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In its Season 3 premiere, ‘Queen Sugar’ delivers a kneeling episode after ABC balked with ‘black-ish’

This is why it’s important to have multiple creators of color across multiple networks

Who’s afraid of a little pregame kneeling?

Not Queen Sugar.

In its season three premiere, airing Tuesday at 10 p.m. EDT on OWN, Queen Sugar builds on its reputation for taking on challenging social issues. This time, that means using Micah West’s (Nicholas L. Ashe) violent season two encounter with a police officer and his awakening to issues of racial justice as a bridge to explore protest and what it means to find one’s voice.

Nova Bordelon, played by Rutina Wesley, has served as the moral center of the show through her work as a journalist uncovering an unjust legal system that throws black people into private prisons without due process. Nova’s nephew Micah begins to realize the significance of his aunt’s work when he’s assaulted by a Louisiana police officer after being pulled over on a remote highway for daring to be black behind the wheel of an expensive sports car, a gift from his father, a pro basketball player.

In the season three premiere, written by Kat Candler and directed by DeMane Davis, Micah attends a basketball game between the two rival public high schools in St. Josephine’s Parish. The event turns into more than just a game when students of the parish’s majority-black high school, dressed head to toe in black, walk onto the gym floor as a white student from the opposing team is singing the national anthem. They kneel quietly and a ruckus ensues, including the unfurling of a giant Confederate flag. Micah, who has a burgeoning interest in photography, documents the conflict. It’s clear that Micah is invested in this protest in a way that he wouldn’t have been when he and his mother first moved to Louisiana in season one. Now a high school junior, Micah is showing an awareness of how class and privilege have blinkered his worldview, and how little that helped him when he was a black boy driving an expensive car in the rural South.

I’ve seen only the first two episodes, but they portend what I expect to be Queen Sugar’s most consistent and thoughtful season yet, in part because the kneeling episode doesn’t feel shoehorned into the show as a way to make it current. Instead, it is a natural outgrowth of the show’s continued reflection on black American life in the South. Furthermore, it becomes apparent by episode two that the kneeling incident will likely color the whole season. It turns out that the officer who harassed Micah targets black people generally. And because St. Josephine’s is so small, he’s also the parent of an athlete on the rival basketball squad.

There is no running from white supremacy in St. Josephine’s. There are no timeouts.

Season three shows what it feels like to push back against racism in a town where everyone knows everyone and a veneer of Southern hospitality is expected as a means of papering over racial hostility and inequity. What’s more, the third season is weaving Micah’s evolution in his thinking on race with his development as a teenager, pushing boundaries and differentiating himself from his mother. It is one of the most seamless examples I’ve seen of the everyday ways in which race insinuates itself into American life.

There is no running from white supremacy in St. Josephine’s. There are no timeouts. It is the white noise that colors life, whether you want it to or not. In that way, Queen Sugar is pushing back against the way larger real-life cultural forces compartmentalize the discomfort that the sight of a black person kneeling during the national anthem seems to stir up.

After all, this premiere lands just as the NFL has announced penalties for teams whose players kneel during the national anthem. And it is creating a storyline centered around kneeling high school students in the same year that ABC pulled an episode of black-ish that included a discussion about the same subject.

ABC has found itself in the midst of controversy this spring. Not only did it pull the kneeling episode of black-ish, but it also brought back Roseanne with a version that is far afield from the show’s working-class, feminist and anti-racist roots. Its title character is now a Trump supporter who’s fearful of her Muslim next-door neighbors. Nothing summed up the ethos of the Roseanne reboot more than one joke taking a cheap shot at two other ABC shows: Fresh Off the Boat and black-ish. Not only did ABC’s standards and practices gatekeepers allow the joke, in which the humor hinged on being dismissive of efforts to make TV more inclusive, but ABC president Channing Dungey defended it.

Would that Dungey were as vociferous in defending black-ish showrunner Kenya Barris. These two programming decisions raised questions about to whom the network was catering and to whom it was capitulating. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Barris reportedly wants to decamp for Netflix.

Racism is a fact of American life, so of course it’s part of sports, the arena that occupies so many of our television-viewing hours. It’s only natural that it’s going to come up in shows about black life, the same way police violence is part of so many shows that are by or about black people. Dear White People, which has found its voice in an excellent second season, brought a deft touch to the story of a student experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder after a campus police officer held him at gunpoint. Atlanta tackled the trauma of witnessing police violence in its season one finale. Even Insecure took on the anxiety triggered by being black and pulled over by a cop.

The existence of Queen Sugar, Dear White People, Atlanta and Insecure right alongside black-ish is an excellent illustration of why it’s important to have multiple creators of color writing from multiple perspectives at multiple networks. Only a few years ago, neither Queen Sugar nor Dear White People existed. Go back a few more years, and neither did the networks that carry them. FX, under the guidance of John Landgraf, only recently began its expansion of high-quality, quirky programming beyond white creators by hosting Atlanta.

Imagine if ABC still drew the audience numbers that it did in the 1990s — the decision to pull the black-ish episode would have been even bigger, given the Big Three networks’ outsized role in shaping pop culture. Without minimizing the broadcast network’s decision, we can be grateful for the fragmented nature of our current television climate. If a subject is too radioactive for one network, that doesn’t mean the topic simply won’t appear on TV.

Certainly there’s always been more creative freedom in cable and streaming than broadcast television. But when can a programming decision be characterized as creative differences, and when is it censorship of ideas about race, policing and protest?

In telling the stories of all-too-common realities for black Americans, Queen Sugar shows us why it’s good to have choices.

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.