Queen Sugar is the product of Black excellence. The series is adapted from Natalie Baszile’s novel of the same name, developed for TV by visionary filmmaker Ava DuVernay and executively produced by Oprah Winfrey on her network, OWN. In its inaugural season, the cast realizes Queen Sugar’s promise, delivering some of the most emotive performances of the year.
The opening scene of the first episode introduces a woman in dim light, with dark brown skin and long, sleek locs; she is iridescent. In that light, in that scene, perhaps without intention, she personifies India Arie’s classic tune, “Brown Skin.” But unlike the song’s lyrics (“Brown skin, up against my brown skin”), the woman whose name we will discover is Nova Bordelon (Rutina Wesley) lays next to her white lover, Calvin (Greg Vaughan).
Calvin is married, making the affair between him and Nova a secret one, with careful meetings behind closed doors and quiet, stolen moments in public. Yet the most interesting part of their relationship is not the affair itself, or that Calvin is cheating on his white wife and family with a black woman—it’s that he, a white police officer, has fallen in love with her, a black woman whose journalism exposes police brutality and mass incarceration. What a storyline for the cultural moment, perhaps constructed to remind us of the complexity of politics, race, and relationships. Following her father’s death in that first episode, Nova is shown watching Calvin settle down to dinner with his family that night. The scene conveys that Nova, this woman who proudly embraces her multitudes, should not be mistaken for a woman who does not long for ordinary things, like a lover to be able to come to, openly, after a loved one’s death.
It’s easy for the viewer to fall in love with Nova. She is spirited, kind, brave, and has all the compassion and conviction of a hometown girl who is protective of her loved ones, history, and space—a matter of importance for the Bordelon family’s Louisiana roots. But there’s also an air of self-righteousness to Nova, which especially manifests in interactions with her sister, Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner). Their relationship is complicated, and although it appears to stem from their conflicting values and personalities (both are strong-willed), family matters yet unknown to the viewer may play a role, as it’s eventually revealed that Charley has a different mother from Nova and their brother, Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe).
In a moment of vulnerability or weakness, or perhaps as an attempt to bond with her sister, Nova later confesses her affair to Charley. Charley’s own personal life has been rocked by her star athlete husband’s rape of a sex worker and the surrounding public scandal—to the point that she tries to construe the incident as “only” an affair—but in a fit of anger, Charley exposes Nova’s indiscretion to family members and friends. The perceived moral high ground that Nova has over Charley exists no more, and even the viewer who is wont to feel more affection for Nova than Charley cannot help but feel a little satisfied in that moment for the latter.
While Nova’s relationship with Charley is at times turbulent, interwoven with moments of détente, her relationship with Ralph Angel is loving and filled with compassion. She views and treats his shortcomings and past mistakes with easy forgiveness. She feels a closeness to him that comes without any harsh judgment for his failures as a son, a father, a brother, and a man who spent time in prison. Although she has no children of her own, Nova reserves a certain motherly sentiment for Ralph Angel, as well as for the black teenager, “Too Sweet,” whose false imprisonment consumes her journalism and activism. It’s a part of the story that reveals Nova’s tenacity and commitment to social justice in her work, but it also suggests the challenges that face black writers today, during the era of mass incarceration, heightened awareness of police brutality, and covert racism. Part of Nova’s character is to highlight the dynamics of this experience, alongside the realities of the media’s struggle to maintain its integrity in the age of information overload and the burden shouldered by public defenders in a legal system that ill serves the poor. In fiction, there is much truth.
Within the context of Nova’s social justice work, we also learn that that she doesn’t affix a label to her sexuality—she’s more attracted to “souls” than to any specific gender. Nova’s presentation as a queer woman is important to signify that people who are queer do not have to exist within society’s limited perceptions; queer people are everywhere and they look like everybody.
Nova falls in love with a woman, Chantal (Reagan Gomez-Preston) who is involved in the same activism. Chantal, like Nova, is equal parts passion and commitment to her values. When Nova gets an opportunity to bring her work to a larger platform, Chantal sees Nova’s desire to play the middle ground, rather than take the opportunity to be relentless, as a shortcoming. Between that, and finding out that Nova was formerly in a relationship with a police officer, Chantal claims that she and Nova might share the same goals, but not similar roads to get there, and their relationship ends.
Yet again, we see the complexity of the interaction of race, politics, and relationships. We will see it as Calvin returns to Nova’s romantic life, this time, as a man free of marital obligations. But the visibility of Nova and Chantal’s relationship should not go unappreciated—so often, when queer black people are represented in relationships on TV, it’s not with other black people. In this way, too, representation on Queen Sugar sets itself apart from so many other television shows this year.
Nova’s character was a force on television in 2016. Her character is given the freedom to be likeable and unlikeable. She is moral, but not without failings. She is strong and serious, but she also presents as someone with whom the viewer can sympathize—regularly, if not always. Her sexuality is displayed freely, as is her spirituality, demonstrating the fullness and complication of a human experience. Nova is also fearlessly black, while showcasing blackness in relations with self, with other, with family, with love, with work and with society, and meets it at a place that is both real and indefinable: The creation of Nova Bordelon is a revolutionary act, much like Queen Sugar itself.