[by Greg Ehrbar]
Three siblings endure and enjoy the paths of their lives as they separate and intersect in this addictive new series created by Ava DuVernay (Selma, Middle of Nowhere). One sister is a high-powered attorney balancing work, family and high-profile scandal. Another sister is an idealistic journalist driven to right wrongs even at the expense of her personal life. Their brother, a single father just released from jail, contends with the stigma of his conviction and the temptation to fall again.
At the surface, this could be a primetime soap. But in the hands of DuVernay, sharp writing and a gifted cast that says as much with silences as words, Queen Sugar is a natural for binge viewing, now that almost half a dozen of its first 13 episodes have aired on the OWN Network.
Speaking at a recent gathering at the Los Angeles Museum of Fine Art’s Bing Theater hosted by film critic Elvis Mitchell (following a screening of the 5th episode), DuVernay, members of the cast and her co-executive producer, Oprah Winfrey, shared their feelings about the series. Most resounding was the sense of home inherent in the series.
Winfrey commented about her memories of households very much like those in the series; DuVernay confirmed that such authenticity was key to her vision.
This led to a particularly thought-provoking comment. DuVernay spoke of an Iranian filmmaker who was able to capture a very real sense of an Iranian household in his work. The authenticity of a home was what compelled her and made the films great. She didn’t have to be Iranian to see the connection to her own familiarities.
To which DuVernay wondered, would white audiences embrace Queen Sugar as well as black? Though there were white as well as black fans of the series in the audience, she expressed the feeling that audiences are separated by race and culture even in the films and TV shows they see.
As a white person who grew up in the late ’60s and early ’70s, there were only three TV networks and everyone seemed to watch the same shows. When Norman Lear’s “message” sitcoms like Good Times and miniseries such as Roots were aired, we didn’t switch to the “white shows.” These were huge hits across the board. Maybe Good Times didn’t fully capture real-life struggles, and maybe there should have been more like them, but at least they were getting into white homes—reaching people who were unaware of the issues facing other ethnicities.
After cable TV and multi-cinemas came along, people became free to isolate themselves within their own comfort zones and genres. Target marketing and demographics further pigeonholed the consumers of media. To be sure, viewers are entitled to enjoy seeing, hearing and reading about those to whom they relate—and that wasn’t always the case, especially on TV. But it is it widening the gaps, too? And will it widen further on the internet?
It’s nice to think that a series like Queen Sugar, which is about a family that is black, a family with relatable caring and conflict, which might be a step toward the kind of shared viewing experience that triggers emotional connections and cultural revelations to a variety of viewers that are not just exceptions within the targeted demographic.