Media doesn’t exist in a context-less vacuum and the television show “Queen Sugar,” based on Natalie Baszile’s 2014 book of the same name, is no different. Over time the story grew beyond not just the novel but also the initial premise.
Created and directed by Ava DuVernay and executive produced by Oprah Winfrey for the Oprah Winfrey Network, the show is DuVernay’s first foray into her own serialized work. DuVernay also directed “Selma” and the yet-to-be-released “A Wrinkle In Time.” The format allows DuVernay to break ground by hiring exclusively female directors for individual episodes.
The plot of the first season was mainly a fish out of water story about what happens when you put a city girl into the country. Los Angeles-based Charley Bordelon receives news that her father has passed away and is giving his 800-acre sugarcane farm to her and her siblings. Naïve about the ways of agriculture, Charley gets cheated on seed, equipment and other business deals.
It also dealt with the effect of stardom and public scandal. A primary reason Charley agrees to move to Louisiana is to get away from her husband Davis West, star captain of a fictional Lakers-like basketball team. Charley walks onto the court in anger during a game when she finds a video involving Davis, a prostitute and other team members. A private affair is one thing, but having paparazzi and others badger her and her son has them seeking asylum in the cane fields.
It is a captivating tale that’s now much more relevant in Trump’s America.
The second season, which premiered last week, opens with Charley being denied a business loan unless she says she’s partnered with her husband. Even after the scandal, his brand is more valuable than the fact that she’s in charge of the farm.
Afterwards her and her family celebrate Juneteenth, a holiday that commemorates the emancipation of slaves throughout the Confederacy. The episode aired the day after the actual holiday, showing that DuVernay knows her audience. Charley’s son Micah, however, never makes it to dinner.
The teen, recently gifted a luxury convertible by his father, is profiled and pulled over for no reason. The camera deliberately shows that he’s parked next to a cemetery. Micah has to choose his actions and words carefully or else one of those headstones will be for him. My heart sank as I watched the old white cop pull his gun when Micah reaches for registration.
Four days prior to the premier police officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted of all charges involved with shooting and killing Philando Castile. Last Monday a van drove into a group of Muslims at Finsbury Park. A white cop recently shot a black off-duty cop in St. Louis. Yes, episodes are written and filmed in advance, but they will always be taken in context of the current cultural climate. Shows frequently pull episodes after tragedies if there’s a slightest chance that viewers will misinterpret messages or simply because it’s too soon. Yet this is exactly the conversation DuVernay wants front and center.
Charley heads to the station to pick up Micah but the officers say he isn’t in their system and they haven’t seen anyone matching his description. It’s not until Davis enters and uses his fame that they go check the holding cells. The cops, unaware of what they just did, ask for a selfie afterwards. Like the same type of people who say “I’m not racist, but…” they see him as “one of the good ones.” Race is less of a factor if one is a celebrity.
PrettyDeep’s soulful and somber song “Pray” plays during the ending scenes and credits. The gospel choir shouting “pray for me” because “I’m out here on my own” and “the wolves are out tonight” is a not-so-subtle message and rallying cry for minorities everywhere. The violence and racism started before Trump, but his presidency isn’t going to make it any easier for them.
The powerful premiere obviously resonated with fans as it had 2.3 million viewers, the highest in the show’s history.
The second part of the premiere introduced a new movement started by Nova, Charley’s sister and advocacy journalist. Nova is raising money for a community bail bond fund to help those who can’t afford it. Last season she helped out a kid in the parish who was falsely imprisoned and her brother Ralph Angel struggled to get work because he’s an ex-convict.
Nova acts as a voice for DuVernay, who directed the Academy Award nominee documentary “13th” about mass incarceration of minorities. Putting real issues into fiction helps wake people up and beat the drum of social justice. Even Jay Z wrote an article about the bail industry’s exploitative nature for “Time” earlier in the month.
At the end Nova says to a crowd of supporters at a public gathering that “these black bodies are real.”
While the activism topics aren’t new for the characters or creators, the storyline takes on new life as we enter frightening uncharted territory each day. Tune in for episode three tonight to know you aren’t alone.