Because I am terrible at avoiding spoilers, I’ve been sitting on a lot of feelings about “Queen Sugar” since I went to a New York City screening last week. But now that you’ve read several early reviews about Episode 1, which debuts commercial-free on OWN tonight, I’m going in.
There are just so many remarkable elements of Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of Natalie Baszile’s eponymous 2014 novel about three siblings who suddenly inherit their dad’s failing New Orleans farm.
One of those elements is Rutina Wesley, the “True Blood” alumn who plays the oldest sibling, Nova Borderlon. The character, which DuVernay created, is an investigative journalist, activist, healer and a dealer of a certain plant. In a twist that on the surface belies her radical Black politics, Nova is stuck in a longtime affair with a White cop.
While it’s risky to use dark brown skin as character development, I have to say that Wesley’s shining complexion is a force of its own in color-conscious New Orleans. It is not by accident that cinematographer Antonio Calvache uses this skin—and Nova’s nappy edges—to create shapes and negative space in the sensual opening scene.
Charley Borderlon-West (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), the middle child, has everything a Los Angeles basketball wife would want: the mansion, the car, the cute son and the fine husband. Charley doesn’t need to be a scorned, weave-track yanking charicature on a reality show—she graduated Phi Beta Kappa, and has an MBA. Basically, Charley is sports royalty until her too-perfect life falls apart in a spectacular way.
Then there’s newcomer Kofi Siriboe, who portrays the baby brother. Ralph-Angel Borderlon is a young man out on parole who is determined to protect his son from a troubled mother and his own survival methods. His son, Blue (Ethan Hutchison), is a delightful, sensitive kid. He’s as nerdy as one can be in kindergarten and—with zero gender policing by Ralph-Angel—carries a roughshod Barbie doll everywhere.
At the screening I went to, Siriboe—an objectively beautiful, sculpted man—said he drew on his experience as a chubby, awkward middle child to play Ralph-Angel, who is ultimately a tender person who does foul things. The father and son are just two characters who contribute to a refreshing range of Black masculinities.
While Wesley, Gardner and Siriboe each deliver powerful performances, it is Glynn Turman who made me ugly-cry.
Turman has been a consistent character actor for decades, from ”Cooley High” to ”A Different World” to “House of Lies.” With his deep, slightly Southern voice and dignified carriage, he embodies every Black father, brother, uncle and pop-pop who will tell you to sit up straight, pull up your pants and act like you have some home training.
“Queen Sugar” gives Turman the meaty, award-caliber material that he has long deserved.
Ernest, the patriarch, is way past retirement age but secretly works a day job because his farm is barren. He calls Charley to ask for her professional counsel, but she brushes him off. When Turman hangs up the vintage phone with a cord, you learn that Ernest is a proud man who will ask but he will never, ever beg.
Then Ernest falls sick. Because his character cannot speak, Turman only has his gray-bearded face, wide eyes and jerky hand gestures to abruptly transform a tough Black farmer who favors a cowboy hat into an old man embroidered with tubes.
My ugly-cry moment happens when Ralph-Angel brings Blue to see his beloved grandfather in the hospital. Ernest fixes his eyes on his Ralph-Angel, and in seconds flashes from disappointment to fear to a deep affection for his baby boy. While it was painful to watch a wonderful man suffer, what triggered my sobbing was watching a stern father and an imperfect son searching for peace in one another but running out of time.
There are many more things I can say about “Queen Sugar”—about its all-women directors for Season 1, its freedom from the White gaze, and its sublime supporting actors. But I’m going to stay right here, in this spot where a veteran, underrated Black actor embraces a bright, talented newcomer using only his eyes.
Queen Sugar will have a two-night premiere on OWN. The first episode airs commercial free on Tuesday, September 6 at 10 p.m. EST/9 p.m. Central. The second episode airs Wednesday, September 7 at 10 p.m. EST./9 p.m. Central.