by ALEX CARNEVALE
creator Ava DuVernay
The two sisters at the heart of Ava DuVernay’s first original series are always waking up in a man’s house, a place not quite their own.
Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) rises in a bedroom that looks through prismatic glass windows down on Los Angeles. The entire domicile is transparent, which affords very little privacy when her husband is charged with participating in a group rape with other members of his professional basketball team. She is so disgusted when she finds this out during one of his games that she charges onto the court and begins screaming at him. Strangely, they haul her off instead of him.
Nova (Rutina Wesley) is dating a white guy and practicing some serious herbal medicine in her and her half-sister’s hometown in rural Louisiana. She wakes up in this man’s arms, but for some reason she feels she cannot introduce him to her family and friends. Actually, we know the reason: it is because everyone else on this show, with the except of a land developer who wants to buy her father’s farm, is black.
Charley soon returns home to Louisiana, where her siblings and her aunt are generally uncomfortable with how bourgeois she has become. The rest of Charley’s family seem to be struggling financially even though their father Ernest (the enigmatic and charismatic Glynn Turman) dies in the first episode of Queen Sugar, leaving behind a massive tract of farmland.
Charley’s husband Davis West (Timon Kyle Durrett), who plays power forward, checks their residences in Aspen and Palm Springs and eventually discovers her whereabouts in time to attend the funeral. He claims he is innocent of raping anyone, suggesting that he merely brought the victim into the room where the alleged crime took place before excusing himself to play Candy Crush. West is a fantastic character — because DuVernay is invested with giving all her creations an elemental human dignity, he is not just brushed off as a sociopath.
I remember reading Magic Johnson’s autobiography when I was eleven. Boy was that an eye-opener; I can’t believe they had this thing at the local library. He had sex with a different woman in every American city. The real mystery is how he didn’t contract AIDS more quickly. NBA players do some unfaithful things to their wives; it is unclear as of now how much of this Charley expected or could be willing to forgive.
Her immediate response after confronting her husband is to retreat to bed. She takes a serious amount of pills to dull the pain of being who she is, but not so much that she is unable to hear when her son comes into her room to tell her that her father is on the verge of dying.
The concept that we know what kind of people with which we are involved is an important theme in Queen Sugar, the best American serial to premiere in many years. DuVernay has the most important writing talent there is — she is able to make us feel distinctly for people when we are already predisposed to see a situation or circumstance as manipulating our feelings, without then also feeling controlled.
The incredible cast she has assembled for Queen Sugar begins with the tremulous intensity of True Blood‘s Rutina Wesley, but Wesley requires strong presences to play off in order to be at her best. As Charley and Nova’s brother Ralph Angel, the Ghanian actor Kofi Siriboe portrays a man fresh out of prison. He struggles to take care of his young son financially and resorts to intermittent crime to meet his financial obligations. The boy’s young mother is a drug addict who has abandoned the child in the past.
Ralph Angel is reluctant to make a connection with his son’s teacher, Reyna (Marycarmen Lopez). The low-key sexual energy projected by Lopez gives Queen Sugar the shot in the arm it requires at various intervals. DuVernay’s long experience in the industry has allowed her to make quite a few stars in such a short time, and she really reveals how terrible most black roles are in Hollywood just by proving these new performers are capable of star-making performances.
All the main sets in Queen Sugar are absolutely gorgeous, and Louisiana is perfect as a place that can switch between paradise, limbo and hell within the space of a few blocks. The only disappointing scene takes place when Davis West comes to visit Charley in Louisiana in order to tell his side of the story to his teenage son Micah (Nicholas Ashe). Instead of probing the area for a landscape that would show Davis to be sufficiently out of place in Louisiana, DuVernay shoots the moment in the gym of the local high school.
DuVernay herself is from Los Angeles, although she spent summers in Alabama where her father grew up on a family farm. The Bordelon patriarch’s house borders land which he stopped maintaining in his last years, forcing him to take a job as a janitor. What DuVernay is consistently successful at as a writer is allowing us to see particular situations through her character’s eyes. She recognizes what should be obvious to anyone alive: that we are more shaped by what we observe in others than anything else in our world.
She extends her empathy, which is more serious than anyone working her medium, to the lives of children, which are so often ignored or simplified in drama. Queen Sugar is rife with the possibilities of different intersections that a family drama affords; individuals in the Bordelon House relates to each other person in a specific way, changing them, altering their presence in our own lives. This gives Queen Sugar a feeling of versimilitude that has been missing from television since The Sopranos.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.