AISHA HARRIS, HOST:
"Queen Sugar" is a sprawling melodrama following the Borderlons, a tight-knit, multigenerational Black family in rural Louisiana. Created by Ava DuVernay and airing on the Oprah Winfrey Network, the series has been culturally and politically topical from the beginning. The show is timelier than ever in its fifth season. The Bordelons and the community have been dealing with the arrival of COVID-19 and the death of George Floyd, making "Queen Sugar" among the earliest scripted series to heavily incorporate the biggest events of last year into its plotlines. I'm Aisha Harris. And today, we're talking about "Queen Sugar" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. So don't go away.
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HARRIS: Welcome back. Joining us from their home in Los Angeles is Tre'vell Anderson. They are an entertainment journalist and co-host of the podcast FANTI. Tre'vell, thank you so much for joining us.
TRE'VELL ANDERSON: Thanks for having me.
HARRIS: We are five seasons into "Queen Sugar." And this is our first time dedicating an episode to the show. For this discussion, we're mostly going to focus on the current season, with some minor spoilers. For those who may not be familiar with the show or haven't caught up yet, here's a brief overview. At the center of the three Bordelon siblings, Dawn-Lyen Gardner plays Charley, who moves from LA back to Louisiana in season one to help manage the family sugar cane farm after their father dies. Nova is a civil rights activists and journalist. She's played by Rutina Wesley, who you might recognize from her previous role as Tara on "True Blood." And Kofi Siriboe plays Ralph Angel, a young dad trying to better himself after being released from prison. The main cast also includes their Aunt Vi and her husband, Hollywood, played by Tina Lifford and Omar Dorsey, Micah, Charley's teenage son, played by Nicholas L. Ashe.
The show is based on Natalie Baszile's 2014 novel "Queen Sugar" and is notable in part because creator Ava DuVernay has made it a point to have every single episode directed by a woman. There are so many reasons I love the show. But, Tre'vell, I want to start with you. What do you appreciate about "Queen Sugar?"
ANDERSON: You know, I love this show because of how Black it is, to be quite honest. And I feel like it's also specifically Black. It's like super Black, super Southern, which, I think, you know, is a different ice cream flavor than, like, you know, the East Coast Black folks or the northern Black folks of the Midwest or the West Coast Black folks. And I love in particular how they are able to keep the show current and to incorporate kind of the sociopolitical foolishness that we're all dealing with in a way that doesn't feel preachy and in a way that I think shows folks not only themselves but also people that that we know, that we're familiar with.
Then I also just love the look of the show. You know, we haven't seen Black folks' skin as rich as it is in this show. Rutina Wesley and Kofi in particular as dark-skinned Black folk, usually, the dark-skinned Black folks are, like, washed out, or they look ashy...
ANDERSON: ...You know, in so many shows and films. And in this series, their skin is just - it's just so rich. And it's just so beautiful with literally every single shot. And I think that goes to show kind of the intentionality that Ava and her entire team has behind this.
HARRIS: Yeah. I have been watching it since the show began. And I agree with you. I think that the thing that feels so different about this is not even just that it's a Southern show but that it is about a rural family of farm owners and landowners. And, you know, there have been movies that have touched on this aspect. Like, "Sounder" is one movie I can think of. I can't think of another TV show that has done this and has focused specifically on Black rural culture in this way. And all of the politics around landowning and farm owning is really, really interesting to see and great to see because there are so many Black farm workers, and people don't realize this. And I think it's great to show this slice of life.
So season five has been really, really interesting. I think part of what makes this show so fascinating is the way in which it's kind of set up precisely for everything that happened in 2020. And I think the show does a good job of getting at all these different layers of COVID through these characters' lives, which were already, you know, happening from seasons one through four.
HARRIS: What do you think about this season so far?
ANDERSON: So I have to say when this season first premiered, I wasn't too jazzed about them, you know, basically reenacting and reliving 2020 all over again. I was like, I lived it, don't want to see it - too soon.
ANDERSON: However, I have to say I haven't hated it. I thought I was going to hate it. I thought I was going to be very upset, you know, particularly the episode where they basically reenact the George Floyd of it all...
ANDERSON: ...And the, you know, resulting protests. I thought I was going to hate it, but I feel like there's an intentionality. There's an emotion. There's a care and a sensitivity that I feel throughout all of these episodes that makes it a little, makes it a little bit more approachable and easier for me to digest, even though we all hate 2020.
HARRIS: (Laughter). I agree. I think the show often walks a very fine line between soap opera and high art melodrama.
HARRIS: And, sometimes, it kind of walks too close up to the soap opera aspect for me. I think of that especially in, like, a character like Nova. And I love Rutina Wesley, and I love that we have a character like her who is very social, socially active and is pushing the other characters around her in their own directions. But, sometimes, she just goes on these monologues that I can find...
HARRIS: ...A bit much. And there's one example of this. So a little bit more backstory on Nova is that she's had an on-again-off-again relationship with a white cop named Calvin, played by Greg Vaughan. And that has obviously been an internal struggle for her because her work is about, you know, policing black bodies, like, helping formerly incarcerated Black men, Black youth. And there's one scene after the George Floyd moment has happened, and everyone's talking about it where she's confronting him about his time as a cop and whether or not seeing that makes him offended as a white person. Let's listen to that clip.
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RUTINA WESLEY: (As Nova Bordelon) You have a white man strangling someone by the neck while being recorded as both victim and bystanders begged him to stop. Y'all feel no personal shame in that. If the tables were turned, I'd be in shambles. Y'all have an imbecile in the White House, and you just shrug it off. If it were Obama, all the Black folks would be hanging our heads.
GREG VAUGHAN: (As Calvin) Because all Black Americans would be lumped together because of the mess he was involved in.
WESLEY: (As Nova Bordelon) And the mess that's happening with a white man in the Oval now you don't feel at all connected to. This is one of the treacherous and rarely discussed side effects of white supremacy.
HARRIS: So I'm here for this conversation. And I like the tension it's creating. I feel it's real. But I also - sometimes, the delivery just feels like I am reading a Twitter thread in dramatic form.
HARRIS: I don't know how you feel about it, Tre'vell.
ANDERSON: Listen. It definitely goes up and traffics in that soap opera melodrama area. But you know what? I also kind of love it because I think it does help, for me at least, put a little distance between what I'm seeing on screen and what we all live through and the types of conversations that we've all been having, particularly over the last year. But, you know, for Black folks, we've been having them all our lives. Someone will identify with that - right? - probably 'cause you know, they're feeling a way about their white partner. Something else that just dropped in my head in terms of, like, something that might be a shortcoming perhaps is I have been stuck since season one on Kofi's accent. It's supposed to give us, like, working class...
HARRIS: Country, yeah.
ANDERSON: It's supposed to give us country. You know, and don't get me wrong. I know those people. I love those people. Those people are my family. However, something just consistently feels left of center with his accent in particular. I don't know what it is.
HARRIS: Yeah. But he's so beautiful to look at, so I (laughter)...
ANDERSON: Well, he's a gorgeous man, honey, OK?
HARRIS: Yeah. I think one - I think this season so far has actually, for me at least, handled the COVID aspect of it all in a more interesting way, in a way that feels fresh. I mean, part of it is that we have never experienced a pandemic like this before, unlike with George Floyd - we've had happen many times. And even the show itself has dealt with this aspect before because Micah was - you know, in an earlier season, he was almost - he had a very bad encounter with a police officer. And that has been a running throughline throughout this show. So that's been explored before. But I really love the way in which they have touched on depression, loneliness, also the illness itself.
And there's a great scene also with Nova and with Prosper, who's a longtime family friend who is who has worked on the Bordelon farm with them - in the earlier episodes of the season is really taking it hard, the loneliness and being afraid of what's going to happen. And she comes to bring him groceries, and they have an encounter. And this is in the early days in the pandemic, the earliest when we didn't still know how these things are going. And she stops in the hallway. And you can tell he's just really, really uncomfortable with her, like, lingering for so long. Let's play a little clip of that.
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WESLEY: (As Nova Bordelon) This care package has masks, hand sanitizer, cleaning products. If you like, I could put it away for you, make sure everything's where it should be.
HENRY G SANDERS: (As Prosper Denton) Just leave it on the kitchen counter, and I'll get to it.
WESLEY: (As Nova Bordelon) Mr. Prosper, you sure you don't need help with anything before I go?
SANDERS: (As Prosper Denton) If I need anything, Nova, I'll make it known to you.
HARRIS: Now, if you watch the show, you know that Prosper rarely gets agitated. He's one of the more, like, easygoing characters of the show. It was very characteristic of Nova to just, like, be ignoring all of his body language.
HARRIS: I just felt like it was a really great and very visceral depiction of the earliest days of the pandemic.
ANDERSON: Yeah. And I think when - even when you look at Omar Dorsey's character, Hollywood, who loses his mom in the course of the season and who is grappling with not only the foolishness of the pandemic but also the racial reckoning, as we mentioned earlier, it's become an opportunity for them to have really interesting conversations, I think, about mental health, about depression, about how all of this foolishness we're dealing with is actually impacting us in ways that we will be dealing with for years to come. That's one of the ways that the sensitivity and the, quite frankly, awareness of Ava and the showrunner have in terms of this narrative that they're crafting for this season.
HARRIS: Yeah. Before we go, do you have any favorite characters or any character that you feel has evolved in the most over the course of the last five seasons?
ANDERSON: So I have to say my favorite character out of all of them is Aunt Vi.
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TINA LIFFORD: (As Violet Bordelon) I won. I got the good life. I got the money. I got the house (laughter). I got the business. I got the respect, love. And you got nothing. You're just an old, worn-down dog.
ANDERSON: Tina Lifford is the MVP. She deserves all the accolades and recognition because I feel like she just holds everything together. She reminds me of my aunties, you know, and my grannies in my family. The way she plays the character, you can tell she just has so much wisdom and so much awareness and so much knowledge of this community. But it's also, like, trying to let the kids figure things out on their own. And I love to see how she navigates all of the different narratives that we've seen pop up with her character.
HARRIS: I personally - I don't know if I have a favorite character, but I do have sort of a favorite recurring scene, which is Hollywood and Ralph Angel having heart-to-hearts. I can't count how many times one of them has, like, cried in front of the other or, like, offered their shoulder. Just the love of seeing two Black men be raw and real and vulnerable with one another. I think I love that sort of relationship. It's, like, sort of father figure because Hollywood is older but, like, also sort of like a brotherly play cousin type of thing. Like, I just love it.
ANDERSON: It's super beautiful every time.
HARRIS: Yeah. Do you have any last thoughts or anything that you wanted to add?
ANDERSON: My last thoughts - I mean, I just hate that - you know, I know we don't talk about awards. And Ava's talking about, you know, how they don't do it for the awards and stuff like that. But consistently, there are performances on this show that I feel deserve mainstream recognition. And consistently, they - no one thinks about OWN. No one thinks about "Queen Sugar." And I think it's doing us all a disservice.
HARRIS: Thank you for saying that because I have also felt that since the beginning. It is a crime (laughter). Well, I think it's safe to say that Tre'vell and I both think that you all, if you haven't watched it yet, should absolutely watch it. Just prepare to be in your feelings. And you might cry a lot.
ANDERSON: Oh, yes (laughter).
HARRIS: It's totally worth it. And if you have seen it, we want to know what you think about "Queen Sugar." So find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @pchh. And that brings us to the end of our show. Tre'vell, thanks so much for being here.
ANDERSON: Thanks for having me.
HARRIS: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. If you have a second and you're so inclined, please subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. We will see you all tomorrow.
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