Title: Queen Sugar
Starring: Rutina Wesley, Dawn-Lyen Gardener, Kofi Siriboe, Tina Lifford
Genre: Drama, Realistic, Contemporary
Rating: ★★★★★ | 5.0
I am a contrary person. I don’t do prestige things. For a reviewer, I rarely read reviews and I rarely listen to critics. I don’t like being told what to do (being raised in a strict household tends to do that?) or what to think, and the more Important(TM) someone says a work is, the less inclined I am to pick something up, and the less I’ll enjoy the process of consuming it.
I like trash, okay? It’s not hard for me to admit that the more people rag on a thing (to be clear, “ragging” does not entail, for example, comments about racism or sexism, etc., because those are “concerns”) the more I like it. My favourite films include Snowpiercer, Pacific Rim, and Jupiter Ascending. I’m not a connoisseur of quality, okay, I’m a connoisseur of having a fucking good time.
And part of this is because as marginalised people, we so rarely get any of it. A good time, I mean. Stories about us have to be Important(TM) to justify their being told. Stories about us have to be about oppression to be interesting and worthwhile. We’re not afforded any escapism, and I’ve learned to recognise that “realistic” is code for “cruel” and “good” is a judgement on the extent to which something shows us suffering. And I’m really, really not into that.
All this is to say: I took my damn time watching Queen Sugar. I first heard about it when it came out, and the hype was everywhere and I don’t know if y’all have noticed, but I don’t deal well with hype. Or, indeed, expectations, be they other people’s or my own. But Queen Sugar blew me out of the water.
I tried really hard to avoid the hype, which is probably why I came away with the impression that Queen Sugar was a work of historical fiction (spoiler alert, it’s not). I’d heard that the show was set on a sugar farm in Louisiana, and my mind jumped, rather predictably, to slavery.
I don’t actually watch a lot of media about slavery, because a lot of it (hi, Tarantino) engage in violence for the sake of spectacle, and I don’t enjoy spectacle that dehumanises or relishes in its own visceral brutality.
I bring up slavery, though, because Queen Sugar does such a brilliant job depicting the parts of it that are obscured by the feel-good American narrative of bootstraps success. It deconstructs that idea that slavery is a monster confined within the cage of history, because it’s not merely untrue, it’s a cruel lie.
Slavery has generational consequences––trauma and poverty––that resonate into the modern day. Slaveowners are still wealthy because of the labour they stole from enslaved people. Queen Sugar recgonises this, acknowledges it, and confronts it. Slavery is with us still, whether it’s through the prison-industrial complex or through structures of power, generational wealth, even migrant labour––something he Bordelon family most contend with as they hire guest workers to help reap their harvest––and bring in their wealth.
The show deals with many such institutions––not just overtly oppressive ones like capitalism, incarceration, and police––but also more deeply-rooted ones that are taken for granted: family, tradition, culture, heritage, values. And it deals with these things in emotionally complex and intensely relatable ways––because no one on this show is perfect.
I mentioned in my review of the Queen’s Thief series that I don’t mind characters that are morally flawed and do awful things––how many of us have been cruel? have wittingly or unwittingly enacted oppressive systems against other people? But what’s important to me is that the narrative recgonises these things as bad. Understandable, perhaps. Relatable, certainly, Maybe even necessary. But wrong nonetheless.
Because humans are wrong a lot, and we need to recgonise that in order to grow. More importantly, it’s important to recognise wrongness, rather than pretending to be right. America fetishises people––well, white men mostly––who refuse to acknowledge that they’ve behaved poorly. It even awards them, sometimes, with the Presidency. But Queen Sugar does not allow its characters––notably mostly Black women––to be spared that self-reflection, that questioning, and that fundamental integrity.
Easily one of my favourite characters (though I like all of them so much it’s hard to choose) is Charley Bordelon-West, the successful entrepreneur wife of a basketball superstar, whose life is turned around when a sex scandal breaks around her husband––and she finds out he’d been cheating on her for years. Charley deals with her shock and her heartbreak and insecurity by retreating into her wealth and her status, at first mercilessly discrediting the “Other” woman, who is making allegations of rape, then blaming, and then shaming her.
A common enough attitude in a country where a man who admitted to drugging women and raping them can have his criminal trial end in a mistrial, but Queen Sugar does not expect, or even allow us to sympathise with her because of her actions. Rather, we sympathise with her despite them, and when she finally begins to approach a better understanding of the situation, we root for her to do better by the people she’s wronged.
All of the characters are fully realised people existing in a fully realised world, and the tensions occur where two people have opposing philosophies or approaches to a shared problem. And the show spends a sumptuous amount of time exploring this, exploring character motivations and history––it does not need to rush to completion. It takes the time to deepen, to complicate, to linger. Perhaps it may at points feel slow, but because we get to know the siblings so well, I was never bored or uninterested in what was happening or what they were doing.
This is prestige television––not because they make any pretensions to meaning or substance, but because it trusts enough in its substance to take the time to develop and percolate before rushing ahead of itself. But by no means does this mean that nothing happens, though, because I’m waiting with baited breath for Season 2.*
*at the time of writing this review, the second season of Queen Sugar will be released in three days. it will probably already have been released by the time the review goes up.