The Queen Sugar Recipe

Ava DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey talk about what makes the most feminist, most culturally aware show on cable television work


Like a lot of other people, filmmaker Ava DuVernay went to see Wonder Woman a few weekends ago. The movie and its director, Patty Jenkins, broke a few box office records on opening weekend, though this was not on DuVernay’s mind as she talked to a roomful of journalists assembled to preview her TV series Queen Sugar: “[Some scenes in Wonder Woman] unpack issues of sexuality and gender politics with a real intention of coming from a place of equity coloring the whole thing,” she said. “If you weren’t looking for it, you wouldn’t have even felt it. But if you were looking for it, you saw yourself. That was a beautiful example of what Hollywood can be. And that’s what happens when you let women behind the camera.”

For its second season, female directors are behind every episode of Queen Sugar, the most feminist, most culturally aware (read: wokest, blackest) show on cable television. The show — based on the 2014 book by first-time novelist Natalie Baszile — deals with the African-American Bordelon clan managing the inheritance of an 800-acre sugarcane farm in New Orleans from the family patriarch. All thirteen episodes of last year’s season one were also directed by women — “None of the season one directors are available [now], they’re completely booked,” said DuVernay — and singer-songwriter Meshell Ndegeocello scores the series, where lush Louisiana visuals and soulful music sway in concert.

At a post-screening talk in Los Angeles — one that included Queen Sugar executive producer Oprah Winfrey, actress Dawn-Lyen Gardner (who plays the series’ central character, Charley Bordelon West), and actor Kofi Siriboe (Charley’s brother, Ralph Angel) — DuVernay brought up Jessica Chastain’s recent comments as a Cannes Film Festival jury member about the lack of female directors resulting in a lack of authentic female characters. “I retweeted her to champion that,” she said. “But also, I wanted to say, ‘Look over here! Look at how wonderful it can be.’ ”

Also at Cannes, Sofia Coppola walked away with the Best Director prize for The Beguiled, only the second woman in seventy years to do so. Though the Academy Awards notoriously robbed DuVernay of a Best Director nom in 2015 for Selma, her reward came from elsewhere in Hollywood: She’s now the first woman of color to direct a film with a budget over $100 million, the Disney adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time (due March 2018). And that after turning down Marvel Studios’ African-superhero story, Black Panther.

Mentioning Game of Thrones’ three-season streak of all male directors (hardly an anomaly), DuVernay affirmed, “We’re going to center women because we can and we want to. And we’re a network owned by a woman, so it makes it easier.” La grande dame Oprah giggled with the audience.

Queen Sugar’s narrative balances a surplus of elements heavy on romantic angles. Charley relocates to N’Awlins from L.A., leaving behind a rich basketballer husband caught up in a sex scandal; she founds the Queen Sugar sugarcane mill, and makes a love connection with a local farmer. Aunt Violet is a sexy black fifty-year-old (is there another on TV?) in a hot relationship with an oil rig worker. And writer-activist–weed connect Nova — Charley’s sister — struggles through an affair with a married white cop in season one, and seems to be searching for something through casual encounters with various other cute whiteboy lovers at the start of season two. Nova also flaunted an honest, unabashed bisexuality dealing with a Black Lives Matter organizer last season.

There are men here too, and their characters are rich, particularly Ralph, a formerly incarcerated single dad actively raising a young son with a recovered addict. Fallen basketball star Davis West is hardly sympathetic, but his teenage son Micah’s arc is compelling: navigating the burst of his rich-kid-bubble life in L.A. to the complexities of being young and black in the South. But at its heart QS is a family drama, with the siblings’ conflicting points of view combustibly rubbing up against each other from episode to episode, and the star is Gardner’s flawed Charley, on whose lithe shoulders (and fat bank account) the fortunes of the Queen Sugar mill ultimately rest. “The most central thing for Charley for me was isolating what was going on with her,” said Gardner. “She’s actually in a bit of a spiritual crisis and doesn’t know it. She has no idea she’s actually in that space. What is it that she’s really seeking? What is it that she’s missing? Where are her flaws? She’s sort of built up all these structures in this way of being to avoid [her flaws], basically.”

“I’m not so sure some days if I like Charley,” Oprah added. Neither, she said, are her friends who watch. “We’re not sure how we feel about Charley. ‘Why did she do that?’ But I’m always cooing in my heart over Ralph Angel. And this is how you know whether it’s a good book that you’ve read or a great movie or a series. You know, the characters feel real to me.”

“We’re trying to be really explicit with our intentions about playing with and unpacking race and culture,” DuVernay concludes. “But do it in a way that’s wrapped in contemporary romance and beautiful people and interpersonal relationships, while we also have this large kind of cultural, historical context over it. That’s the daily balance in what we’re constantly trying to do. It’s an exploration, because it’s definitely something that’s not a well-beaten path.”

The question, naturally, is: Does Queen Sugar work? Last year Variety called the show muddled but well directed. The New York Times complained that “genuinely lazy scene-making saps the show of credibility.” But like plenty else in the Trump era, white opinions and black opinions can be starkly polarized. (Black Twitter adores the show.) Somewhat ironically, the more culturally specific a work of art, the more universally appealing it can be, and QS clearly excels at cultural specificity. For this writer, the show hits the mark. Whether most of us ultimately feel that way or not, only time will tell as season two unfolds.