If the first shot of Queen Sugar, the highly-anticipated new OWN scripted drama from executive producers Oprah Winfrey and director Ava DuVernay, is any indication, this show is about the intimacy of Black lives.
As the show begins we’re introduced to Nova Bordelon (Rutina Wesley) in New Orleans as the camera traces her body, from her silky locs down her bare, tattooed back. She sneaks out of bed to get dressed but her naked White lover is already awake and follows her and dresses her himself. He is loving and attentive, as if he knows her body well, but the scene is shot in the shadows of early morning while Meshell Ndegeocello (who scored the series) sings a song with the lyrics “no one is faithful,” hinting that there might be something illicit about this love affair.
Next, we meet Nova’s youngest sibling, Ralph Angel Bordelon (Kofi Siriboe) as he sits, despondent, on a park bench, in St. Josephine, Louisiana, drinking from a can wrapped in a paper bag. He doesn’t seem drunk but he’s definitely on edge watching his young son Blue who is playing with a Barbie doll named Kenya nearby.
Signaling that Ralph Angel’s character is going to dig deep and challenge preconceived notions of masculinity, he doesn’t criticize the boy for playing with the Barbie, but is sweet and affirming of his son, acknowledging the presence of the doll in the same way his son does. But that tenderness is gone in the next scene when he robs a convenience store with a gun in his waistband while his son waits for him on a park bench. Ralph Angel isn’t the kind of man you thought he was.
Though the sky is overcast in St. Josephine, the sun is out in full force on the same morning in L.A. where Charley Bordelon West (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) lives in her mansion with her loving, NBA-captain husband Davis whose career she manages, and their 15-year-old son Micah. While her siblings seem to be struggling internally, middle-child Charley is thriving, having brunch with fellow ballers’ wives who want her to be a cast member on a Basketball Wives-esque reality show. Though she doesn’t mind being a positive example of Black love and family, Charley’s hesitant to introduce the drama of reality TV into her happy life.
The women’s brunch is interrupted by a flourish of notifications on their phones. Five members of their husbands’ team have been accused of gang-raping a 23-year-old woman. Charley reads the latest news frantically, with a hint of doubt, but is relieved that her husband’s name isn’t listed as one of the accused.
Just as Nate Parker’s recently resurfaced rape allegation have shone a light on the pervasiveness of rape culture and reignited conversations about consent, Queen Sugar’s plotline is right on time. As it often happens in the real world, Charley, the manager, goes into high-gear, creating talking points to defend her husband’s team against the allegations and to present a united front, with no mention of the victim.
Back in Louisiana, Ralph Angel brings his son to his Aunt Violet’s (Tina Lifford) house where she’s cooking dinner with her much younger partner, Hollywood Desonier (Omar Dorsey). Aunt Vi and Hollywood are not only in love but also in lust, and it’s great to see an older Black woman who is more than a caregiver for her great nephew, but also a woman with passion who loves and is loved romantically.
Ralph Angel tries to give Aunt Vi the money he’s stolen as a thank you for keeping his son, but she refuses and encourages him to give the money to his father, Ernest Bordelon, to help with the family’s sugarcane plantation.
At her home, we see Nova is just as nuanced as her siblings. Using a spiritual practice, she treats an elderly client who is experiencing pain, but she refuses to take money from the woman. She’s also revealed to be an investigative journalist working on a story for the local paper, and the best weed supplier in town. Nova’s approached by a young dealer she’s supplying and gives him a bag to sell, but doesn’t charge him either—as long as he brings his crew to a political rally she’s organized. The young man reluctantly agrees, then alerts Nova to the gang-rape allegations against her sister’s husband’s team. Nova reveals she’s not close to her sister.
Ernest also hears about the allegations while at work as a janitor. When he leaves, he goes home to somberly survey his barren sugar plantation and calls Charley to check on her. Charley promises to come home soon and help him fix whatever troubles he’s having with the farm, as soon as she helps her husband deal with the allegations against his team members.
Ernest picks up Blue from elementary school while Ralph Angel is checking on Blue’s mother, Darla, whom we later learn is a drug addict. Blue wishes aloud that his mother could come to his upcoming birthday party, which triggers an angry response from Ralph Angel. He yells at the boy that they can’t afford to have a lot of people over for the party, but Blue’s entire class is coming, including his teacher who has boundary issues and invites herself.
Back in L.A., fresh off of a press conference defending her husband Davis and his team, Charley is triumphant, cheering in the stands with her son during a game. Suddenly, someone in the stadium yells, “Davis the rapist!” and Charley gets shook. Her son checks his phone and passes it to his mother. There’s newly-released video of Davis carrying the 23-year-old accuser over his shoulder and groping her behind before entering the hotel room with the other accused teammates. The crowd is in complete chaos, as they chant their disgust for Davis. (If only we lived in such a world where rapists weren’t adored because they entertain us well!)
In a trance, Charley gets up out of her seat and walks down the stairs, onto the basketball court during the game. With no need for pretense, Charley goes full Beyoncé in “Don’t Hurt Yourself.” She confronts her confused husband in front of the entire stadium and those watching at home. Davis continues to lie and feign ignorance. She loses control, pushing her husband backwards and yelling, “What did you do?! You’re a liar!” I felt her breakdown deep in my soul as she’s carried off the court by security.
In Louisiana, everyone has shown up to Aunt Vi’s house for Blue’s birthday party, but the joyous occasion is soon interrupted when Ernest is found unconscious. As Blue’s confused heart is breaking over what’s happening to his grandfather, Ralph Angel doesn’t scold the boy for screaming and crying, but allows Blue to experience raw emotion. Toxic masculinity is taught at such a young age, so this basic freedom Ralph Angel gives Blue to express vulnerability is notable. Ralph Angel leaves a terrified Blue with the teacher he just met in order to go to the hospital with Ernest.
Ernest returns to consciousness after a stroke the next day but is unable to speak. His predicament is described as touch-and-go. Aunt Vi calls Micah to tell him to take charge and make sure his inconsolable mother Charley gets down to Louisiana to see her father before he passes.
At the hospital, in a scene sure to tug on your tear ducts, Ralph Angel wraps Ernest’s arms around Blue and lies next to them, knowing the end is near. He not only allows Blue to be vulnerable, but also expresses vulnerability himself, in front of his son. Kofi Siriboe’s nuanced performance is going to challenge so many false constructions of what it means to be a man, and I’m here for it.
When Charley finally makes it to the hospital with Micah in tow, she collapses at the sight of her siblings and her Aunt’s weary faces, knowing that her father is dead and she didn’t get to say goodbye.
Charley runs into her estranged sister’s arms and is comforted. Afterward, Nova goes by her lover’s house, but he’s there with what appears to be his wife and children. Figures! She watches them through the window from her car, as tears roll down her cheeks. At home, Ralph Angels holds his son in bed. And Charley wanders through the empty rows of sugar cane. “Sorry, Daddy. I’ll fix it,” are her last words.
What do you think Darla did to make Ralph Angel hate her so much? Do you think Charley will stay married to Davis? What did you think of the premiere?
Brooke Obie is an award-winning writer and author of the slave revolution novel Book of Addis.