When I was a little girl, The Cosby Show more than just appointment TV, it was sacred viewing. Our chores and homework had to be done, and my sister and I had to be ready for bed before it aired. Despite the dozens of rape allegations surrounding Bill Cosby, those memories of being piled on the couch in my fluffy pink robe with my family laughing at the squeaky-clean shenanigans of an affluent clan in Brooklyn are some of my most cherished.
I was reacquainted with that unabashed night-before-Christmas joy in the days leading up to the premiere of Ava DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey's Queen Sugar (the two-night premiere brought in record-breaking ratings for the OWN Network). Unlike Bill Cosby’s wholesome sitcom, this multi-generational drama loosely based on the novel by Natalie Baszile methodically focuses on the cracks and imperfections of a dysfunctional, but loyal family as they grapple with tragedy, trials of life, and the maddening realities of being black in America.
Like the Huxtables, the saga of the Bordelons will redefine standards and expand the confining limitations of black television.
The family, strained by distance and circumstance, are united by the passing of the patriarch, Earnest. Nova, played by the luminous Rutina Wesley, is an investigative reporter dating a white cop. Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe) is a single dad struggling to raise his adorable son, Blue, as an unemployed ex-con in rural Louisiana. Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) is the golden child, basking the glow of her bejeweled life as a basketball wife until its irrevocably tarnished by her husband's rape allegations.
Queen Sugar's brilliance is evident from the very first frame. It's a gorgeously-lit and luxurious shot of light playing across a twist of dreadlocks and gloriously brown skin. At a time when real headlines are filled with images of South African girls protesting for the right to wear their natural hair in school, the image is as pointed as it is striking.
It continues to find the beauty and the gravity in the nuanced and the authentic. And unlike the paint-by-numbers procedurals we've all grown accustomed to and bored with, Sugar doesn't spell out its meaning in neon signs and obtuse imagery. It trusts the viewers' intelligence, and engages them by posing more questions than answers and allowing for inferred meaning.
Why is Charley so eager is gloss over the sex scandal involving five of her husband's teammates, including her friends' husbands, without ever asking him about it?
Why is does it seem that Ralph Angel only says a fraction of what he actually wants to and is always simmering with poorly tamed rage?
Why is Pop working as a janitor when he owns a sprawling sugarcane farm?
Queen Sugar's sweetness comes in the quiet moments and cathartic explosions; its power is rooted in these fully-drawn, unique characters, the fact that they are unapologetically black, and the extraordinary musical composition by MeShell Ndegeocello that becomes an unseen but vital character.
As a black woman who rarely finds a true reflection of herself on television, this is a show I've been aching for my entire life, and it still surpassed my expectations. I see myself in Charley's near pathological need to fix everyone else's problems, and in Nova's need inspire change through words. I relate to Ralph Angel's righteous anger at the world but also in his desire to be a good person. I even catch glimpses of my innate nostalgia in Earnest, a proud owner of a massive sugarcane farm his ancestors would have worked in chains, clinging to the past if only by appearances. And possibly more importantly, I find myself in their melanin and culture.
It may be tempting to compare Queen Sugar to the honeyed sentimentality of NBC's Parenthood or the sophistication of CBS's The Good Wife, but you'd be wrong.
Queen Sugar, with its phenomenal direction, enviable cinematography, and moving performances, is in a league of its OWN. Ava DuVernay said in an interview on WSJ.com that this is "the golden age of television" and she wanted to be a part of it. But as evidenced by Earnest's funeral scene—a revolutionary bit of television that evokes a forlorn liberation as the three children join hands in pristine white backlit by a glorious sunset and her "inclusive crew" of female directors who will helm the future episodes—just might be leading the way.
Photo Credits: essence.com, ew.com
Small Screen Girl
I am an unabashed pop culture and TV-aholic with no plans to ever seek treatment. Explore this blog and see just how deep my obsession goes.