Review: New Oprah Winfrey, Ava DuVernay drama ‘Queen Sugar’ a lyrical study in landscapes
From the moment it opens, moving through the braided hair, then across the sleeping form and waking face of a woman we will come to know as Nova Bordelon (Rutina Wesley), OWN’s new scripted drama “Queen Sugar” is more than anything else a lyrical study in landscapes.
Literal and metaphoric; personal, familial, cultural and historic.
On one level, “Queen Sugar” is a very simple and highly American story: Three estranged siblings are drawn back to their father’s Louisiana sugar cane farm, where they rediscover themselves, their heritage and the lure of the land.
The complicated relationship between land and personal identity runs deep through our fiction — John Steinbeck, Willa Cather and William Faulkner all explored the hold the earth we till can have on us, the tensions that arise when the new generation abandons the ways of the old.
But “Queen Sugar” is also the television debut of “Selma” director Ava DuVernay, who adapted it from Natalie Baszile’s novel of the same name and directs the first two hours. DuVernay follows the template but resists the more typical wistfulness in favor of the sensual. Buoyed by a masterful soundtrack and framed by a lush attention to detail, “Queen Sugar” is as much a sensual experience as it is a story.
A man sitting on a playground, a woman bent over her garden, three people at a table; like a hand seeking a landmark in a darkened room or the truth on a lover’s face, the camera in “Queen Sugar” sweeps over a face, a figure, a field, drawing revelation from the familiar.
As the genre demands, the lives of the Bordelon siblings are wildly separate in their shared contradictions. Nova (Wesley) is healer, activist, reporter and local weed dealer; though she is the family truth-teller, she harbors at least one important secret. We meet Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe) as he robs a convenience store while his 5-year old son Blue (Ethan Hutchison) waits alone on a playground. But it quickly becomes clear that, while obviously troubled, Ralph Angel acts mostly out of sincere love for his son and a desire to become a responsible man.
Meanwhile, far from the languid skies of Louisiana, Charley (Dawn Lyen-Gardner) is the typically A-lined, business-savvy wife and manager of a professional basketball player Davis West (Timon Kyle Durrett), and multi-tasking mother to a lovely teenage son, Micah (Nicholas L. Ashe). Surrounded by the accoutrements of Los Angeles affluence and influence, her life is camera-ready, which of course means on the brink of disaster.
A sex scandal involving West’s team quickly upends Charley’s perfect life, even as financial and health issues return her father Ernest (the always wonderful Glynn Turman) to the center of his children’s lives.
Mutually wary, distracted by their own complications, Nova, Charley and Ralph Angel come together for the first time in a long time to face the life they once shared in the little, tin-roofed house on the edge of wide green fields.
To tell the Bordelons’ story, DuVernay made several strong choices. With the exception of Wesley, who lighted up HBO’s “True Blood” for many seasons, there are no big stars. Though the plot includes a laundry list of standard developments — a secret affair, a family scandal, a recovering addict, the pitfalls of fame, a conniving land developer, an ex-con prone to violence — they are not treated in the standard way.
For all its high drama, “Queen Sugar” will not be hurried.
Instead, DuVernay, and her producer, Oprah Winfrey, focus on the slow emergence of character. By slowing things down, by lingering on the angle of a jaw, the line of a house, early episodes of “Queen Sugar” resist that rush to judgment, offering its characters and audience a new way of looking at things instead.
It doesn’t always work. The pacing seems, at times, at odds with the narrative’s overabundance of conflict. Universally fine performances keep the Job-like series of events from overwhelming things, but DuVernay is so focused on her main characters that the secondary narratives, including lovely scenes between Ernest’s sister Violet (Tina Lifford) and her husband, Hollywood (Omar J. Dorsey), often feel like afterthoughts. And for all the vivid poetry made of the location, she forgoes scenes of community life; much is made, in early episodes, over a farmers’ potluck and family repast, but the events are never shown.
Even with these distractions, “Queen Sugar” is an undeniably beautiful series, and as it progresses, the chemistry between the siblings rises to create moments of artistic truth. Charlie and Nova buying fish for the repast, Violet reprimanding the sisters for excluding their brother, Ralph Angel gently insisting that Blue leave his doll home for the day; scenes of a reforming family steadily overcome “Queen Sugar’s” flaws to make it as powerful as it is poetic.
When: 10 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
From the Emmys to the Oscars.
Get our revamped Envelope newsletter, sent twice a week, for exclusive awards season coverage, behind-the-scenes insights and columnist Glenn Whipp’s commentary.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.