Editor’s Note: This recap contains spoilers
“That’s what they do to us, they make us scared to fight.”
When Nova Bordelon utters these words at the beginning of Queen Sugar’s third episode to a dejected, baby-faced male prisoner she’s working to free, she’s talking specifically about the prison industrial complex and the corrupt prosecutors who bully poor Black prisoners into accepting plea deals for crimes they never committed.
But the sentiment reaches across methods and history to summarize White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy as a whole–and executive producer Ava DuVernay pulls no punches when calling that system out.
Ralph Angel, the baby boy of the Bordelon family, is an ex-con who wants nothing more than to prove himself and his manhood to his dead father by farming the 800-acre sugarcane plantation his father left behind. But the conditions of his parole don’t permit Ralph Angel to work for himself—he must have a 40-hour-a-week paystub from someone else’s business. Not wanting to return to prison, he gets a job at a warehouse instead.
Systemic patriarchy meets Charley Bordelon on a personal level when she learns that her NBA-star husband Davis is not only accused of gang-raping a woman with his teammates, but that the victim is a sex worker. Wanting nothing more than to protect her teenage son Micah from the cruelty of the paparazzi waiting for them back home in L.A. due to her husband’s actions, she tries to keep her son with her and away from Davis until things settle down.
But like many young boys, Micah worships his father and chastises his mother for not “supporting” Davis. At just 15, Micah has already internalized that his father’s “needs” outweigh his mother’s pain and humiliation. Beaten down, Charley gives in and lets her son go home to support his father without her.
All three Bordelon siblings witness the intersection of race and class oppression when shady White farmer Sam Landry invites them out to his plantation—what Nova rightly calls a “museum of our enslaved ancestors.” Noticing the Hispanic workers gardening the massive property, Nova remarks, “It’s like going back in time; they’ve just replaced Black with Brown.”
(Side note: it’s beyond time that Rutina Wesley received a role worthy of her talents, and Ava has given her the beating heart of this show as Nova. She gets all of the best lines and delivers them with such depth and texture)
Landry tries to offer them half of what their father’s $1.2 million sugarcane plantation is worth. Their father was under a mountain of debt, they’re running out of time to plant if they’re going to yield a crop this season and Landry’s is the only offer they’ve received on the land. Because of those pressures, the predatory Landry believes the Bordelons will fold easily and accept his insulting offer.
“The land is well-drained, it’s got good soil pH,” Ralph Angel says to the surprise of Landry, who thought he was dealing with suckers. Landry becomes visibly agitated and gives them 2 days to accept his offer.
Though the Bordelons aren’t nearly as bad off as others in the parish due to Charley’s financial success and the fact that they own their land, the Bordelons offer a window into the systemic plight of the Black southern farmer. As young farmer and probable love interest Remy tells Charley, many Black farmers must lease their land. They don’t get the subsidies or bank loans that their White counterparts are offered in hard times. All of those systemic issues lead to predators like Landry taking land out of from under Black farmers, the stress and health issues that killed the Bordelons’ father and the desperation of young men like Ralph Angel who use violence to hold onto what little they have left.
Ralph Angel’s desperation is on full display in this episode when he whips out a handgun to defend his father’s tractor from being repossessed—a tension-filled scene that reiterates how deeply his bond is with his son Blue. His sisters attempt to talk him down and the barrel of the repo man’s shotgun are lost in his haze of grief and anger, but the voice of young Blue cuts through the noise and because of Blue, Ralph Angel allows Nova to take the gun and end the standoff. But it seems only a matter of time before Ralph Angel gets lost in the system again, leaving Blue without a father for another stretch of time and continuing the devastating cycles bequeathed to victims of systemic oppression.
“They make us scared to fight;” Nova’s words echo through to the very last scene as Landry tries to intimidate Charley for refusing his offer. “Be careful,” he warns, “We do business a little differently down here.” The smirk on Charley’s face lets us know the Bordelons are ready for combat.
Brooke Obie is an award-winning writer and author of the acclaimed slave revolution novel BOOK OF ADDIS: CRADLED EMBERS.