Instead of looking away like all the others have, “Queen Sugar” found the biggest and most beautiful mirror it could and just invited us to marvel unapologetically at all we are—not just in our resilience, but in every measure of our magnificence and power.
Queen Sugar's characters Ralph Angel and Darla, Hollywood and Vi are not the only love getting us high. When it comes to the hit OWN series, Louisiana is a whole vibe. While much of the drama unfolds about an hour out from the city in Vacherie, where the fictional St. Josephine Parish or simply St. Joe’s comes alive, with Blackberry Farms and St. Joseph Plantation serving as the incredible 800-acre Bordelon homestead and legacy, New Orleans is also central. The series' character Nova wouldn’t have it any other way. For the activist and journalist, the 9th Ward is as much home as St. Joe’s.
Through Nova, Queen Sugar—Ava DuVernay's acclaimed small-screen adaptation of the Natalie Baszile’s 2014 book—very intentionally tied the land Black people were forced to till during slavery and Jim Crow to the institutional racism and unjust criminal justice system that persists today.
Seeing New Orleans beyond the country’s premiere party spot—without devaluing the importance of Black joy and the deep cultural legacy to which it's bound—is a gift Queen Sugar has given us all. What we witnessed in real time with the treatment of our people during Hurricane Katrina nearly 20 years ago didn’t come out of a vacuum. Instead, it's from the layers and layers of unresolved and ongoing injustices that Queen Sugar always keeps in the foreground. This is not done with “message moments.” Because these injustices are a consistent and omnipresent part of our daily lives in New Orleans and beyond, Queen Sugar shows us living our lives through them. That means such cataclysmic events as Hurricane Katrina are a constant presence. Nova has made sure of it. In season two, she was quick to roll her eyes and shake her head at the disrespectful tour buses rolling through the 9th Ward, where far too many New Orleanians remain displaced to this day with money to rebuild nowhere in sight.
Joy and pain live in the same spaces for us, Queen Sugar regularly reminds us. When Micah is pulled over at the top of season two for the audaciousness of being a sixteen-year-old Black teen driving a luxury sports car, the relatively new Jag F-Type soft top convertible at that, as a perk of being a rich kid, his Driving While Black trauma takes place with the Welcome To New Orleans sign and the city’s all-too familiar bridge in the background. Jag or not, if you live in NOLA or visit it semi-regularly, you know exactly where this is and understand that Micah could be any of us. Having an old white policeman pull a gun on him, then later handcuff him, and throw him in the city jail with grown men reverberates so greatly for Micah that, when he loses his cousin Blue in New Orleans City Park in season four, that incident ricochets his mind and spirit back to the trauma he does not wish on his cousin but fears he cannot stop. In a split second, a joyful moment becomes a trauma-filled one because we carry all these things in us often at the same damn time.
Incidents like these put Nova’s outing with Micah to New Orleans artist Brandan “BMike” Odums’ gallery, Studio BE in season one to give him a visual perspective to the Black Lives Matter movement in a much broader context, which is way more than we’ve ever seen represented on TV about us in this way. Queen Sugar has layers that dare to show us and the world who we are and how we really live. By season four, when Micah forgoes Harvard for Xavier University of New Orleans, his mother Charley may be confused but viewers understand exactly why. Whether its Micah and his friends kneeling for Black Lives Matter in St. Joe’s in season three or Nova raising her voice against the police railroading poor Black people and setting high bails during a public rally for the NOLA Community Bail Fund in season two, Queen Sugar has been very clear in its mission to communicate the beauty of us but also to establish that we have always fought back. Filming that scene at NOLA's Louis Armstrong Park—honoring whom most consider a patron saint of the city just steps from the French Quarter, which gets way more screen time—underscores this, showing us the resilience we’ve always heard about but so rarely seen, especially in such multifaceted and engrossing complexity, capturing all of us, from old to young, rich to poor, broken and under construction—a full community of people, family, human beings.
Yes, we know New Orleans has some of the best food in the world because we read about it all the time. And yes, we know NOLA is jazz’s birthplace. And, we are familiar with the dizzying array of legends who have spread the city’s praises, past and present. We also often see New Orleans’ famed marching bands and the Second Line that parties with them. But the soul force behind it all is what we almost never see. Even getting a glimpse of the Lower 9th Ward’s historic St. Maurice Roman Catholic Church that was shuttered in 2008, but privately purchased to keep its legacy and impact intact, is just priceless. These are the sites and issues Queen Sugar has prioritized since entering our orbits in 2016.
The show has always operated from an elevated framework of us and season five made that fact unmistakable. Scrapping the entire season and starting over to document our experience with COVID-19, acknowledging the devastating loss in the city led by its first female mayor, Xavier alum LaToya Cantrell, made it clear that Queen Sugar has always been more than a TV show. During the pandemic, it refused to fail us not because Oprah, Ava and their crew thought it was great TV, but, most importantly, because it was the right thing to do by NOLA and by us.
When Hollywood and Vi ride those bikes at Moon Walk to close out season five, what we see is not just Black love as a man romances his woman during one of the world’s most challenging times. We see an appreciation for the beauty that also accompanies pain in a city that carries our un-gentrifiable DNA. We see all that and more.
Back in July, when Mayor Cantrell, along with the cast, creators, and crew, as well as the city gathered for Queen Sugar Day, there was no ceremonial postering. Even with the show’s seventh and final season yet to play out, the one thing that has never changed is how Queen Sugar sees us in all our colors and many, many shades in-between. Instead of looking away like all the others have, Queen Sugar found the biggest and most beautiful mirror it could and just invited us to marvel unapologetically at all we are—not just in our resilience, but in every measure of our magnificence and power.
Ronda Racha Penrice is the author of Black American History For Dummies and editor of Cracking The
Wire During Black Lives Matter.