Though we seem to be in what has been termed a new renaissance in Black film and television, some narratives stand above the others. One such series is Ava DuVernay’s “Queen Sugar.” Based on the 2014 novel by Natalie Baszile, “Queen Sugar” follows the previously estranged Bordelon siblings still reeling from their father’s death. Stubborn but ambitious Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), Black Lives Matter activist and journalist Nova (Rutina Wesley), and single father and recent parolee Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe), must now contend with the immense responsibility of the sugar cane farm that they have inherited.
Last season, the Oprah Winfrey-produced series, introduced us to these beloved characters and their home in Saint Josephine, Louisiana. We watched them try to deal with the pressures of their lives while learning to lean on one another. Ahead of the season two premiere, I flew to Los Angeles to chat with the cast and Ms. Winfrey about what’s to come when the Bordelons open their lives to us once again.
There has been nothing on television like “Queen Sugar” in recent years, which is why the audience response has been so astounding. Gardner explained the hunger for a series depicting the richness of Black life. She said, "I’ll never forget being in college at Julliard and one of my friends who was white; we were watching 'The Cosby Show' and I was like, 'God, isn’t 'The Cosby Show' so amazing?' He’s like 'Yeah it is, but I always just felt like aren’t they just tryna be white?' I remember just hearing that and being like, 'What did you just say?!' It was a realization that you don't know what happens in Black families, you don’t know what Black culture includes. And why would you know? Nothing is showing you. So it became this deep feeling of wanting there to be something that shares those truths and shares what is happening."
"Queen Sugar" has done an exemplary job when it comes to showcasing the many facets of Black life. For Ms. Winfrey, there is a lot to be proud of. She stated, “Everything makes me proud about it. First of all to be able to do it, to have a show that reflects so deeply who we are as a race and as a culture. To represent what I call the Southern values from which nearly all of us have come. Even if you are were born in the North or raised in the West, you have some kind of root there. From the moment Ava said, 'I think I found Vi’s house.' The fact that this cast came together the way that it did, it feels like it is of divine design for me. As Ava has said many times, she doesn’t cast just for character; she casts for spirit. So there is a spiritual vibe that is showing up on the screen. I could cry right now just thinking about it, I really could. the second season we go further and deeper; the connection to family and what you see happening with all of them, it’s a beautiful thing to see, it’s just a beautiful thing to accomplish, and I feel grateful for everything. It’s the little things. We are individual and unique and expressive. What the show represents is that we are also whole. We may be flawed, but there is also a depth of wholeness there that keeps us connected and together. It’s everything!"
Still, those intricacies that Ms. Winfrey is so moved by aren’t by accident. Since her breakout film, "Middle of Nowhere," Ava DuVernay has enraptured us with her stories about Black life, and all of the small nuances that composite who we are as human beings. I asked the cast what DuVernay brings to "Queen Sugar" that makes it so unique, and they were all thrilled to sing her praises. Gardner discussed DuVernay's ability to hone into the truth. She explained, “I think that one of Ava’s genius abilities is her absolute ownership of her authenticities. It is really the primary quality that she walks in the world with, and I feel like 'Queen Sugar' is an expression of that. It’s an expression of that primary vein of a culture, or what happens in a backyard, or what happens around a dinner table in a living room. That carries an intention behind that. I know people who have come to me and said that they feel healed by the show. I think that is Ava. That is an intention that she has for every single project that she spearheads. It’s not just for entertainment or fun. It’s absolutely socially driven. It’s absolutely tapping into what the need is and trying to meet it."
Siriboe, the 23-year old breakout star who embodies Ralph Angel explained DuVernay’s storytelling as a kind of call and response. He stated, “I just think Ava is 'Queen Sugar' personified. I feel like just her leadership and her deliberateness, she knows exactly what she wants to say and how she wants to say it. She’s not afraid to be like Nova where she explores, and she receives, and I think that’s what “Queen Sugar” does. It’s a give and take. We talk to the audience, they talk to us back. I meet so many people on the streets who tell me how the show affects them and that’s what I take and think about when I’m working on set. I feel like that’s Ava. She’s talking to the world, and they are talking back, and she’s doing that with 'Queen Sugar.'"
Wesley who portrays the fearless but often conflicted Nova suggested, “Ava knows how to get people talking. And listening too, because she will give you a slightly different perspective or a slightly different reality than something that you thought you knew. Then, you see it a different way, and that's our hope, to spark a dialogue and to speak truth to power, and I feel like Ava really does it in a way that one wants to listen and engage and not feel put upon. Sometimes you can watch a show or even the news and just feel beat over the head. I feel like with 'Queen Sugar' you just go, 'Here you go.' It’s warm, and it’s heartfelt, but it’s also messy and raw. It's in a way that you can really engage and listen, and I think that’s important and that starts with how she is as a person. She’s detailed, and she cares, and she comes from her heart with everything that she does, and that’s why you see heart on the screen. That’s because that’s her. She’s so open and warm, and that’s contagious.”
Last season, all of the Bordelon siblings found themselves confronting some pretty explosive revelations. Charley watched her marriage implode; Ralph Angel found out that he could not outrun his delinquent past and Nova had to face some hard truths about herself. Still, I wondered, what the actors themselves had learned from their characters. Reflecting on last season, Siriboe said Ralph Angel’s journey has been about, “Identity and how important it is. Also, the process is just as important as the destination. Personally, I don’t feel that you ever reach a destination, but there are levels. There are trials, and there are peaks, and there are valleys. And, seeing Ralph Angel triumph and the trial and error and just all of the dynamics in my personal life. I think, well if Ralph Angel is doing that… It’s really bringing me closer to myself.“
For Gardner, who had to walk in Charley's shoes after several devastating discoveries were made in the NBA manager and wife's world, it was something else entirely. She explained, "I’ve learned a lot about roles and my relationship to roles. I feel like Charley through season one; her roles sort of began to fail her. Her role as a successful manager of this brand that is now being challenged because of Davis’ (Timon Kyle Durrett) behavior. Her role as a wife. This season her role as a mother is really sort of having a challenge with Micah (Nicholas L. Ashe) for more than one reason. And then her role now as the first Black mill owner in Louisiana. Taking that on and sort of going through how she can tend to…it’s almost like habit to put a lot of her worth into these roles. Really it’s so wonderful to watch her begin to question that and actually move her worth into herself instead of into these roles. So I’ve sort of enjoyed that, and it’s given me the opportunity to ask myself similar questions. 'Where does my worth lay, and how attached am I to which role at any moment, and what does that cost me at times?' It’s been an exceptionally personal experience this season.”
And for Wesley, whose character Nova is perhaps the most complex Bordelon sibling, her journey has been about allowing people grace. She said, “I think I’ve learned not to assume anything about anyone when you meet them because you never know what that person’s story is. That’s also taught me not to have judgment and to really have some understanding and be a good listener. Nova is embedded into the community for a reason. She is that person who people entrust their stories to, their secrets and their lives. They go to Nova for help. So that taught me that, you can’t assume because that person might need you. Your smile might brighten someone's day, and you don’t know it. Someone just told me that ten years later. I remembered that but just the effect that it had on her was amazing, it really warmed my heart. I just thought Nova is like that. She doesn’t really assume and then I think she’s going to stop judging herself and really looking at herself in different ways. So, that’s the big thing that I learned when playing her. “
For season two, the cast hopes that their characters can move forward and heal despite their checkered pasts. Gardner said thoughtfully, “I think my greatest hope for Charley - and really has been from the beginning - is wholeness. I felt from the moment we see her in episode one of season one, she’s in a spiritual crisis, and she doesn’t know it. She has no idea. There is a fracture there, and I couldn’t even locate it, I couldn’t put my finger on it. It felt like there was some sort of fracture and she had built all of these structures to avoid it; to have this control over it. I think by the end of episode one, as painful as all of that is, and the rest of the season it’s both of those loses her father and really her marriage or at least her trust in the marriage. It almost felt like this is potentially the best thing that could have happened to her because it woke her up to something that wasn’t OK. I feel like we’re leaning into that in season two. We’re sort of unpacking what that fracture is. I think we saw in season one what all of that success was costing her. We really saw relationships, not in wholeness. So, I feel like my greatest desire for her is for her to sit down and have a cup of chamomile tea and know that she is whole and perfect and complete as she is. Because somewhere underneath there, something about how she has operated has been a drive to prove, compensate and avoid." For Ralph Angel, Siriboe took it back to identity, “I want him to continue exploring. In feel like for Ralph Angel, I want him to build that structure. Being defined so many times by the world. He now wants to take ownership of what his legacy looks like. His father did so much, and I don’t even think appreciated it so much. That’s a hard thing for him which I think he overcompensates for it. In my life, my mom, my dad, and my brothers are more important than anything. That’s a point Ralph Angel is going to get to I pray. He and his sisters will get it together… I just want him to move forward with agency and perseverance."
And yet, it’s not just the Bordelon siblings who have found a place into our hearts. Tina Lifford’s Aunt Violet is also a fan favorite. Winfrey explained her desire to see a vibrant, sexually active Black woman of a certain age on screen. She revealed, “It’s the many shades of us. In the book, portrayed as very typical and traditional which is what you’d expect in the South. Ava and I had a long conversation about that because I was supposed to play her. But 'Greenleaf' was ready first, and I took that, so I was like, 'I can’t play two aunts.' So it was a big long search literally to find the right energy and the right spirit that could bring that forward in a way that was not traditional. From the very beginning, we had this conversation because, in the book, there is a grandmother and an aunt. We had a conversation about how we needed someone to play off of Charley. She needed to spar with someone who is her equal because she wouldn’t be able to do that in the South. You can’t talk back to you your elders, so that’s how Nova was invented. Anyway, I would have to say that we went through a lot of forty-five, fifty-year-olds, and we landed on the perfect person in Tina. She brings this spirit and energy to it that’s really just fantastic. You think you love Aunt Vi now, just wait.
"Queen Sugar" will premiere during a two-night event on June 20 and June 21 at 10 PM on OWN.
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami