Before we delve into our Queen Sugar season one recap, I’d like to introduce myself. As eagle eyed viewers have gathered from the author byline, my name is Carmen Phillips. I’m incredibly excited to be helping out where I can on the Autostraddle TV Team this summer. If you’ve frequented the AS comment section of the past few years, you might also know me as C.P. I’m a frequent flyer member around these parts, particularly in the pop culture articles.
This past fall, a large portion of my comments focused on Ava DuVernay’s prestige television masterpiece Queen Sugar, which returns for its second season tonight on OWN. Some like-minded souls and I developed what we jokingly refer to as the “Unofficial Queen Sugar Fan Club.” Week after week, we carved out space for ourselves in the comments board to talk about the ongoing drama of this fictional black family in Louisiana. So glad to have you join us!
Queen Sugar is centered on the Bordelon family as their lives are shaken by the death of their father and their subsequent return to the family’s sugarcane farm in his absence. The major plots of the show are split between the three Bordelon adult siblings: Charley Bordelon West, the middle child, successful businesswoman, mother, and wife of NBA star Davis West (currently embroiled in a sex scandal of his own); Ralph Angel Bordelon, the youngest, a single father who is fighting tooth and nail to do honest work and live by a moral code in the face of a system designed to keep formerly incarcerated black men without opportunity; and Nova Bordelon, the eldest, a bi/pansexual freelance journalist, activist, practitioner of black indigenous spirituality, and a marijuana farmer.
Charlie and Ralph Angel are dynamic, fully realized, complicated black characters the like of which are still criminally underrepresented on television. You will find yourself simultaneously falling in love and feeling impossibly frustrated with them both — which is to say that they are carefully written and masterfully portrayed. I take nothing away from either of them (or the rest of the Bordelon family, all of whom are an absolute marvel in their own way) when I say that it is Nova Bordelon who makes my heart thunder in my chest.
First and foremost, Nova is played by love of my life Rutina Wesley (yep! That’s Tara Thorton for all my True Blood fans out there). That makes her the second bisexual character Rutina has, ahem, sunk her teeth into in the last decade. Tara’s coming out spread through my little pocket of queer community like a wildfire in 2011. It was then, and unfortunately remains now, so incredibly rare to see a fully developed black queer woman on television. I swore my allegiance Rutina back then and feel so good about that decision watching the work she is putting into Nova.
Nova Bordelon is the first time on television where I have seen a queer black women character that feels like the queer black women that I know and love in my life. She’s committed to community, not only through her activism — which in season one focused on Black Lives Matter and the prison industrial complex — but in her spiritual work and everyday life. She performs spiritual healing sessions for her family and neighbors. When a hurricane hits the area, Nova won’t join her family in safety until she and her girlfriend Chantal (more on her later) make sure all the elderly in their neighborhood have food and boarded windows. She sells the marijuana she grows to the young men around her — and includes flyers for the next BLM protest with each purchase, reminding them, “You would want someone to march for you.” A major plot in the first season involves Nova’s reporting coverage of Too Sweet, a 17 year old black boy who was wrongfully incarcerated on trumped up charges. In fighting for Too Sweet Nova opens up an inquiry into the arrest practices of the entire New Orleans police department. She’s brave, she’s infinitely proud of her blackness, and she loves from her soul.
The show opens with Nova dating Calvin, a married white police officer from a prominent family in New Orleans. There’s a lot of mutual understanding and care between them, but it’s a relationship that Nova struggles with for a lot of obvious political and moral reasons. She and Calvin eventually break up due to Nova’s activism over the incarceration of Too Sweet, and that is when Chantal Williams walks into her life.
Chantal is a Black Lives Matter activist and community organizer; with the greatest dimples I have ever seen on screen. She is played by Reagan Gomez, an Afro-Latina activist and actress of 1990s black family sitcom Parent ‘Hood fame (for those who did not grow up black in the ’90s, I would say it’s the rough equivalent of finding out that Topanga from Boy Meets World or Stephanie Tanner from Full House grew up, got “woke,” and then guest starred playing gay in your new favorite adult drama). Having Chantal in this capacity feels like a nod to the fact that the Black Lives Matter movement was founded in large part by queer black women, and the significant leadership roles that queer black folks have historically taken in civil rights movements.
Nova once told her Aunt Violet that she didn’t fall in love with gender, she fell in love with “what’s inside… it’s about the whole package.” And let me tell you: Chantal is the whole package. They first meet doing a radio interview about BLM. Afterwards, Nova compliments Chantal’s necklace. The girl straight up takes the jewelry off her neck and puts it on Nova’s instead! In the middle of the hallway! She follows the exchange up with batted lashes, downcast eyes, and promises that Nova has to return the necklace to her soon. Nova’s left alone with her mouth agape and cheeks blushed. Chantal’s game is on legendary status, is what I’m saying.
There’s another moment, later in their relationship, when Nova and Chantal spend the morning in bed in their underwear. They kiss and flirt and have lazy good morning sex before checking on Nova’s organic weed growing in her backyard. They then take Nova’s nephew on a trip to New Orleans to visit an art exhibit by Brandan “B-Mike” Odums (an actual artist, by the way). After that episode I wanted to turn off the television and cry. It is, and I say this without any hyperbole or doubt, the closest I have EVER come on television to seeing a love that looks mine and looks like how I express it. Ever. Ever. EVER.
Unfortunately, Nova and Chantal end the season in a bit of a rougher patch. They break up in a nasty fight that starts over political strategy (we’ve all been there, girl). Nova has an opportunity to be interviewed by Melissa Harris Perry and wants her conversation to stay focused on Too Sweet’s case; Chantal sees this as a chance to speak to a broader platform about police brutality in New Orleans. The fight ends with Chantal bringing up Nova’s past relationship with Calvin as a way to question her commitment to the movement’s needs. And to be honest? I won’t say that I disagree with her. Nova ends the season trying to reconcile with Calvin, which also doesn’t go over well. Nova’s slated to have a new male love interest for part of the upcoming season and Reagan Gomez has also been spotted on set, signaling another return for Chantal. It seems we aren’t done with these two yet!
I came to Queen Sugar for Nova and her relationship with Chantal, but I stayed for the absolutely stunning authentic portrayal of black families. I’m confident that many of you will find yourself similarly situated once you give the show a chance.
But ultimately, any proper conversation about Queen Sugar has to also be about the behind the scenes production of Queen Sugar.
Ava DuVernay (the show’s executive producer and first season showrunner) loves black people and black stories. If you don’t recognize Ava DuVernay by name, her past success has included the Academy Award nominated motion picture Selma and Academy Award nominated Netflix documentaryThe 13th. She is also directing Disney’s upcoming adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time, making her the first black female director to helm a $100 million movie production. Through it all, she centers her love of blackness. In fact, she gladly gives entire interviews dedicated to the intricacies of filming black skin. Did you know that black people should be filmed differently to give us proper lighting? Well, now you do. Queen Sugar has some of the lushest, rich, striking use of color that I’ve seen on television. I would probably only include Handmaiden’s Tale as its contemporary in that regard.
DuVernay’s commitment to craft has produced some of the most complex stories about blackness, in particular black womanhood and black female relationships, that we have seen in the decade. Her focus on female empowerment extends behind the camera. Queen Sugar hired only female directors for their first season, helping to break a glass ceiling that remains all to prevalent in the entertainment industry and giving many women opportunities that they otherwise had yet to be afforded. In season two DuVernay has renewed her determination to give more women that same opportunity, focusing on women of color and queer women. Reportedly, she went as far as tracking artists and filmmakers down on Twitter when necessary!
In feminist cultural critique, we spend a lot of time talking about the male gaze — how stories, even stories supposedly about women, look and feel different when told from the often subconscious point of view of male expectations. Perhaps Queen Sugar’s all-female director team will feel less revolutionary to some of you in the wake of Patty Jenkins’ success with Wonder Woman or Jessica Jones’ upcoming all female directed second season, but the work of female filmmakers is still brutally sparse. We have to keep asking for more. The last week has brought us news that the police officer who fatally shot Philando Castile last summer was acquitted, and also that Bill Cosby’s sole sexual assault case (after over 50 women who have come forward) ended in mistrial. All around us are heartbreaking reminders that we have to keep fighting to change our national culture. We need the perspective of black women and women of color more than ever right now.
In her 2015 SXSW Keynote speech, Ava DuVernay warns that no matter how successful you become in life, “If your dream only includes you, it’s too small.” When I first heard those words, they pierced me. I scrambled for a Post-It to write them down and attached it to my desk for months. Each and every one of us, we have to keep reaching.
Queen Sugar’s second season premieres TONIGHT on OWN in the US at 10/9c. It continues its two part opener tomorrow at the same time! I’ve been told that if you are good at reading context clues, you can jump directly into the second season. If you would rather catch up from the beginning, the entire first season is also available to stream on Hulu. I’ll be recapping Queen Sugar on “Boob(s on Your)Tube’” all summer long! Come join in, as our “Unofficial” Fan Club becomes Official! We’re super excited to have you!
Have any of you seen Queen Sugar? Did it move you or open up the way you think about anything differently? Or did you fall in love with Nova like I did? Whose work has inspired you lately? Let’s talk!