I don’t know if this is true for everybody, but it is certainly true for me; as a child, I simply didn’t get the significance of seeing black characters on TV. I recognized the considerable absence (as well as the rare non-trope presence), but I was such a story addict that it didn’t really click. At least I didn’t think it did. All my superheroes were white, except for Green Lantern. And then we had that fantastic 4 season run of Static Shock. But I still didn’t get it.
Now, as an adult, I do.
Seeing black people on television in all of the roles; the mastermind, the redemptive criminal, the spiritual elite, the powerful businessperson, the dominating athlete, the awkward teen, the faithful lover….
Queen Sugar waxes black and it matters. There is no escaping it, no downplaying it, no wondering if maybe it’s a hoax or placation… Nope. It is unapologetically black in all of its sensibilities, first and foremost, and never backs down from that position.
From such a lofty and prominent position, master storyteller Ava Duvernay takes us down a winding road of emotion, ambition, and intrigue. Like a graceful dance, she gently takes our hand, intertwining her soft fingers around our own, carefully spinning us out to the center of the floor. With expert finesse she leads the dizzying footwork, never once breaking eye contact. Watching this show is almost like sitting in the writer’s room itself. You can hear the questions being proffered.
“Why are the siblings estranged? Why does the sugar cane farm have significance? Why do athletes have nearly unassailable prestige? What if a sex worker was victimized? What if a parent desperate to do anything for the wellbeing of their child only had the high road available to them? What if unconditional love isn’t so simple or black and white?”
What if unconditional love isn’t so simple or black and white?
That one question is what the entire season- every plot twist, every character arc, every poignant isolation- is hinged upon. Marriage, even in modern times, is still presented as this magical union that consists of nothing but Disney flutters when done correctly. Society adamantly stakes the claim that if you’re doing marriage right, it should look like a fairytale. But fairytales are glorified parodies of the actual grit and hustle of real life marriage. The monsters and dark forests and evil hench-creatures so prevalent in those storybook tales represent the hard work of real life marriage.
Marriage costs. Period. Now- how much is too much? When does depletion become a negative balance, and when it does- what do you do? What does right look like when you have been wronged, and what does wrong look like when you’re not intending to hurt anybody…
Relationships transform every aspect of who we are. One of my favorite characters in the show is the middle sister Nova. For me, Nova represents the spiritual presence in the series. Her whole life is dedicated to freeing people from their own binds regardless on whether or not they were self inflicted, caused by others, physical, spiritual, or anything else. She has a very clear ministry in the show and that ministry is of reconciliation. But what is the personal price of someone so dedicated? Someone who only sees freedom when they look upon other human beings?
Sometimes such a person over stretches their own personal freedom. They struggle a little more with the very human need to have an anchor, a soul mate, an emotional bastion behind which they themselves can take refuge. Because of who she is, she doesn’t need that anchor; but by rhythm of the same drum beat- because of who she is, she wants it.
And through Nova’s stalwart awareness we see the spiritual instability of the rest of the ensemble. We catch clear sight of the emotional and personal failings of this incredibly dynamic family who has their world flipped, when all of their personally sown decisions circle back round for a season of reaping. In a startlingly realistic fashion, we are reminded that people make mistakes. The goal of humanity is not to avoid mistakes or reach some mystical peak state of perfection; the goal is to make wise choices. You made a mistake? Great. Now make a wise choice on the other side of it. Someone close to you made a mistake? A hurtful one? I’m sorry. Now make a wise choice on the other side of it.
And along this remarkably insightful journey, carefully peeling back the layers of this not-so-perfect family working out what it means to love and choose wisely in the midst of messiness… grim party favors are tucked into our tightly clutched fingers.
Minors don’t belong in adult prisons.
Black Lives Matter.
Interracial relationships are not evil.
LGBT are real people with real feelings.
Women fight twice as hard for success and still receive hardly any respect.
Pro-black does not mean anti-white.
It takes humility to know when to give the gift of a second chance.
Queen Sugar isn’t preachy, isn’t predictable, isn’t soap opera dramatic (that is, drama laden for drama’s sake). It is intensely real; seamlessly uniting the undeniably retro world of outdoors, farming, and cookouts with the flossy, contemporary world of social media, superstars, and wireless beats headphones.
The writing itself is impeccable, topped only- perhaps- by the stellar delivery of this all star cast. Which leads to another noteworthy element. The entire cast, while consisting of actors who have acted before, by no means holds chart cresting, household names in its lineup. A full cast of (for all intents and purposes) “unknowns,” holding it down with the A list quality of seasoned veterans. Another nod to this provocative theme trickling through all of Ava’s work and pronounced firmly by Charlie herself during one of the later episodes.
“Things don’t have to be how they have always been.”
This show truly has something for everybody and I highly encourage you to watch it if you haven’t yet. The entire first season is streaming on Hulu; the second season just began its run on none other than the OWN channel itself. If you enjoy story that’s about something, if purpose driven drama appeals to you, if you like TV that makes you feel something… then Ava has an experience for you baby.
Queen Sugar is an adroit production; an exemplary standard bearer on what television and the visual arts are supposed to be.
As you go, I also encourage you to carry this question with you. Ponder it. Let it seep deep down and elicit a response, because the strongest changes are the ones we consciously choose:
What if unconditional love isn’t so simple or black and white?
Happy trails friends.
Ask better questions,
Do interesting things,
Live your best story possible,
Keep your wings up.
Joshua Evans is a prolific writer and sci-fi/fantasy enthusiast who believes story is central to everything and that mythology can change the world. He currently hosts two youtube shows- The Truth About Superheroes and Comic of the Week, as well as runs a short story blogsite on medium as The Story Junkie. If you would like to further be a part of his cosmic psyche, you can join him on Twitter and Instagram or simply subscribe to this blog… and remember- sharing is caring! Cheers!