Family legacy and the legacy of race in the South are the compelling — and intermingling — themes midway through the second season of Queen Sugar.
That’s an ambitious load, especially considering a series of adjustments for the widely lauded OWN drama: There’s a new showrunner in Monica Macer to free up day-to-day obligations for executive producer Ava DuVernay. And the show is now wandering farther away from the Natalie Baszile novel that inspired it.
Last week’s episode gave us one big startling revelation, but there’s plenty of unresolved conflict still simmering. So far, we’ve witnessed Charley Bordelon (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) powering through some serious upheaval. She’s divorcing her husband, she’s opened the first black-owned mill in the fictional St. Josephine’s Parish, and she’s struggling to help her teenage son, Micah (Nicholas L. Ashe), after a harrowing encounter with a police officer. Meanwhile, her sister Nova (Rutina Wesley) is second-guessing how much their late father accepted her decision to eschew a husband and children to throw herself into journalism. Their brother, Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe), has been desperately trying to grasp some independence for himself now that he and the rest of the family know their father, Earnest, intended to leave the Bordelon farm solely to him, thanks to a letter Earnest left that contradicts his will.
On its face, it’s easy to identify how Queen Sugar is wrestling with ideas of legacy. In the wake of Earnest’s death, Charley poured her energy into opening the Queen Sugar mill as a way to honor him. But that’s a bit of a ruse. After Ralph Angel confronts the family with Earnest’s letter, which leaves the family farm entirely to him rather than split between the three siblings, Charley is reeling. She tells a magazine reporter profiling her that she honestly doesn’t know what Earnest would think of her efforts. Opening the mill has provided Charley with an escape from having to deal with her divorce, her son’s post-traumatic stress disorder and her burgeoning relationship with Remy Newell (Dondre Whitfield).
There’s another legacy Queen Sugar is examining, one that’s less obvious than the land and independence Earnest left his family and far more compelling. Remember, the Bordelon farmland used to belong to a white family, the Landrys, who are eager to buy it back. The Bordelon ancestors used to belong to the Landrys too. DuVernay uses the antebellum connection between the two families to explore legacies of slavery, racial terrorism and emotional violence wrought against black people in Louisiana. Since it debuted, Queen Sugar has repeatedly revisited the concept of invasion into black spaces, whether it’s the repo man who comes to take Earnest’s tractor, police coming to search Bordelon property at night, or showing up again to question the ownership of a rifle, which Ralph Angel can’t have because he’s been convicted of a crime, or Landry deploying a drone to the Bordelon farm.
The Landrys and law enforcement are the two most obvious remnants of the Jim Crow-era South. That’s why the scenes of hostile white people showing up to Bordelon land to take something that’s not theirs — either people, property or both — engender the same feelings of panic and tension you get from watching night riders or the Klan accosting black people on TV and film.
The feud with the Landrys is fertile ground, and not just because of the echoes of racial implications that still ring true in Louisiana today. The parts of the show that set me most on edge are the ones with Samuel Landry (David Jensen), even as the two-dimensional villain he is. Because of the enormous wealth the Landrys possess, they effectively control the St. Jo’s sugar market. With the only mill in the parish, they have a monopoly on grinding cane, and they use that monopoly to financially subjugate the area’s black farmers.
Charley and the Queen Sugar mill hold out the promise of a better deal for the farmers. Landry doesn’t take it well and deploys a drone to spy on the Bordelon farm. Ralph Angel discovered it when it crashed into his young son, Blue (Ethan Hutchison). The scene was deeply unnerving, both because of Blue’s already-established vulnerability and because the drone’s presence was such a contumelious intrusion of privacy. It was such an effective disruption of the calm, quiet and relative safety that rural living can provide that I wondered if it was fair to designate its use a form of high-tech terrorism. Who needs white hoods and burning crosses when you’ve got unmanned cameras and a private prison system eager to make money off the missteps of black people?
Ralph Angel’s status as a parolee continues to hang over his head — one wrong move and he’s back in prison, a weakness Landry is happy to exploit. For now he’s safe, but I have a feeling the second half of the season will get even more difficult for Ralph Angel.
But perhaps nothing is as awful as the revelation of what happened to Micah after a police officer pulled him over as he was driving his new Porsche.
In a gut-wrenching eighth-episode scene with his father, Davis (Timon Kyle Durrett), Micah reveals that the officer who stopped him didn’t take him directly to the parish lockup. Instead, he drove past it, pulled into a darkened alley, forced the barrel of his gun into Micah’s mouth and pulled the trigger.
Micah left jail without so much as a scratch on his body, but he was so shaken by the experience that he’s barely been recognizable to his parents since he was arrested. That’s how Queen Sugar examines a legacy of emotional violence and terrorism. The white people of St. Josephine’s Parish like their power, and they don’t want to let it go. But they’re smart, too, and their relationship to the black people of the parish can resemble that of an abuser toying with a victim. Sometimes it’s enough to simply flex the power that you have to send someone’s life off course, without ever firing a bullet. That’s something that the Landrys and the officer who arrested Micah know and are happy to exploit.
The midpoint of season two leaves us wondering: What happens when the Bordelons fight back?