“Queen Sugar” Does Black Lives Matter Storytelling Right

In season two of Queen Sugar, which kicked off its two-episode opener last week on OWN with its highest ratings ever, we catch up with our beloved Bordelons after an indiscriminate amount of time following the events of the season one finale.

Charley is continuing in the creation of a sugar mill dedicated to the needs of black farmers. Queen Sugar Mill provides an alternative choice to the area’s largest sugarcane production company. It also grants farmers some independence from the exploitation of white capitalism that overcharges them for their products while simultaneously devaluing their labor. The bank is impressed with Charley’s business plan and will provide her with the necessary investment money, as long as she goes in on the loan with her estranged husband Davis West. Without his involvement the bank is skittish, despite the fact that more than 2/3 of the area’s black farmers have already agreed to mill with Queen Sugar, enough to ensure the company will turn a profit within its first year.

We’ve seen a lot of think pieces in the last few months about what happens when the steadfast intelligence of a woman is overlooked in favor the flashy brand of her less qualified male counterpart. I won’t add to that applicable commentary here, except to highlight that Queen Sugar starts the season off by exploring the ways that particular dynamic plays out for women of color who often find themselves at the intersections of their race and gender. Charley is spearheading a project that will uplift the black entrepreneurs and workers in her area, but she is unable to accomplish these goals without a male co-signature. She gets out of this quagmire by signing Davis’ name on the bank’s contract without his consent, which is obviously all kinds of illegal. I’m sure it’s coming back to bite her soon.

Nova is helping to organize a rally and fundraiser for the NOLA Community Bail Fund. These types of bail funds are a genius grassroots response to the reality that approximately 450,000 poor people (often people of color) are being detained simply because they can’t afford bail that’s sometimes as little as $100. It’s a prime example of the ways that the government thrives on poor, black, and brown bodies. There are large and small Community Bail Funds across the country from Louisville to Brooklyn, the Bronx, the Pacific Northwest, and Chicago, among others. Please consider looking one up near you and gifting them a small donation if you are so moved.

We learned last season that the NOLA Community Bail Fund was a project started by Nova’s ex-girlfriend Chantal. I was hopeful this detail meant we would see Chantal this week, but alas not yet. Come back Chantal! We miss you!

No worries though, because Nova still goes on a Queer Girl Adventure of sorts. Early in the premiere she attends a friend’s baby shower and recommends that her college circle consider expanding their expectations of love, sex, and family (Nova has clearly been reading Erin’s ongoing investigative report, Are Straight Women Okay?). She’s having that moment every queer woman experiences at some point. They look around at the straight women in their lives and wonder: Why on earth do all these women who are otherwise strong, smart, and freaking amazing come to plummeting halt over a guy? OVER A GUY? REALLY? Come join us on #TeamGay. We have better orgasms.

Nova shouldn’t hold herself too high on her horse, however. The premiere has her sleeping with two different, lackluster unnamed white men. Nova, do better! We are rooting for you! Though, it is interesting that the show has decided to highlight Nova’s “downward personal spiral” as booze and a parade of unsatisfying straight sex.

Aunt Violet (who judging from the comments in my season one recap is a fan favorite, and I agree!) holds strong as the heartbeat of the family. She hosts the annual Bordelon Juneteenth Family Dinner, which is a tradition that that I plan on adapting in my personal life ASAP. It’s such a good way to honor the anniversary of slavery’s end in America. Vi’s also doing well in her promotion as the manager of the local diner, but she misses Hollywood like crazy.

Nova suggests that she, Vi, and Charley have Girl’s Night Out to get out of their respective funks. I have to say, Drunk Aunt Violet comes second only to season one’s High Aunt Violet in my book. This woman is pure joy. She has a life or death scare about Hollywood while he’s working on the oil-rig. It finally brings them back together, just as it should be.

Ralph Angel is still trying to make things work with his own little family unit. He’s working hard on the farm and has some new ideas for its expansion. He starts the two-part opener struggling with Darla, his girlfriend and child’s mother. Bianca Lawson, by the way, plays Darla. Yes, Maya from Pretty Little Liars and Kendra from Buffy, the root of many a queer girl’s heart going aflutter. While in circle at Narcotics Anonymous, Darla gives a shattering speech about the lasting relationship consequences that stem from her addiction. I have been watching Lawson act since the ‘90s and feel confident in saying that she is delivering the performance of her career in this role.

Ralph Angel gets his act together with Darla by the episode’s close. He also defends his young son Blue against an asshole waiter who polices his gender during a family outing. The waiter suggests that the child get a “Transformer toy” instead of his beloved Barbie and best friend Kenya. Because apparently God forbid THE BOY PLAY WITH A FUCKING DOLL. There are a lot of reasons to love Ralph Angel, but his insistence on protecting the parts of his son that could that could be considered “soft” or “feminine” or “non-conforming” has to be high on the list.

Speaking of policing the bodies and habits of young black boys, we have to talk about Micah.

About midway through the first episode we see the police stop Micah as he is cruising down a Louisiana state road in the convertible that his father bought him. I safely assume we all saw where this was going the minute the cop car’s lights flashed for Micah to pull over and I’m not the only one whose adrenaline rushed.

I screamed like a horror movie when the cop pulled his gun on Micah, because in some ways isn’t that what black confrontation with police has become? A horror show? A spectacle? Every show seems to want to do a “Black Lives Matter Special Episode” these days, and I am becoming jilted at the most important civil rights discussion of this generation being sanitized and stifled into a television trend.

That said, I’ve also been writing Orange is the New Black recaps this summer, and I can’t help but think about how Queen Sugar’s approach works exactly because it doesn’t resort to excessive violence or torture porn to make its point. Instead, we experience Micah’s fear. We watch slowly, subtly as his light get snuffed out.

I held myself when the camera panned to his getting out of jail and we realize that he urinated on himself. Nova goes to him and offers her sweater to cover the stain on his pants, telling her nephew that “there ain’t nothing to be ashamed of.” But… it’s too late.

Micah has lost a piece of himself. This is the day he becomes an adult; ironic since the car was something of a “sweet sixteen” milestone gift from his father. And it’s one of the most realistic, nearly universal, and devastating coming of age stories about black young people that the show could provide. It’s one that I know all too well.

I have a nephew who is right now pure sunshine. He is my greatest joy. Sometimes when I watch him, I can’t help but start to wonder what happens when he is 13 or 16 or 21 and the state comes to steal some of his soul as well. It feels as if the tax on being black in America is giving up a part of what made us bright in order to keep ourselves safe.

Queen Sugar effectively demonstrates that there are all types of way for the police to steal black humanity; some are too subtle for twitter trends and social media shares. But, they are no less suffocating or brutal.

Of course Davis, Micah’s father, almost completely misses the point. He confronts Charley at the end of their divorce proceedings that Micah needs a “strong male role model” to deal with the aftereffects of his arrest. If so, that’s news to Micah— he goes to his Aunt Nova for help in the episode’s heartbreaking final shot.

Before I close out this week’s review, I would be amiss not to mention that the second hour of this season premiere was directed by Cheryl Dunye. Dunye is a black lesbian indie filmmaker; LGBT+ film aficionados might best recognize for her role in the 1990s “queer new wave” and her 1996 groundbreaking work The Watermelon Woman. If you enjoyed Dee Rees’ work in Pariah (2011) or Bessie (2015), please know that Dunye opened up the doors for her and so many other black queer directors. Let’s all raise a metaphorical glass to honor her contribution and her work.

Carmen is Autostraddle's Associate Editor and a black Puerto Rican femme/inist writer. She claims many past homes, but has left the largest parts of her heart in Detroit, MI, Brooklyn, and Buffalo, NY. There were several years in her early 20s when she earnestly slept with a copy of James Baldwin’s “Fire Next Time” under her pillow at night. You can find her on twitter, @carmencitaloves.

Carmen has written 121 articles for us.

17 Comments

  1. Yes yes yes! I could forgive QS for the Micah storyline because it was done with care and precision. The absolute opposite of OITNB…

    Honestly this is my total favourite show of all time and it can do no wrong (she says in hope)

    • ” I could forgive QS for the Micah storyline because it was done with care and precision.” <— This is my exact feeling.

      The first time I saw Micah in the car, I knew exactly where this was going. And I was annoyed. When the cop pulled the gun, I was triggered. But, when it was all over, I appreciated what they had done with the story. And that's more than I can say for a lot of other shows that have been dipping their toes into BLM themes lately (and so as to not single out OITNB, I would also add Lifetime's "Unreal" and BET's "Being Mary Jane" as shows that completely lost the point)

  2. I loved this line especially, “when the steadfast intelligence of a woman is overlooked in favor the flashy brand of her less qualified male counterpart.”

    I haven’t seen the show but from these excellent reviews I would love it. Slightly annoyed at how writers will often have a character do something uncharacteristic in order to further the plot, such as having someone who’s otherwise very resourceful and sensible like Charley do something so obviously not sensible as forging her ex’s signature on that bank application. Otherwise, it looks like the second season is off to a great start!

  3. Two weeks ago, after the mass shooting that injured Rep. Steve Scalise and others, NBC pulled that night’s episode of The Carmichael Show, in favor of (oddly enough) an episode about a lesbian wedding. The episode that was supposed to air, entitled “Shoot Up-Able,” featured the lead character surviving a mass shooting and NBC chose to be sensitive to the trauma the country had experienced.

    I thought about that as I watched the cop approach Micah’s car with his hand ghosting his gun.

    Just hours earlier, authorities released the dash cam video of the Philando Castile murder and while I couldn’t bring myself to watch it in its entirety, I had seen enough–and I suspect that a lot of folks who watched Queen Sugar had seen enough–to be traumatized. On any day, that scene would’ve been harrowing to watch, but on that particular day, it was petrifying. It made me wonder: who’s sensitive to our trauma? Part of me wishes that Oprah and Ava had pulled the episode–that this show that’s for us and by us, would see our pain and give us room to catch our collective breathe–but I suppose if you’re waiting for black trauma to abate in America, you’re gonna be waiting an awfully long time.

    That said, the scenes were compelling and it was, hands down, Nicholas Ashe’s best work on the show thus far. I was frustrated, though, that Ralph-Angel wasn’t integrated into that story, as his experience could’ve added another layer of richness to it. Plus, it would’ve given Micah that “strong male role model,” without subjecting us to Davis’ self-righteousness.

    • Very true. I hadn’t even made the connection to the episode airing the same day as the Castile video release, in part because I watched it a day or two later with the DVR and in part because I make it a point to never watch the murder videos (for the EXACT reasons you pointed out re: trauma).

      I definitely meant it when I said that I screamed when the cop reached for his gun, so you are right to ask: who is being sensitive to our trauma?

      I think that QS did a lot of good with this episode, and I think they took a lot of care in *how* they told the story (which I guess is clear through my review). I appreciated that it was much more about a black coming of age than about black death. Still, with all that on the table, it’s worth paying attention to the timing of the airing. There’s an expectation that black people are able to “carry the burden”, right? And eff that noise. We have a right to being triggered and for that to be respected. Particularly within our own community.

      (PS: @pecola, I’ve been missing you! I’m still @c-p, for future reference. Happy to be talking television with you again!)

  4. You’re knocking it out of the park CP
    And this was perfect. I ask myself this all the time:
    Why on earth do all these women who are otherwise strong, smart, and freaking amazing come to plummeting halt over a guy? OVER A GUY? REALLY? Come join us on #TeamGay. We have better orgasms.

  5. @c-p I apologize for being so behind in commenting on your recap! I promise, I read it the day it was posted, but haven’t gotten around to commenting for a number of reasons.

    But let me just say that this recap reminds me of exactly why I’ve been championing you for Queen Sugar recap duties since the day AS first announced they were going to have them – just like all your comments about the show last season, this recap is expertly written, and shows such a deep understanding and appreciation for these characters and their various circumstances that I am blown away. Reading your insights and analysis into the show has always allowed me to access the show on a deeper level, and I’m so happy that you’re now bringing that insight and analysis to all of Autostraddle, and not just our little Queen Sugar Fan Club. I really hope more people start to discover this incredible show because of your writing!

    These two episodes really set the bar high for the rest of the season, and I’m so excited to see what’s coming next!

  6. I trust very few people to be able to tell a story like this without causing more harm than good, but I trust Ava DuVernay and co., and based on your review, I’m glad that trust isn’t misplaced!

    Wonderful work as always, Carmen!

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