Small Screen Grandeur: Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar
It's been said before and will probably be said for many more years to come - we are in the golden age of television. All of which began like a trickle with a few A-list dwelling actors taking on roles in shows where the storylines had a cinematic prowess and solid direction. At the time television was starved for depth amidst the extremely popular reality show boom of the 2000s - but scales were tipped by the presence of dramas like Mad Men (a career defining moment for actor Jon Hamm), Weeds (starring Mary Louise Parker), Damages (starring Glenn Close but including many guest stars by actors like Ted Danson and John Goodman), and House of Cards (starring Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey). Television no longer belonged to sitcoms and sketch comedy and by 2018 the aforementioned ‘trickle’ caused a dam to break and networks clamoring to present equally worthy TV to their viewers. A necessary move to ensure their place in the market especially in the face of mega producer - the streaming service Netflix, that produces shows around the clock, thus keeping viewers constantly engaged, interested and subscribed to the service and killing network competition. The medium of episodic drama has proved to be a considerable upgrade to storytelling, cinematography and character development. And most importantly viewer loyalty - this is a forum where directors and actors can connect with viewers in a manner that the fleeting aspect of films cannot provide with such regularity. Viewers get to watch characters over a long consistent period of time and with social media allowing everyone to have a voice - charting your popularity is now incredibly easier than it once was - with fans or haters tweeting incessantly in real time.
Ava DuVernay, a director known best for Academy Award nominated 13th: a documentary on the prison industrial complex, her recent (if somewhat tepid) entry into big budget filmmaking with an adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and of course the Golden Globe Award nominated Selma - we have DuVernay creating and executive producing her own television drama, found on Oprah Winfrey’s network OWN, now on its third season. Ava is the composer of an orchestra comprised of a diverse talent of actors as well as a production crew that features the talents of revolving directors with checkered ethnic backgrounds, genders and experiences. All of which bring DuVernay’s vision to life in a manner that has strong visual continuity.
Based on the novel Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile (the author’s first novel, published in 2014), Queen Sugar takes place and is filmed in Louisiana. In fictitious St Josephine's Parish or St Jo, Ralph Angel played by Kofi Siriboe, is working hard to make a life for himself and his son after a stint in prison. He is a stark contrast to his sister Charlie, married to NBA star Davis West -- we see Charlie (played by Dawn-Lyen Gardner) as a savvy, somewhat domineering fair skinned beauty (that looks nothing like her siblings) - making up in fight for what she lacks in height. Her life seems perfect: she has status, a picture perfect family, beauty, and plenty of money until a scandal comes to light and blows her world to pieces. And then there's the eldest: Nova, played by Rutina Wesley. A bridge between the two - a successful award winning journalist enthralled and motivated by stories of the disenfranchised, and recently settling in the 9th ward after exposing the injustices of the world but now making a splash in New Orleans. A contradiction of sorts, despite being in such close proximity to St Jo, Nova rarely goes home, deeply entangling herself in stories of the people and yet, keeping away from her own. With the unprecedented death of their father (played by Glynn Truman) - a farmer bogged down by debt and one of few black farmers that worked and owned his own land - everything shifts in the family.
Queen Sugar is an impressive visual feat with a variety of melanated skin captured under the influence of perfect lighting and cinematography, with sweeping views of Louisiana as a backdrop seen at its most grand and it's most treacherous. Set to the musical direction of Meshell Ndegeocello, there is a sense of quiet in every scene - the sort of hush that always seems to captured in films and television shows that depict the American South, no matter the tension of a scene. The quiet is a main character of Queen Sugar that can't be ignored. Ndegeocello’s soundtrack picks up on this, providing tracks that tend be more mellow or feature vocals that are a bit meek or delicate, allowing the supporting acoustics to stand tall.
Now in the third season, Queen Sugar really test its mettle in terms of character development. Themes of African American and Southern culture are approached earnestly no matter their difficulty - we see everything from the trauma of police brutality, black enterprise and that hierarchy or the status money brings does not save you from racism, infidelity or family trauma. Queen Sugar, with a steady confident grace, peers into family dynamics are rarely acted out by black characters yet experienced across the board in real life. Concepts of black masculinity, mixed families, generational trauma, honoring ancestors and even mystical practices like hoodoo allow the viewer something masses have been screaming for for ages - diverse stories, acted and produced by diverse people.
Hollywood is often under fire for their lack of representation, and while producers network heads stand around looking confused as to why the old models of cinema and television aren't working - here stands DuVernay
quietly but furiously producing stories and never forgetting to share the pie.
As a director Ava DuVernay’s foray into television is a worthy addition to her growing repertoire of projects and demonstrates her range and capabilities. But as a black woman (who comprise maybe 3% of the director market) is a triumph, a win for both the black and female communities respectively. Allowing us the space to dream and live with these characters, to see ourselves in their altercations, their sadnesses and their glory and injecting more love and understanding realities through the art of storytelling and fantasy.