Describing her network’s series Queen Sugar during press interviews at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles on June 6, Oprah Winfrey said: “It’s the many shades of us.”
The television mogul would then explain to dozens of writers and reporters — frequently peering out over her thick, silver-framed eyeglasses and gesticulating the way she’s known to do when speaking passionately — why the Ava DuVernay-created series is not just good, but important. It’s not typical for a network head to spend hours with the media talking about just one of her company’s many, many shows. But then again, Oprah isn't your typical network bigwig, and Queen Sugar isn’t just any show.
The series, which centers on the highs and lows of the Bordelon family and their Louisiana sugarcane farm, a loose adaptation of the novel by Natalie Baszile, has posted impressive numbers since its September '16 debut. The two-night premiere last season averaged 2.4 million viewers, the second highest debut for OWN, and its December finale was ranked that night's number one cable telecast for women. Alongside Greenleaf (a juicy drama about the family behind a megachurch that debuted last June) Queen Sugar, which Winfrey also executive produces, has helped propel The Oprah Winfrey Network from home of wholesome reality series and a slate of Tyler Perry sitcoms to a network boasting some of the most popular dramas on cable.
There’s a reason critics and fans alike adore this show — and why the first season earned an NAACP Image Award for Best Drama Series and a People’s Choice Award nomination for Favorite Cable Drama. Simply: Television has never seen anything like it. While last year (finally) delivered a slew of scripted stories starring people of color (Atlanta, Insecure, Luke Cage), Queen Sugar is unique in its realistic, and relatable portrayal of a Black family, with a narrative that is neither sitcom nor soap opera.
The three Bordelon siblings alone provide quite a few “shades,” as Winfrey put it, figuratively and literally: There’s the estranged NBA wife, Charley, played by Dawn-Lyen Gardner; journalist-slash-healer Nova, played by True Blood alum Rutina Wesley; and formerly incarcerated single father Ralph Angel, portrayed by (budding heartthrob) Kofi Siriboe. The show is also cross-generational: Charley’s soul-searching son, Micah, is often torn between being a carefree teen and embracing the harsh truths that come with adulthood, and the trio’s aunt Violet is a middle-aged Black woman who Winfrey says is purposefully depicted as healthy, vibrant, and sexy, an antidote to the “feeble” church-going Southern stereotype.
Never before have we seen a Black family so layered. Or so poetically captured for television, thanks to cinematographer Antonio Calvache. Or so rooted in the reality of the kind of Black family viewers either know or come from, with lyrical dialogue set to a soulful soundtrack and a setting where half-drunken orange soda bottles, sinks full of collard greens, and Violet’s impressive wig collection lie in the background.
Queen Sugar also finds a way to address current events head-on. Season 1 touched on everything from the way formerly incarcerated Black men are treated when they return to society (Ralph Angel’s character was given less pay simply because his boss decided he would, and should, take what he could get) to the different views women of color can have toward the Black Lives Matter movement. And in a preview of season 2, we see that Micah will have a run-in with the police that eerily — but accurately — echoes the news in real life.
Hard as it may be to watch, these events are fodder for the conversations we should be having. “I was so grateful when many of the events of last year took place, specifically the election,” Gardner said at the press event. “I was grateful to know that we would be coming back for a second season and that I had a project I fully believed in, where I knew the writers would include the urgent conversations that are happening in our world. As an actress, you don’t always get that opportunity on a TV show. It’s relieving when we read our scripts and say, Ah, so we are going to talk about this.”
And while Queen Sugar is sending important messages onscreen, it’s also empowering people behind the scenes: For the second season in a row, DuVernay has hired an entirely female slate of directors. After Shonda Rhimes took a chance and gave DuVernay her first TV directing gig on a 2013 Scandal episode, DuVernay decided Queen Sugar would be her way to pay it forward. Having two 16-episode seasons in a row directed solely by women is no small feat in Hollywood, especially when handing an hour-long episode to a lesser-known name is a pretty big risk. But DuVernay says it has paid off.
“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?” she said at the press event. “A great majority of our women from the first season have at least one film under their belt. Can you believe that these women had directed a film that had played at film festivals around the world...and couldn’t get hired in Hollywood for one episode of television? Like, on any network, they would not be allowed in the door.”
But since DuVernay took a chance on directors like Neema Barnette, Tina Mabry, Kat Candler, and Salli Richardson Whitfield, they've have gone on to work on shows including American Crime, Dear White People, Underground, Grey’s Anatomy, Famous In Love, and more.
“All of the women in our season 1, every single one of the women has gone on to be heavily booked,” DuVernay said. “I got a call from a really well-known television show just last week asking, ‘We had a drop out, we had someone drop out as a director, can you refer us to one of your season 1 directors?’ I got on the phone and tried. None of [them] are available. Not one of them.”
With just a single show, DuVernay has demonstrated that getting more women behind the camera is quite simple, actually: Just hire them. And other television directors have followed suit. Last fall, Melissa Rosenberg announced that she was also only hiring female directors for season 2 of Jessica Jones, and Ryan Murphy launched a “Half” initiative to ensure half of the directors on all of his series were either women or minorities.
It’s clear that the beginning of Queen Sugar was a success, both as groundbreaking entertainment and a changemaker for Hollywood’s (mostly white) boys’ club. But as with every follow-up to a hit first season, there is, of course, that looming question: Is there any fear of a sophomore slump?
The question isn’t even asked in full before Winfrey interjects.
“We are not gonna slump,” she said, without a single blink behind those silver glasses. “We are rising.”
The first two episodes of Queen Sugar’s Season 2 premiere June 20 and 21 at 9 P.M. on OWN.