Up Next

Television

‘Queen Sugar’: What Oprah and Ava DuVernay say to expect from season two

OWN is dialing up the intrigue in its show about rural Louisiana

Queen Sugar, OWN’s marquee family drama created by Ava DuVernay, returns Tuesday night with its second-season premiere, with the second episode airing Wednesday.

The network only released the first episode in advance, so this isn’t a review. However, I did speak with executive producers Oprah Winfrey and Ava DuVernay at recent press events in Los Angeles about the upcoming season.

Season one closed with Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) deciding to leave her rapey pro basketball player husband and start the Queen Sugar mill, the first black-owned mill in her family’s Louisiana home parish of St. Josephine’s. She rounded up commitments from many of the community’s black farmers to use the Bordelon mill to grind their cane, assuming it’s up and running in time. And Charley’s raising the hackles of competing white male farmers, especially Samuel Landry (David Jensen), who owns the biggest farm in the parish.

Here’s what’s in store:

Dialing up the drama

Winfrey’s been quite vocal in her support of Queen Sugar and announced a second-season pickup last year before a single episode had even aired. She’s been similarly effusive in advance of the second season. Winfrey joked about keeping the Bordelons in a state of some dysfunction because it makes for more entertaining storytelling that can be spooled out for multiple seasons.

“I pray Ralph Angel and his sisters get it together,” Kofi Siriboe said of his character, Ralph Angel, during a roundtable with Winfrey and Gardner.

Winfrey pursed her lips a bit and said, “Not soon.”

Ralph Angel (Kofie Siriboe), Blue (Ethan Hutchison) and Darla (Bianca Lawson) in a scene from Queen Sugar.

Alfonso Bresciani /Courtesy of OWN

While all that soapy, melodramatic goodness is great for fans, it spells trouble ahead for Nova (Rutina Wesley), who’s still fighting for justice in her job as a newspaper journalist, and Ralph Angel as he struggles to get Charley to respect his skill as a farmer. Meanwhile Aunt Vi, played by the utterly vivacious Tina Lifford, is still showing us just how great retirement age can be, opening the season clad in a crop top on a trip to a nightclub with her nieces.

Apparently Winfrey had toyed with the idea of playing Aunt Violet herself but was booked on OWN’s other drama Greenleaf, which led to a long search before she and DuVernay cast Lifford.

A continued spotlight on Louisiana’s criminal justice system

One of the most compelling B-stories of the first season was Too Sweet’s (Isaac White) trials after being swept into Louisiana’s overextended criminal justice system. Unable to afford an attorney, Too Sweet became another juvenile warehoused in jail as he awaited face time with a public defender barely acquainted with the facts of his case. Without Nova highlighting the injustices of his case, he could have simply been lost in the system.

Rutina Wesley and Dawn-Lyen Gardner as sisters Nova and Charley Bordelon.

Alfonso Bresciani / Courtesy of OWN

This season, Queen Sugar takes a sharper look at the influence and limitations of class when it comes to how black people are treated, with Micah (Nicholas L. Ashe) undergoing his own harrowing experience with law enforcement.

A continued look at the lives of rural black people

The Washington Post recently released the results of a survey that shows a broadening divide between the worldviews of rural and urban Americans. It also found completely different outlooks between rural blacks and whites.

According to the Post:

Black rural Americans — most of whom live in the South — are far less likely than their white neighbors to feel positively about their communities, the poll finds. Sixty percent of blacks say their area is an excellent or good place to raise children, compared with 80 percent of whites. Rural blacks are 25 percentage points less likely than rural whites to give their community positive marks on safety and are 29 points less likely to say their area is a place where people look out for one another. Rural Hispanics tend to fall in between whites and blacks in rating their communities.

There are few shows on television that bother grappling with the experiences of rural Americans in a way that steers clear of obvious and insulting stereotypes, and fewer still that focus almost exclusively on black rural Americans. But Queen Sugar does. And it illustrates the racial divide that the Post discusses. While St. Josephine’s parish may be small enough for everyone to know each other, it’s still deeply segregated, and the economic disparities between the parish’s black farmers and its white ones are huge.

“[The Bordelons] know exactly which white people in their community owned their family,” DuVernay said. “We’re trying to be really explicit in our intentions in playing with and unpacking race and culture, but do it in a way that’s wrapped in contemporary romance and beautiful people and personal relationships while we have this cultural/historical context over it.”

Visions from new directors

Regardless of Julie Dash’s talent as a filmmaker, no one was beating down her door to do more work after Daughters of the Dust, which debuted to rapturous reviews in 1991. We can credit the aesthetic references to Dash’s work in Beyoncé’s Lemonade film to the resurgence in interest in the director, who is now a film professor at Howard University. She, along with five other women — DeMane Davis, Cheryl Dunye, Aurora Guerrero, Amanda Marsalis and producing director Kat Candler — were responsible for continuing DuVernay’s vision in season two.

Dash’s experience with being unable to convert obvious skill into steady and challenging work is hardly anomalous among female directors, and DuVernay spoke at length about the difficulty for them to get hired. It’s what influenced her decision to have both seasons of Queen Sugar be directed entirely by women.

See what the cast of Queen Sugar has to say about working with Julie Dash.

“I wanted to say, ‘Look over here. Look at how it can be and how wonderful it can be,’ ” DuVernay said. “I’m proud that other shows have followed suit. I’m proud of Melissa [Rosenberg] at Jessica Jones following suit and some other shows starting to really step into the gap and say, ‘We will have balance.’ …

“I’ve tried to, with Oprah’s blessing and Warner Horizon’s blessing, over-index and go the other direction. I always say if Game of Thrones can have three seasons of all male directors, why can’t we have three seasons of all women directors? If they can do it, why can’t we do it? And you only do that because you can and you want to. You only say, ‘We will not have women’s voices, we will only center the man’s perspective,’ in terms of the perspective of the show, because you want to. On the other side of the things, we’re going to center women as much as we can because we want to. And we’re at a network owned by a woman, so it makes it easier.”

DuVernay is a bit busy, shooting and now editing the much-anticipated Wrinkle in Time, juggling duties at Array, her independent film distribution company, and prepping for other projects, such as her upcoming adaptation of the Robin Givhan book The Battle of Versailles for HBO Films. So this season, Nashville alumnus Monica Macer served as showrunner, supervising the writers room in Los Angeles, while Candler ran the set in Louisiana. The show also promoted two writers, Anthony Sparks and Jason Wilborn, to producer. This season she wasn’t on set, but DuVernay maintained final approval of scripts, casting and editing.

“It’s hard to hand your baby off, but it’s easy when it’s family,” she said.

Thanks to DuVernay’s insistence on using only female directors for the first season of Queen Sugar, her contemporaries are busy too. Besides bringing a new set of stories to the small screen, DuVernay’s created a professional pipeline for other female directors.

“I started out looking at women who had at least directed one film, so the great majority of women from the first season have at least one film under their belt. Can you believe that these women had directed a film — a film that played at film festivals around the world, many of them had won at festivals around the world — and couldn’t get hired in Hollywood for one episode of television? On any network, they would not be allowed in the door,” DuVernay said, clearly peeved. “So all of the women in our season one, all of the women have gone on to be heavily, heavily booked.

“I got a call from a really well-known television show just last week asking, We had someone drop out as a director. Can you refer us to one of your season one directors?’ I got on the phone and tried. None of the season one directors are available. Not one of them. They’re completely booked. I called Victoria Mahoney and I was like, ‘This is a pretty good show.’ She’s like, ‘The show’s good. I’m booked till February of 2018.’ I’m like, ‘Word!’ ”

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.