Queen Sugar’s Second Season Gives Black Women The Freedom To Not Be Superwomen

We have now come to the half way point of Queen Sugar’s sophomore season, and the midseason finale certainly knew how pack a punch.

Nova’s at the Atlanta airport. She left New Orleans in the wake of the gutting Bordelon family blow up and is now looking to find comfort in the arms of her new love interest, Dr. Robert DuBois. Clearly, Dr. DuBois has heard that I have taken to calling him The Good DoctorTM because he greets Nova at baggage claim with a name placard that’s hand-written with the word “Queen.” Nova thanks him by having sex in the backseat of his parked car, and I ain’t mad at her for it.

Unfortunately, things between them make a turn for the worse when The Good Doctor takes Nova to a dinner party with his friends and former colleagues. I will not mince words: This party is W-H-I-T-E. And Old. And Mostly Men. Holding court in at this swanky affair is DuBois’ old work acquaintance, Timothy North.

What is absolutely stunning about North is that he is the perfect characterization of Stephen Miller, the xenophobic Trump aide whose hate-filled immigration “debate” with CNN’s Jim Acosta was covered wall-to-wall by U.S. news media on Tuesday. There was no way for the Queen Sugar writers to know that the eventual timing would be so perfect. But, they did know a pure truth: In 2017 racist white nationalism doesn’t look like hooded figures and burned crosses, it looks like luxury three-piece suits and a microphone.

Nova drains her wine glass in a single gulp, and cuts his racist ass down to size. She says what no one else at the dinner party will dare, that his rhetoric “are all code words that turn immigrant into criminal and inner city into disease.” This is how the world gets picked over and syphoned off, by “people like you, with power, talking in rooms like this.” But little did she know, as Tim North’s smile grows until he resembles the Cheshire Cat, that her new boyfriend The Good Doctor was once on the record as agreeing with him.

The music turns into a throbbing pulse; Nova looks at DuBois horrified. She storms out, and he follows, apologizing. He once thought, a long time ago, that the best way he could help black people was by playing along with “the game.” Nova is rightfully incredulous. The liberation of black people is not a game to her. Later, when she is back home in Louisiana and lovingly massaging her Aunt Vi’s feet, she gets reminded that no one is perfect.

Few things are as complicated as black women’s relationship to our hair. When Charley decides early in the episode to forego her straightener and embrace her soft, natural curls, it felt like a culmination of her self-discovery. For many in St. Josephine, Charley remains an outsider. Even when she visited as a kid, she felt kept at a distance. She was Ernest’s “other child,” bi-racial, and eventually wealthy. However, the mill has changed things for her. For the first time, as she simply states to the black farmers collective, “it’s home.”

And we have Micah. The midseason finale brings us full circle to the trauma that opened the second season, Micah’s arrest. Nicholas Ashe has been nothing short of a marvel this summer as he committed to walking us through all the levels of Micah’s pain, and this week he tore me apart.

First, Micah and his girlfriend Keke are hanging outside of his private school when they see police stopping and handcuffing three black men on the street. The teenagers stop dead in their tracks, deciding to sit together on a bench and watch guard. Keke’s friend pulls out her cellphone to record what’s happening, just in case. I love Keke’s friend, but if you ever decide to record police in your real life, please be safe and smart and know your legal rights first!

Later, Micah and Davis have a fight that ends in Micah finally breaking his own silence. The night of his arrest, the police officer didn’t take him straight to the jail. Instead, they drove pass the building and into a nearby alley. The officer called him explicative after explicative, eventually repeating over and over that Micah had been raised “with a silver spoon in his mouth.” He pulled him out of the car and onto his knees in the alley, before forcing his gun into the young teenager’s mouth. And then he pulled the trigger.

Micah breaks down into tears telling Davis, “He didn’t have to do that Dad. He didn’t have to do that.”

I’m still shaking as I type this. I’ve tried, and deleted, writing about it. I can’t find the words to describe the feeling. The scene is exquisitely powerful in part because of director Amanda Marsalis’ restraint. She trusted Ashe’s breaking voice to relay the memory, as opposed to a gratuitous violent flashback. If you haven’t seen it already, I implore you to watch it here:

We’ve been talking a lot recently about pop culture that has engaged in torture porn, exploiting black pain and the Black Lives Matter movement to suit their own agenda. I continue to be thankful for the direction that Queen Sugar has chosen instead. They allowed Micah tell his own story. In his own time. And on his own terms.

The episode ends with a turn towards romance. The Good Doctor returns to New Orleans to apologize again. He has a plan to get funding into redevelopment for the 9th Ward. Nova points out that he could’ve told her all of this on the phone. That’s true, but telephones don’t kiss back, so I guess he wins. Charley and Remy also reconcile, but after his cruelty over the last two episodes I don’t think I can trust Remy. He fundamentally doesn’t understand or respect the choices that Charley has to make in order to best survive. And, in the biggest sweeping romantic gesture of the evening, Ralph Angel proposes to Darla with a candle lit and flower filled declaration of love. She says yes, and this is 100% certainly too soon for them given their rocky past, but I can’t help from rooting for them to work it out anyway.

Since its first breath, Queen Sugar has presented its female characters as full human beings; they are as fearless and brave as they are vulnerable. Nova, Charley, Violet, and Darla continue to be written and portrayed with unflinching honesty. They are the backbone of their family. That said, I am struck that in its second season Queen Sugar has broken open the myth, often accepted as truth, that black women must endure all of their community’s burdens.

Perhaps more than any one else in their family, the Bordelon sisters have had to find themselves anew this season. Charley’s discovered the hard way that she can no longer hold on to the facade that has thus far been her armor. Nova has given all of herself to New Orleans, to her neighbors, to the young people she advocates for. This season we’ve watched as she struggled through deep-seeded, painful, feelings of abandonment and inadequacy.

Then there’s Aunt Vi. On her best days, Violet is vibrant and the spark that catalyzes her entire family. On her worst days, Vi cannot get out of bed. And the show tells us that is also OK. Being depressed doesn’t make you broken. I’ve discussed this before, but it’s worth repeating again that between Charley and Aunt Vi, Queen Sugar has done so much important work this summer to normalize and dismantle the stigma surrounding black women’s mental health.

With her raw-nerve vulnerability, Bianca Larson uses every episode to turn the ugly stereotype of a black, drug-addicted mother inside out. Two years sober this week, Darla wakes up every morning and chooses to keep walking down the hard path. She’s chosen herself, and to keep loving her son, no matter what obstacles are placed in front of her.

The Bordelon women have been allowed the space to stumble, learn from their faults, and realize that they do not have to be everything to everybody, except to their own selves. It’s a lesson I think we can all use. Life has so much more to give when we aren’t preoccupying our energies trying to be Superwomen.

When Queen Sugar returns in October, there will be a lot on our plates left to explore. Michael Michele and Roger Guenveur Smith have been cast as Darla’s parents, Sharon Lawrence is set to play Charley’s estranged mother, and filmmaker Julie Dash (!!!!!!!!) is slated to direct. If you, on any level, loved Beyoncé’s Lemonade, immediately fire up your Netflix and watch Dash’s 1991 black feminist magnum opus Daughters of the Dust. And then thank the universe for providing us all with such a deeply talented soul.

I’d like to end our summer together by quoting my dear Nova:

May you never be thirsty.
May no enemy slow your growth.
May your life not be ordinary, but fulfilled with flavor, happiness, and substance.
Like salt, you will preserve all that is good.
May you live a long, sweet, and happy life.
May you be kept warm, and protected, as you were warm and protected in your mother’s belly.

I wish you all warmth, until we are together again.


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Carmen Phillips

Editor-in-Chief Carmen Phillips is a Black Puerto Rican femme/inist writer with a PhD in American Studies from New York University. She claims many past homes, but left the largest parts of her heart in Detroit, 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. You can find her on twitter, @carmencitaloves.

Carmen has written 387 articles for us.

12 Comments

  1. Awwwww I didn’t know Queen Sugar was taking a break :( This second season has been amazing so far. Every episode has been better than the last. Charley with her natural hair is stunning, and, finally, she is growing on me as a character. I can’t wait to see what happens in the rest of season 2.

  2. Beautiful recap Carmen, thank you!

    There was so much going on this episode, but first things first:

    MICAAAAAAAAAAAAH! Oh my god, my heart went out to that poor kid. Nicholas Ashe did such a wonderful job, and I completely agree with you that it was so great not to have any violent flashbacks in that scene, to just let Micah’s anguish tell us what happened and how he felt about it.

    However, I do have to ask if that revelation was entirely necessary? When Davis was asking him “what happened?” I kept wondering why what he KNOWS happened wasn’t enough? Wasn’t it traumatic enough for Micah to have been arrested and thrown in jail? Why did there have to be more to it then that? And doesn’t it, in some small way, diminish the trauma so many experience when they are unfairly arrested and jailed, as if saying that that experience alone isn’t actually all that traumatic? I don’t know.

    On the romantic side of things, was it just me, or did each of the three romantic ending scenes feel really… flat? Just because of what had happened in each of those relationships prior to those romantic scenes? I’m never going to be able to see Remy the same way again, after what he said to Charley last week, and I’m very surprised she seems to have forgiven him so quickly. With Ralph Angel and Darla, I’m still incredibly worried that they are moving too fast, and that Ra isn’t listening to Darla when she tells him what she need to help her sobriety. Yeah, Ra fucked up last week, and yeah, it’s good Darla’s sponsor gave him a talking-to about supporting for her, but I think he overcompensated a biiit too much. That otherwise super romantic proposal just didn’t sit right with me because of what we’ve seen from this couple in the past. Which brings us to Nova.

    I was SUPER excited to see the Atlanta airport in the opening scene, because it meant we’d get much more Nova in this episode, and I was right. I’m excited to see them taking Nova’s character arc in a much more political direction in the second half of this season than they have so far in the first half. It seems more reminiscent of what I loved about her character in season 1. I agree with Violet that Nova can be super judgemental of people, writing them off for one small mistake. But Nova had a point about the Good Doctor. I can’t believe he would lead her into that party without preparing her at all for what she was about to get into. And I can’t believe he just left her alone to talk to that racist asshole, knowing who he is and what he was likely to say to her. And then was completely silent at the dinner table when she was confronting him. He left her alone to walk into the lion’s den without a stick, and I think that’s more unforgivable. While I think it’s good that Nova forgave him, and I’m excited to see where their storyline goes from here, it was a little too quick after the dinner party scene to really allow me to appreciate the romance of it.

    Okay, other stray observations:

    – For Aunt Vi’s sake, these dumb siblings better kiss and make up, ASAP

    – Darla explaining addiction to Blue was just perfect

    – Charley’s hair! That’s going up there with Viola Davis taking off her wig in HTGAWM

    – I never want to see another scene with Davis that doesn’t also include either Micah or Charley

    – Once again, Charley lashes out at someone who doesn’t deserve it because of hurt she feels from somewhere else. Going to Darla’s sobriety graduation was a good start, but Charley better apologize to Darla. Obviously, Ra’s mistakes are not hers, and it is completely unfair for Charley to blame her for that, and I’m pretty sure Charley knows it.

    • YES! YES! YES! You literally hit each and every one of my points! Even the ones that I had to cut from the recap for time.

      I don’t have anything to add because you said it all for me, lol. There was so much to take in this episode.

      I’m still struggling a bit with the Micah scene because, as you said, I’m not sure we “needed” there to be another reason for his recent changes in behavior. The arrest was awful enough, without the added epilogue. I also can understand why the writers maybe felt differently than we did? Micah had never spoken about the arrest at all since it happened. Nova brought that up in like the 3rd or 4th episode. So, I get wanting to finally have Micah speak his truth. It shows his growth and also brings the story full circle.

      At the same time, I’m very sensitive about exploiting black trauma. And while I appreciate that they didn’t engage in a violent flashback scene, I also didn’t need any of this at all to begin with. So I’m a bit divided.

      I am 100% Ralph Angel and Darla are going to fall apart. This was such an overreach for Ra, but also the candles and the heartfelt words really got to me. I understand why Darla said yes. I just…. also know this is going to be a bad move for them.

      And I am SO WORRIED ABOUT AUNT VI!!! They kind of downplayed her collapse, but I will be paying special attention to her when we come back in August, that’s for sure. Lol.

  3. Queen Sugar- I am going to quote Valerie Anne’s comment on another thread here:

    On lots of shows that would have been it. Amanda would have walked into the metaphorical parking lot never to be seen again. Camille would only date guys for the rest of the show and no one would ever mention she was bisexual.

    Replace Amanda with the “token-woman’ and Camille with ‘Nova’ and we have the same problem with QS. It just plain irks me that this never gets called out with this series.

    • You present an interesting question, and it’s definitely one I’ve thought about before. I also miss Chantal, and even though I’ve heard set reports and seen social media sightings of Regan Gomez filming, I haven’t seen an official announcement of her return. That’s SUPER disappointing to me, because Nova and Chantal was a love story that I cherish probably more than any other that I’ve seen on tv.

      And if not Chantal, I obviously would love to see Nova with another female love interest. But, the show has only been on for a season and a half. We’ve seen Nova in 3 significant relationships in that time, 1 of them was with a (black) woman. 1 was with a white man, and now 1 is with a black man.

      Queen Sugar has shown a diversity of love for Nova in a relatively short amount of time. I don’t know if Nova and Dr. DuBois are going to last, but if they broke up and Nova’s next love interest was a woman, the show would have an split even track record. And also, it’s important to remember that even if Nova only slept with men from here out, she would still be queer. We don’t get to take her identity away from her based on who she is or is not sleeping with.

      That said, here’s the real reason that I don’t think Queen Sugar gets called out yet about bi-erasure (and this is just my opinion, admittedly it’s something I struggle with and am still thinking about):

      Thus far, I think QS does a good job about incorporating Nova’s queerness throughout the show, even when she is dating men. Nova hasn’t been as central a character in the first half of season 2 as she was in season 1, but I can still point to various scenes and arcs where her queerness played a part in how she moved about her world, how others understood her, and how she understood herself. Most significantly, her outsized breakdown over Ernest cutting her out of his will. How many queer women intimately relate to that kind of rejection? Of not being seen as equal to your straight, “normative” siblings?

      Rutina Wesley’s embodiment of Nova is still queer. She intimately feels like innumerous queer black women who I know in my life. And I think the show has done a good job of keeping that, even with Nova currently having a male love interest.

      Though I think your question also digs at something that I think about more now that I’m recapping shows more regularly, how are we defining “good” queer representation? Is it just who a character’s love interest is at any given moment and how developed (or not) that relationship is? Is it just who they are sleeping with?

      Arizona Robbins on Greys Anatomy went almost an entire season without a love interest just a few years ago, and I think she was still an important and relevant lesbian character on television. Maggie on Younger often goes for long periods without a romantic or sexual partner, but her relationship with Liza is still one worth paying attention to because it speaks to the strength of female friendship. Nova Bordelon is currently dating a man, but she’s still passionate about the political activism she engages in on behalf of people of color.

      I actually think this was a really strong episode for Nova for precisely those reasons. It was one of my favorites of hers for a while now. Anyway, your mileage may vary. But, I would be interested in yours (or anyone’s) opinion!

      • Carmen, I’m really glade you addressed this, because it’s been something I’ve been thinking about a lot as well, and haven’t really found the words to properly articulate, but I think you hit the nail on the head.

        Nova is an incredible, complicated, three-dimensional human being who just happens to be queer. But she’s also a journalist and an activist and a sister and a daughter and an aunt and a niece. To quote Cosima on Orphan Black, her queerness isn’t the most interesting thing about her. Yes, it’s absolutely there, and I’m really glad about that, but it’s okay with me if it’s not necessarily front and centre in every episode.

        And I think that’s the thing about “good” queer representation for me. It’s starts with “good” characters who just happen to be queer. It’s not enough that a character is queer, if “queer” is their sole defining character trait or purpose in a show. Queer people are more than their relationships.

  4. I can’t believe I’m so behind in participating in this week’s meeting of the Queen Sugar Fan Club. Y’all forgive me for chiming in so late.

    If I had to describe this episode in just one word, I choose unearned. Every resolution that we got in this mid-season finale just felt unearned…like someone pressed fast-forwarded past the exposition to the resolutions they thought we wanted.

    Why are Charley and Remy together? I say that not just because of his uncharacteristic cruelty last week but because just a few episodes ago, she told him that she wasn’t ready for a relationship. Is this genuinely what she wants or purely a reaction to the codicil to Ernest’s will? Is this Charley just giving in because she desperately wants someone who will fight for her?

    And then there’s her relationship with the farmers…which I don’t understand in the least bit. Their criticism felt borne of an unrealistic expectation and, at the same time, Charley’s speech, while moving, seemed like it shouldn’t have been enough to pacify their concerns. The appeal to community, as legitimate and as heartfelt as it might be, feels like emotional blackmail sometimes, especially when it’s a substitute for tangible proof of a long-term commitment (like, say, a multi-year contract or proof of Charley’s financial stake in the mill).

    There’s Ralph Angel and Darla…sigh…I want them to work so badly because I love both of these characters (and the actors that portray them, TBH) so much…but this is not going to end well for either of them. I mean, Lord…the lights weren’t even on…if that’s not an omen, I don”t know what is.

    Darla’s sponsor’s warning should have been an invitation for RA to reduce the stress in her Darla’s life…and instead, he proposes. And while I half-expected Darla to say no, I understand why she doesn’t…how we can get caught up in romantic spectacles and forget everything else. In that moment, in the way Darla’s reaction plays on Bianca Lawson’s face, her sobriety seems less tenuous than it has at any point this season…and we know that’s just a lie the devil tells to pull an addict back under.

    To @c-p‘s point about Bianca Lawson really upending the ugly stereotype about black, drug-addicted mothers…I think that’s right on…and I hope that Bianca Lawson gets the recognition she deserves for the portrayal. But I found myself wondering how Oprah reconciles financing this project and Tyler Perry’s work…who constantly works to advance that destructive stereotype in black culture. Stop giving Tyler Perry your money, Oprah!

    Nova, Nova, Nova…everything about that reconciliation with The Good Doctor felt unearned.

    There isn’t a black woman alive that doesn’t understand the game and the need to play it, but there’s a difference between playing the game and becoming a part of the game and it seems clear that the Doctor has done the latter. His willingness to go to that party, to bring Nova without telling her what it’ll be and his complicit silence as she’s being attacked…he’s still part of the game.

    The quick reconciliation felt unearned and his defense bordered on being mansplaining. I also wonder how much of Nova’s willingness to stay with him–especially given the premium she puts on authenticity–is about her father’s letter…and about her desire to mold herself into the person she thinks he wanted her to be.

    And, finally, Micah…oh, my dear, Micah…like @arvan12, I wonder if taking the story there was necessary. A gun in the mouth and a pulled trigger? It felt gratuitous–as if the arrest had to be really horrific to confer real sympathy on Micah–in a way that this show has never been and in a way it didn’t need to be.

    I also thought Davis hadn’t earned the right to hear that story from Micah–the show went from Micah calling his dad a liar in one scene to Micah sharing this painful secret with him in the next. How do you share that in the absence of trust? It didn’t make any sense to me.

    • “I also wonder how much of Nova’s willingness to stay with him–especially given the premium she puts on authenticity–is about her father’s letter…and about her desire to mold herself into the person she thinks he wanted her to be.”

      DING DING DING! This is my exact thought walking out of the mid-season finale.

      If/When Nova and the Good Doctor break up, my gut is that this will be the reason why. Nova’s having an identity crisis right now, she’s lost her way a bit. While I understand why the DuBois seems attractive at the moment (let’s be real, the “Queen” sign was a good touch)– I also can’t help but think that #1 on his attractive list for Nova right now might be “this is a a man my father would have approved of for me”

  5. May you never be thirsty.
    May no enemy slow your growth.
    May your life not be ordinary, but fulfilled with flavor, happiness, and substance.
    Like salt, you will preserve all that is good.
    May you live a long, sweet, and happy life.
    May you be kept warm, and protected, as you were warm and protected in your mother’s belly. That is the most beautiful quote I’ve ever heard in my life. When my son graduated from college today I told him word from word of that quote.ASE

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