reaction and a way for her to get some control over her life that was spinning out of control. I just felt like it was an important conversation that was around history, but also around this moment. It was a dream in that our characters are confronting who they are, but also their relationship to history in this moment. I loved playing it and I loved how they wove it into questions about her own blackness, her own identity, and how she was and wasn’t mothering in the way that she was mothered. I just love that conversation.
You can almost trace a line from that premiere to the second half of the season when her mother comes, and the ways in which she pushes against that philosophy that she grew up with.
In a lot of ways, that arc hits Charley’s character when she’s at a point of nakedness — a new sort of vulnerability that we hadn’t really seen before. When she encounters this information, and when she learns what happened to Micah, I think it allows her to confront her choices, realize the impact of them, and sort of unpack. This is one of the final pieces out of the box. She is now here and confronting what that means at this time in her life.
What was it like when you first watched it?
There’s something about experiencing that moment in the car with Micah. The way that Kat Candler, who directed that first episode — the way that she shot it was so intimate. There was something so intimate about that moment. It was just full of emotional violence and the threat of violence, and terror. I remember a friend of mine saying to me, “Dawn, I felt like I was experiencing that moment as though I were black.” You feel sometimes that that’s impossible, and you feel like you just want people who may not share that experience to understand just how intimately violent it is. Something I’m grateful for with this story line is that literally watching it gave me something to have in my mind as Charley, as his mother, to go to, in just hearing it and just imagining what happened next. The intimacy of that, and how much fear and just how scary that really must have been. The visuals of the first episode actually helped that imagining and that processing. I just wanted to say that because I don’t know if it’s been celebrated the way that I did when I saw it, and the way that I did after the next morning when I was finally processing the Philando Castile verdict because of it. I feel that it’s such an important thing to shout out: Kat’s direction of that moment, and her not being someone who’s black — her absolute ability to empathize and her determination to capture the truth of that experience, to honor something she’s never known. That’s really extraordinary.
One of my favorite things about Queen Sugar is the way it balances authentic, intimate storytelling with sharp political messaging. I’m curious, in an arc like this: As an actor, you’re playing the mother and there’s an inherent, intense emotion to it. How do you key into that balance?
One thing that I did is I talked to my mother a lot this season. I asked her about what it is to raise a teenage boy, because I have an older brother. One thing she talked a lot about was, just in general being a mother, that you hurt when your child hurts. It doesn’t matter if your child necessarily looks like you as we don’t — I’m biracial; my mother is Asian. We had a lot of conversations about that — and of when she’s unpacking what happened to Micah with her own mom. And one thing she did say is she didn’t talk to me a lot about race growing up. She really didn’t. But she did talk to my brother specifically about the police. She said, “I knew that I was raising a black man and I knew that I needed to talk to him about this. I knew how important this was.” There’s a human reality to this topic. This is such a potent and important topic, and there’s so much involved in it politically — there’s so much involved that it becomes topical, and it’s easy for it to mute the human reality of extreme pain that comes not just with loss of life, which is the ultimate tragedy of police brutality, but with the feeling of terror, with the feeling of helplessness as a parent, with the feeling of injustice and confusion. In cases where race is a factor, it’s so rooted in a sense of a community feeling like it’s not deserving of something — that it’s done very little to warrant it. Like, “What have we done?” And how all of that converges within a parent, and the reality of the very relatable human pain of not wanting your child to be hurt — not wanting your child to feel under attack. There isn’t any comfort in it. There’s no solace.
It’s an on-the-ground reality right now.
It’s the reality of the environment, it’s the reality of the country. It’s a hard reality to reconcile, and in fact, because it’s so politicized, it becomes harder to invoke or to experience empathy from people outside of the community sometimes. It felt like part of what we were doing was restoring a human face and heart to those realities. It felt like an opportunity to tell the truth about how it actually, really feels to be black with these experiences of police brutality occurring. Even if you don’t know the person or aren’t in that particular region or community, because you’re black and you understand what it is to be treated as other and to be diminished to the point where life may not matter, it hurts. It’s not just angering, it’s not just scary, it’s not just difficult and challenging to figure out as a problem in society. It’s extremely painful. That pain is felt not just by the family; it’s felt community-wide. Being able to honor that was important.
Nicholas L. Ashe is shouldering that intense material. What was it like working through it with him?
None of us knew what had happened except him. I remember that first episode, and I remember looking at his face. We were all just getting back into the world of it; we were shooting the season’s first episode. So we were all in fairly good spirits and happy to be back with each other and back at it, and he looked so heavy. I remember thinking, “I don’t know what’s going on, I don’t know what he’s walking with, but I wish that I could do something about that. I wish that I could relieve him.” Nic and I are very, very close and it’s now a habitual response to want to mom him. But that was my impulse: I wished that I could relieve him of whatever it is, but I don’t know what it is, and I hope he tells me. And I didn’t know that he knew. I didn’t know. He was just walking with it. So I found that it actually was, in its way, useful for when we got to these later episodes because when it was revealed what actually did happen, it was so horrifying, and it was so painful to feel: “Oh my gosh, this person’s been walking with this, this entire time, and I didn’t know that.”
So Nicholas knew the full scope of the story line while you did not?
Yes. There’s a reality of what people must go through, what parents must go through when that’s the case — when kids are walking with secrets of an experience, and are being inwardly very affected and challenged by it and, in some ways, are never the same. Their innocence is gone. And their parents can sense it — can sense something — but have no idea the depth of pain that it’s caused. And then waking up to that. It was a surreal experience to go through all of that and then, again, to see that depicted literally a week after the Philando Castile verdict was announced. It was surreal. It’s one of the moments where I didn’t even realize how much I hadn’t processed it until the next day after the premiere of the show, and I just doubled over, sobbing. I realized this show is serving a very critical purpose.
Can you tell me about the moment when you found out what happened to him?
I remember reading it. That was a gut punch. I didn’t know that something more than what I’d assumed had happened had happened. I just didn’t know. I remember feeling, again, just like, “Oh my gosh. Nic has been walking with this.” And then just feeling so much grief for Charley’s journey and her life. In her way, before everything that happens in season 1, she’s already “missing” him. She has created a very busy life and a very exceptional and achievement-based life. A lot of her identity is wrapped up in that. I think in some ways she’s missing Micah. She’s not paying the kind of attention that she should. And would not have woken up to that had everything not happened in season 1. But as everything happens in season 1, it takes over. She doesn’t fully wake up to him. But it’s a very rash and painful wake-up. It’s a wake-up not just to Micah’s emotional reality or how Micah’s doing, but it’s a wake-up to the reality of where they are and the reality of our present moment and the reality of her own family history — how that impacts the decisions she’s made. It was just painful. It was a gut punch.
What went through your mind?
My mother’s words echoed in my head, of when your child hurts, you hurt — that you feel everything they feel as though you’re going through it, and you want to take it away from them. You want to relieve them, you want them to be free of it, you want to take it on. It’s what I actually feel with Nic because we have such a close relationship, and it’s a genuine love for him. Because I’ve trained myself to respond as his mother, it was a very specific feeling of wanting to take this away, wanting all the fear and the terror and the true “I’m going to die” feeling — the feeling of that being possible at any moment, at any time — to remove that. Wanting to take it on yourself and knowing you can’t. It’s done. And that your child won’t ever be the same child. He’s no longer a child and he will not ever be the same human that you’ve been raising. Like a loss. A loss.
It’s such heavy material. But one reason viewers gravitate to this show is that it authentically speaks to what families are going through right now, while also having a lightness in the way the family comes together — a joy. How important was that levity as you were working through these scenes and this material?
Huge. Right after the scene where Micah tells me what happened and Charley has her reaction of “Let’s go, let’s take them down,” Micah’s the only reason that she doesn’t. It’s because Micah says, “I can’t. I need to move past this. I can’t live in that.” I understood that. It’s really hard to imagine that Charley Bordelon-West would let that go, you know? It’s hard to imagine that she would in any way not absolutely burn that department to the ground. But how I justified it and made sense of it is that when you look at your child and you see them hurting in a way that you have literally never seen before, and there’s nothing you can do except try to comfort them. And right after that moment, I go to a party! It’s the scene of Darla and Ralph Angel’s engagement party. That was tricky to play. Gratefully, the writers tracked it and there were moments of being able to talk to Nova about it, but I think that’s part of the point of the show, and it is what I know to be true about black culture and my own family life.
There are things that are so painful — stories of your own history, realities that you walk in and things you see in your neighborhood — that you want to be able to do something about it. You want to affect. Whether or not you can is one thing, but to get through that and to survive it — not just physically, but really emotionally and almost spiritually, there is this thing in the culture. I don’t know if it’s a habit, but it’s something that I cherish and it’s one of the reasons I’m so grateful to be on the show: because we tell the story, and it has to be with joy, and it has to be a necessary turn to joy — a necessary reaction of, “We are not only suffering or under attack or misunderstood. We are also whole and we are also full of love and full of joy. Because of that, we are able to heal.” That is what I’ve known in my life, growing up in the neighborhood that I’ve grown up in. I think it actually was an important sequence. She goes from that to the party, and then from the party, she goes to process it in a very painful moment with her mother. That’s what life feels like. Even when we hear about these events, we’re in the middle of our lives. But we still have to process it.
We’re trying to be present to everything happening and then finding time to process it and feel it. As a black person, it’s not just, “Oh, this happened, what a difficult thing to reconcile.” It is true pain. It doesn’t matter if you know them; it doesn’t matter if they’re part of your world or your community. It’s so immediate because you understand the common factor is blackness. It’s really been an honor to play and it felt important for me in my own actual processing of my world right now.
Video clip courtesy of Warner Horizon Scripted Television. Watch the entire season 2 of Queen Sugar on the OWN app.