“QUEEN SUGAR” IS UNNECESSARILY DEPRESSING
Queen Sugar is exhausting.
It’s quite ironic that in the final episode of season four of “Queen Sugar” Nova (Rutina Wesley), the journalist and second oldest in the Bordelon household wrote about how the family would fight to keep their joy despite the total despondent energy of the show. It’s hard to even measure the depressive feeling the show inspires. The series is filled with so much heartbreak, it’s almost easy to forget that the show is meant to highlight the real problems among black farmers in the southern states of the U.S. because the meaningful intentions of the story is overshadowed by how disappointing it is. It’s bittersweet because it could have be a powerful tool to educate people while also reminding audiences that black people are regular human beings with value, but it failed.
“Queen Sugar” is adapted from the work of Natalie Baszile, a black writer with a masters in Afro-American studies in UCLA. Baszile’s novel which was published in 2015 was an encouraging story about a black woman who came to own a farm that was given to her by her late father. The book followed her character Charley Bordelon on her journey to learn how to work on a farm, grow with her daughter Micah, and anchor herself in a community with family and friends that she was once estranged from. It’s a completely different story from the narrative which has been adapted for TV by executive producers, Ava DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey on the OWN network. Their story is an especially dismal tale in which, the Bordelon family made up of siblings Charley Bordelon West (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), Ralph Angel Bordelon (Kofi Siriboe), Nova and their aunt Violet Bordelon (Tina Lifford) can never catch a break.
In the entire series, the family faces misfortune after misfortune until it becomes natural to feel hopeless about their lives and future. The hardship starts early with Charley when she relocates to her family’s farm in Louisiana after the news of her father’s death and worse, a sexual misconduct scandal involving her famed basketball husband Davis West (Timon Kyle Durrett). His reputation was on the line but so was her career. As his manager, she had the responsibility to do damage control to ensure that he could still play so that they could maintain their expensive lifestyle. Still, through it all, she managed to found the first black owned sugar mill in the south. She settled in her family’s community to provide jobs to the minorities in the area, all while also repairing the relationships within her household. But the family’s moments of happiness are interrupted when racist white business owners threaten to steal the Bordelon land and disrupt Charley’s business, Ralph Angel’s future is threatened because of his past encounters with law enforcement, and because Nova ensues chaos onto her family when she independently decides to share their intimate and private histories without any real concern of how it would affect them.
“Queen Sugar” is exhausting. It’s true that it is important to share stories about black history and the injustices to southern African-American communities in the U.S., particularly farmers, but it would be disingenuous if we were to say that that is truly what the show is about. Instead, it feels like another attempt to profit off of black trauma. Of course, this discourse is typically brought up when discussing white people misappropriating black stories but it’s hard to deny the very real attempt to commodify the pain of black people here.
The characters in “Queen Sugar” rarely have a meaningful moment of peace; every happy occasion in the show is followed by deep sorrow. Charley meets a prospective partner but he ends up judging her and betraying her trust, Ralph angel finds stability from working on the farm but the greed of his siblings jeopardize his happiness, then his partner Darla (Bianca Lawson) finally puts her life together, but Ralph’s family is unrelenting about reminding her of her mistakes and of how worthless they find her. It’s never ending and that’s a problem.
It’s absurd to have a story about black people that is only filled with pain and frankly it’s lazy. Are black people conduits of pain? Are they not deserving of hope, triumphs, pleasure and nuance? “Queen Sugar” unfairly portrays the Bordelon family as representatives of the black experience in the south and this is largely due to how the writers of the show neglect to introduce other characters with separate storylines that illustrate the diversity of the black experience. Instead, we only learn about the Bordelon suffering and likewise the little growth of the personalities within the family. For instance, throughout the four seasons of the series, Ralph Angel’s perspective is static. He always victimizes himself and is hardly ever self-aware enough to see when he is causing distress to others. We see this with his sexist interactions with Darla when it’s revealed that the root of her alcoholism came from a traumatic sexual assault experience from her past. In that instance, he only thinks of himself and how the situation affects him until realizing that his response was breaking their ties. Likewise, Nova and Charley are very self interested individuals with tunnel vision throughout the show. They’re machiavellian; to them, it’s worthwhile to sacrifice parts of their family and their peace, for the greater good. They repeatedly make unethical decisions that causes alarm for their family, with no accountability for how their actions affect others. They’re blinded by their so-called “good intentions.” They have a cycle: they mess up, their family ostracizes them, then they plead for forgiveness with the promise to never repeat the same mistake, only to risk it all again later. It causes narrative angst.
The series is a melodramatic bleak story that throws viewers on a continuous loop. Watching the show means feeling the unbending and constant pressure and anguish of the characters to nauseating extremes. It’s damaging, and frustrating. Like viral videos of police violence against black people, the show triggers much of the same heavy discomfort; it’s awful. Naturally, it’s inappropriate to tell a completely romanticized story about the black experience without including the difficulties that affect black communities at large, which is noted in criticisms about shows like “Grown-ish.” But it’s also incredibly negligent to create a show packed with persistent trauma and affliction without layering the story with equally realistic portrayals of happiness and carefree lifestyles of black people. Black people also deserve well-rounded coming-of-age stories wherein they are allowed to face adversities but also grow and experience true bliss. Life is not a one-dimensional journey filled with agony. There is always periods of harmony in between and as a sentient and diverse group, black people are deserving of stories that show that they are human.