SERIES REVIEW

‘Queen Sugar’ captures the struggles of blacks in America

Series shines light on the issues bedevilling the African American community in the US

In Summary

• It covers land ownership, dominance by white capital, race, class and personal relationships

Poster
Poster
Image: COURTESY

Film Review: Queen Sugar series (now in Season 4)

Many Kenyan viewers know Oprah Winfrey for her Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), which continues to make outstanding TV series largely focused on the lives, successes, challenges and aspirations of the African American Community in the US.

Her current series include: Queen Sugar, Greenleaf, Love and Marriage: Huntsville, Ambitions, Black Women OWN the conversation, The Haves and the Have nots, Love thy Neighbour and For Better or Worse.

I remember her more fondly for her roles in films like The Color Purple, Selma, Beloved, Precious, The Butler and The Great Debaters. In addition, she has provided voices to films like Charlotte’s Web, Bee Movie and The Princess and the Frog.

We recently finished watching Season 1 of Queen Sugar and were struck by the depth and breadth of the intersectionality of issues that Oprah has explored. The series dwell in an entertaining and focused way on the current issues that bedevil the African American community in the US, namely land ownership, dominance by white capital, race, class and personal relationships that crisscross the human complexities of bisexual, race and LGBTI dynamics.

With Oprah Winfrey as executive producer and Ava DuVernay as the filmmaker, ‘Queen Sugar’ can be nothing but a blockbuster TV series.

The focus of Queen Sugar is the struggles and dynamics that ensue because of the death of a patriarch, Ernest Bordelon, who bequeaths his sugar plantation in modern day America to three siblings borne out of two marriages, white and black. The three siblings could not be more different from each other as they emerge from the contrasting economic and social environments they come from.

The ‘Queen Sugar’, played by Dawn-Lyen Gardner, is married to an American football star played by Timon Kyle Durrett. We are thrown straightaway into the familiar story of violent African American sports stars abusing their spouses and women in relationships, which spectacularly implodes the cushioned and comfortable world of ‘Charley Bordelon West’, who runs a sports management company. To add to the confusion and crisis comes the sudden death of her father, which turns her world upside down.

In addition to the chaos is the coming of age of her young son, who is uprooted from his privileged, white-dominated school environment as they move to his late grandfather’s farm. It is another world, another class and another race completely unfamiliar to him.

Coming from a corporate society in New York, where the complexities of race and class are blurred by big business and profit, Charley is suddenly confronted by the ugly realities of rural class and race realities.

However, the upheaval does not end here. Convinced that her business skills and access to capital make her a natural choice to lead the family farming business, Charley clashes with her siblings, whose life values are completely at odds with Charley’s white-business corporate values. She does succeed in setting up the first sugar mill to be owned by a black woman in the US, triggering a no-holds-barred rivalry that threatens to bring her business down.

She is a sibling borne out of a white mother who grew up in a world of privilege, and whose raison d’etre are at odds in the new world she finds herself in.

Nova Bordelon played by Rutina Wesley, a feminist, is the second sibling borne out of a black mother. She is a journalist stringing for a local newspaper. She is also involved in social justice struggles, supporting young African American men who are victims of the racist criminal justice system in the US. Nova is a very intense and deep person, whose multifaceted understanding of the plights of black people makes her a fascinating character to watch.

Her intricate relationship with people in the world of cultural and spiritual healing of abused and traumatised communities is most interesting and intriguing. Her intersectional world of white and black relationships and deep respect for individual experiences arising from societal violence is remarkable in Queen Sugar.

Nana-Kofi Siriboe, a Ghanaian American actor and model, plays the third sibling ‘Ralph Angel Bordelon’. He is completely at odds with his other two siblings and symbolises the typical African American youth who have become victims of a racist and unjust American society.

His is a story of a young man who learns very early in life that living a life in crime is the only solution to surviving in a violent and unjust American society. Stealing of credit cards and shoplifting to support his first son from a broken and traumatised marriage to a young drug addict is the only way he can survive. Then suddenly he is catapulted into a world of sibling rivalry and struggle for identity in their newfound wealth and ownership of an 800-acre sugarcane plantation. His struggle to fend for his young family, mend his broken relationship and seek legitimacy and recognition in a world from which he is estranged is often heart wrenching.

The balance amid all the sibling rivalry, jealousies and anger is ‘Aunt Vi’, played by American actor Tina Lifford, whose character exemplifies what a woman will do to keep her family together. Almost everyone has an ‘Aunt Vi’ in his or her family.

‘Aunt Vi,’ sister to the late Patriarch, is the anchor that keeps the ‘Bordeleon’ ship on course in the choppy waters of racism, criminality, infidelity, insecurity, sibling rivalry and institutional violence and bias. She also symbolises the relationships between younger men and older women that, despite the age difference, can be loving, fruitful and successful.

Tucked into Season 1 very briefly is the issue of migrant workers from Latin America who make the perilous journey to the US and endure horrific working and living conditions, often resulting in unnecessary death and grief.

The 335 sound tracks throughout all four seasons are beautifully written and composed. They fit in completely within the African American cultural experiences.

Therefore, as we watch Season 2, I would like to commend Oprah Winfrey, who has put the money from her many successful TV and media ventures into such meaningful projects to highlight the injustices the African American people face in America today.

 

Zahid Rajan

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