ON THE BEAUTY OF QUEEN SUGAR: AN ANALYSIS OF THE BIRTHDAY SCENE
The story centers on the Bordelon family, three adult siblings, Charlie, Nova, and Ralph Angel played by Dawn-Lyen Gardner, Rutina Wesley, and Kofi Siriboe respectively. Charlie, Nova, and Ralph Angel inherent their family farm, and despite their lack of farming-experience, they eventually decide to take on the challenge of rejuvenating and managing the land.
While the initial hook is intriguing in its own right, this represents the tip of the iceberg's tip when it comes to the complexities of Queen Sugar's characters, and the way their lives intersect.
Charlie, Nova, and Ralph Angel aren't necessarily estranged when we meet them, but they've all clearly moved away from each other (both literally and figuratively). As often happens with families, siblings branch off out of necessity. The pain of the past is a great motivator to create lives apart from each other, even when familial resentments are at a relatively normal level.
Some get out, some do the best with what they've got, and others get left behind.
Charlie is the wife and manager of basketball star Davis West, living the good life, decked out in designer clothes, wheeling and dealing for the benefit of her brand all while ensuring her son, Micah, remains on the path toward an Ivy League education. Then there's Nova, an activist and journalist intent on saving Too Sweet, a young black man in prison-limbo on trumped up charges, by probing the truth of the racist (and very real) prison industrial complex. Ralph Angel is a single father to his boy Blue, desperately seeking approval and forgiveness from his own father, all while struggling to get full-time work so that he isn't pulled back into the prison system.
Ava DuVernay's brilliance is revealed in a variety of ways in Queen Sugar, particularly in the way she's structured the show; these three characters with their differing perspectives and differing priorities allow Queen Sugar to move seamlessly between the broad and the specific, the ideological and the emotional, all in a single episode.
Queen Sugar is able to expand and contract its focus as needed depending upon the characters in the scene. In just forty minutes, viewers can be taken from a scintillating plot-twist to a moment of quietness to a discussion about how racism is woven into the very fabric of America's past and present. It's a special kind of art that manages to be as entertaining as it is intellectually stimulating, and Queen Sugar is that special kind of art.
Each of these characters is forced to contend with a variety catastrophic shifts in their lives that threaten to unravel their sometimes fragile grasps on their individual worlds. One shift, in particular, brings them back together, and it is that unifying trauma that inevitably gives them the strength to deal with other private problems.
I will not spoil any big plot points for you, but Queen Sugar does what all truly great art must do; peel back the veil of a character's life to reveal the tumultuous inner-life.
By the end of episode one, I stopped thinking of The Bordelons as "great characters in a great television show". They were real human beings, and the television became my secret window into their lives, particularly during those moments of quiet reflection; Charlie West studying her wedding ring, Hollywood and Aunt Vi trading knowing grins, Ralph Angel sitting at his father's desk, and Nova's befuddlement after a fellow activist flirts with her.
Television rarely affords that kind of window, almost never daring to linger on human moments of shame, embarrassment, fear, doubt, encouragement, or small happiness. But it's in those moments where Queen Sugar captures you, and encourages you to bond with the Bordelons.
Ava and her team of filmmakers also refuse to let you ever settle into a single emotional state. Just when you believe things are finally going right for a character, their armor cracks, the rug gets pulled out, or their joy dissolves into fear and uncertainty. Conversely, when you're anticipating despair, Queen Sugar offers a glimmer of hope. And that glimmer rarely comes in the form of an impassioned speech or a rousing musical flourish or a picturesque montage (although Queen Sugar boasts that too).
Hope in Queen Sugar is the hope of real life; it comes in the form of laughter exchanged between three women as they smoke a joint and chat about their lovers, it's the satisfaction of knowing you put a smile on your son's face, it's the words of encouragement from a sage, no-nonsense aunt or a jovial friend, and it's in the comfort of a held hand, a bumped-shoulder, a first kiss, a barbecue, or a game of Spades during a hurricane.
One such moment is the reason I'm writing this piece. Rather than continue to give you a broad overview of Queen Sugar's excellence, I want to focus on a brief exchange between father and son that occurs in the very first episode.
This was the moment when I knew Queen Sugar wasn't just going to be great television. This was the moment when I knew I could place my absolute trust in the storytellers; that the writer, director, actors, editors, and cinematographer all understood how to speak to a very private, raw target deep in the human soul.
In the first episode Blue, Ralph Angel's son, wants to have a birthday party. He begs his dad for a party. Ralph Angel is a little uneasy about the prospect of throwing a birthday party, unsure if he can pull it off successfully. But the day comes, and all of Blue's class mates and even his lovely teacher show up for the festivities. While the threat of being out of work and potentially being forced back into prison looms over Ralph Angel, and while his father's farm decays around their home, he manages to give his son exactly the day he'd hoped for.
The classmates and the family members are gathered round the dining room table. Blue is seated at the head wearing a little cone-shaped birthday hat. Ralph Angel holds the lighted cake and he gently carries it through the kitchen, into the dining room, and toward the birthday boy. Everyone starts singing at the top of their lungs, "Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday to you!"
As Ralph Angel continues his approach, the camera cuts to everyone who surrounds the table. We see Hollywood and Aunt Vi. We see all the children screaming happily. It feels like an appropriately massive party, a true celebration focused entirely on Blue. Exactly as Blue wanted.
What makes this moment special isn't just that the characters have found some joy amidst the inevitable pain of life. What makes this special is what happens when Ralph Angel finally puts the cake down on the table and pushes it toward his son.
The camera cuts again to a tight close-up on Ralph Angel's face. Ralph Angel is staring directly into the camera. It's a shot unlike any other in the episode. It's stunning. In this moment, you become Blue. You are Ralph Angel's son seated at the head of the table as your father delivers your birthday cake. The singing of the party-goers continues in the background, but they suddenly become irrelevant.
It's not about them.
Ralph Angel's eyes dominant the screen as he looks across the table into his son's eyes, your eyes, and mouths, "Happy Birthday, Blue..."
The camera cuts back to another close-up on Blue's face, and we see, in the boy's expression, that this was what he actually wanted.
Blue also looks directly into the camera and suddenly we, the audience, are now Ralph Angel.
In a matter of seconds, we are permitted to become both father and son, and be on the receiving end of both sides of that love. This unpredictable, intimate exchange, existing within a bubble of familial strength and love, is what Blue will remember for the rest of his life. The way this moment is shot and edited reflects (both in emotional tone and literally in the tightness and smallness of its visuals) how childhood memories actually work in a genuinely uncanny way.
In this moment, I see my own childhood. I hear my father whispering words of love and encouragement during times of unrest. I feel the strength that comes when you stare across a roomful of people to notice the one other person who "gets it".
The camera cuts back to Ralph Angel, no longer staring into the camera, a more familiar close-up where he's staring off the side of the screen admiring Blue. It's as though the world, and the television show, return to a comfortable distance and resume. The warmness in Ralph Angel's eyes, the pride that he had accomplished his mission, represents an emotional climax I wasn't the least bit prepared for. It shook me. It inspired me. It made me want to create something that achieved a tenth of that kind of beauty.
It made me grateful to Ava DuVernay.
This is why I believe you should watch Queen Sugar. It represents what happens when great people tell great stories, and innovate in a medium where innovation is needed. I have yet to finish the final episode of the first season (twelve episodes in total), because I want to stay with the Bordelons for a little while longer.
I'm worried about the path Ralph Angel may be on, but I'm reassured almost every episode that his love of Blue will sustain him. I'm concerned that Nova's romantic entanglements might interfere with her larger mission, but I know she's tough and isn't going to entertain anyone's bullshit for too long. My heart breaks for Hollywood and Aunt Vi, (Queen Sugar's joyful nucleus) star-crossed soul mates who just happened to be at the wrong place at the right time.
I don't trust, nor do I like Calvin, Nova's married-cop-lover (he's bad news).
I'm grateful to Remy for gifting us with the sexiest, coolest line ever: "A good man telling an extraordinary woman that he don't want to be her friend. That ain't enough."
I'm hoping karma bites Davis in the ass, but I suspect he'll continue to slip by unrepentant and unpunished (for a time, at least).
I'm most concerned for Charlie, and how bad she's willing to be so that others can be good. But, again, I'm still rooting for her, and can't help but find a devious degree of satisfaction in how cunning she's revealing herself to be.
She knows how to manipulate people, but she will feel remorse, perhaps even regret, for being so good at it.
This represents my emotional investment in the lives of these people.
Even if you don't yet know them, I needed to tell someone.
This is great television. I insist you watch it, celebrate it, share it, and give thanks to Ava DuVernay, OWN, and Queen Sugar's cast for offering us exactly the kind of emotional, mental, and spiritual nourishment we need.
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