Saturday, June 24, 2017
The second season premiere of Queen Sugar, a television adaptation of Natalie Baszile’s novel, aired earlier this week, and if you’re the kind of person who likes to catch pop cultural depictions of business issues, this is a nice sleeper to add to your viewing list. It airs on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network, and was created by Selma director Ava DuVernay. (Interestingly, in a departure from most Hollywood productions, every episode is directed by a woman.)
Queen Sugar is about three black siblings who inherit their father’s ailing sugarcane farm in Louisiana (I admit, there’s a bit of provincialism to my fondness for this show – it takes place just outside of New Orleans), and struggle to turn it into a viable business.
Nova, an investigative journalist specializing in the racial disparities of the Louisiana criminal justice system, has difficulty reconciling her political commitments and her romantic life. Ralph Angel, the little brother, was recently released from prison, and his efforts to raise his young son are hobbled by lingering legal limitations and what he perceives as his ongoing infantilization at the hands of his older sisters and his aunt.
Charley, the show’s main focus, is a business woman, and only a half-sibling, who has spent most of her time among the wealthy and powerful (white) Los Angeles elite. (In a telling detail, Charley is noticeably lighter-skinned than her brother and sister). Charley’s career until now has been devoted to managing her husband, a successful basketball star. When the marriage ends – due to a sexual assault scandal – Charley is forced to confront the reality that as a black woman, unmoored from her famous husband, her business savvy and experience carries far less weight. Charley’s arrogance can be counterproductive, but her anger and frustration at her diminished social status (not unlike the frustration Ralph Angel experiences) are channeled into ambition for the farm.
Thus, Queen Sugar is a family drama that revolves around the difficulties of running a small business, intersected with issues of race, class, and gender. As the siblings navigate their interfamily tensions, they must simultaneously contend with various setbacks, including their own farming inexperience, their dwindling financial resources, and an ongoing feud with the wealthy white Landry family, which controls the local sugar mill and uses its monopoly power to squeeze black farmers.
Queen Sugar’s story unfolds at a leisurely, measured pace that might not be for everyone, and the performances can veer into the stagey. Nonetheless, it tells a compelling David-and-Goliath story of small business owners versus the larger industry, featuring realistically flawed characters who are devoted to each other as family and united in purpose, but who can’t fully put their differences aside.