In her Netflix documentary The 13th, director Ava DuVernay traces the criminalization of blackness – enacted by a white power structure that ascribed violence and villainy to African-Americans – back to the Emancipation Proclamation. Motivated by political expediency and obvious projection, former slaveowners – with the tacit cooperation of white Northerners – ushered in a new era of the same-old-same-old through the 1865 constitutional amendment that gives the film its title. DuVernay outlines how federal and state governments have hobbled black progress ever since, currently through mass incarceration and the newly re-invigorated War on Drugs. To quote Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It's not even past.”
DuVernay takes a similar long view in Queen Sugar (OWN), which returns for its second season on June 20. Created by the Selma helmer and executive-produced by Oprah Winfrey, the stately soap finds its unique strength in journeys of self-discovery through history. After the death of their father (Glynn Turman), an indebted cane farmer with several hundred acres a two-hour drive from New Orleans, the three Bordelon siblings grapple with what their father’s land means – and should mean – to them. Recently paroled and in need of a job, only son Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe) wants to become the next Bordelon man to till that land. In the season’s premiere, Ralph Angel names a parcel Blue’s Corner after his six-year-old (Ethan Hutchison), telling the boy, “This is your land, son. A little piece of the world no matter what happens.” Reeling from a sex scandal involving her basketball-star husband, MBA-educated Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) thinks bigger: Why focus on the crops when the real money is at the mill? Activist-journalist Nova (Rutina Wesley) just wants to return to her real home in the Ninth Ward, where there’s no shortage of injustice (and resistance) to document. But she can’t help critiquing her brother and sister’s every mistake – and in return, gets her own moral failings thrown back in her face.
The siblings aren’t so dissimilar that they can’t get along. One of the quiet tragedies of Queen Sugar is that they’re just past the point of complementarity, and so physical distance and a stark gap in wealth and opportunity (in particular between the struggling Ralph Angel and jet-set Charley) keeps the Bordelons from mending their differences. Of course, they’re bestowed the same legacy. The emotional climax of the debut season arrived three-quarters of the way in, when Charley shared a recent discovery to her siblings and their Aunt Vi (Tina Lifford): That the white dealmakers in the region who drove Bordelon Sr. out of business (and possibly to an early grave) are descendants of a clan that owned the family's ancestors as slaves. That revelation affects the calculus – emotionally, if not necessarily practically – of their actions and their place in history. But the siblings can’t agree about how best to honor their painful but pride-filled past.
Queen Sugar doesn’t always plait its lessons so smoothly into the rest of the drama. As an addition by DuVernay to the Natalie Baszile novel that inspired the series, Nova sometimes feels like a mouthpiece for the writers’ political points, like when she and scholar Melissa Harris-Perry, playing herself, conduct an interview to defend Black Lives Matter’s deliberate leaderlessness and to argue that being pro-black doesn’t mean being anti-white. (I can’t imagine that that Queen Sugar preaches to anyone but the choir.) Back on the farm, the over-reliance on Mr. Rochester-like secrets yields diminished returns. And the series might be too romantic for its own good. Its primary couples – Charley and widowed agricultural consultant Remy (Dondre Whitfield), as well as Aunt Vi and hunky, velvet-throated Hollywood (Omar Dorsey) – are too magnificent together for anything that pries them apart to feel the least bit substantial.
Though they take place in very different worlds, the series that kept coming to mind as I revisited Queen Sugar’s first season was Netflix’s Dear White People. Both situate their characters in racial contexts, then bombard them with questions of privilege, complicity and intersectionality. When her NBA luminary husband (Timon Kyle Durrett) is accused of rape, Charley surprises even herself by how much she’s willing to ruin the life of another woman – a sexual-assault victim at that – to protect her family. In the new season premiere, she finds her fate still yoked to her husband’s. She might be the smartest person in every room, but she has little clout without the “Mrs.” preceding her name. “I guess I should be used to thinking there’s no me without Davis,” she sighs to Remy when she’s denied a bank loan that isn’t co-signed by her husband. But Remy won’t lend a sympathetic ear to a woman who treats her wedding ring like her only power.
The college comedy is glossy while the farm-set drama is lush (you’ll be hard-pressed to find a greener series this side of Planet Earth), but both shows feature the same stylized compositions that turn faces into busts and bodies into idols. If neither is as affecting from episode to episode as their creators might wish, at least they elicit tears when it really counts. Charley and Davis’s naive teenage son Micah (Nicholas L. Ashe), who declared last year that he’d never been discriminated for the color of his skin, has a gun pulled on him by a white cop during a traffic stop in the premiere. The scenario’s familiar; the staging is heart-stopping. While his parents turn the incident into the latest bickering point, Nova helps her nephew regain a sense of dignity by tying her sweater over his wet pants. He’s the umpteenth victim of police terror, Queen Sugar reminds us. He’s also a boy who’s just had his world shattered.