I’m not known for Bible thumping though I do know this verse is actually talking about the ability to recognize evil. Still, the general idea is fitting for this blog because to see anything that Ava DuVernay has produced is to recognize that this award-winning writer, producer, director and independent film distributor is consistently telling a real and tragic ongoing story to which we all need to pay close attention. Check it:
Middle of Nowhere. A must-see 2012 drama about an incarcerated Black man and the effects his prisoner status has on his wife and others.
Selma. A 2014 historical drama which examines the fight for Black equal voting rights and delves into how much, or rather how little has been accomplished in actually guaranteeing freedom and equality for Blacks in America.
13th. A 2016 documentary that reveals how the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution includes a loophole allowing for the very institution (slavery) the amendment is supposed to prevent.
While OWN’s Queen Sugar is based upon the novel of the same name by Natalie Baszile, Ava DuVernay has taken much creative license to continue on her narrative of Black freedom, or rather lack thereof. Charley Bordelon (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), the show’s primary protagonist, is a wealthy, business-savvy wife of basketball star who finds herself having to carefully negotiate both the criminal justice system and the court of public opinion when her husband is accused of rape. Charley’s sister, Nova Bordelon (Rutina Wesley) is an investigative journalist /social activist/ herb healer (weed grower) who is having an affair with a married police officer and is on a mission to reveal the underhanded nature of the prison industrial complex. Charley’s brother, Ralph Angel Bordelon (Kofi Siriboe) is a single father trying to rebuild his life after his recent release from prison. Together the three siblings have inherited their late father’s 800-acre sugar cane farm and are trying to navigate the racially-charged terrain of Louisiana farming while dealing with their aforementioned personal challenges.
On initial view of the pilot, I had to rewind and force myself to sit down and truly watch the show without trying to do chores or surf the net simultaneously. Queen Sugar is a slow, methodical burn full of nuance and implication. The drama is underscored in the physical action, facial expressions and moments that happen between dialogue. It’s deep, Yo, and I dig it because unlike Greenleaf or Tyler Perry’s various OWN contributions, this show really elevates the craft of Black television as opposed to simply telling a story that happens to be on TV. A very well-acted jaunt of a program, I find myself believing the emotional drive behind all the characters though none of them actually sound like they come from anywhere near New Orleans and Kofi Siriboe doesn’t seem to know how to properly eat a crawfish tail.The true star of the show, however, is this theme: the American criminal justice system has infiltrated the lives of Black Americans on every level. No matter the income or education level, our sense of security and freedom to pursue the happiness we are supposedly afforded by law is hampered by a presumed guilt based solely on complexion. DuVernay, through the Borderlon family, brilliantly touches on this phenomenon of presumed guilt in every way imaginable from Charley’s son Micah (Nicholas Ashe) to Charley’s husband Davis (Timon Kyle Durrett) to Nova’s charge Too Sweet (Isaac White). In no way does DuVernay suggest that these characters are hapless victims of the system who are completely free of blame. She rather tells all sides in a way that other depictions of the Black criminal justice system experience and its surrounding fallout does not. DuVernay also manages to weave in the larger narrative of current Black American struggles without beating viewers over the head with it.
While I’m enjoying watching the show, I’m curious as to how the story is going to continue to unfold inside this ongoing discussion. Perhaps, it’s only meant to air for a few seasons before moving on to something else. I don’t know. Either way, I’m going to watch and you should too. All of it. From episode one. Like right now.
As for the three other features I mentioned above? Watch those too. While Queen Sugar and Middle of Nowhere are fictional tales which humanize this plight, Selma sheds an authentic, though somewhat romanticized light on civil rights history, as 13th presents a holistic fact-based view on the actual persistent problem of inequality. And let me also tell you why 13th is so badass.
DuVernay did not cut any corners when she set out to reveal the flaw inside of the 13th amendment. Just in case any non-Black viewers dared to write off this documentary as Black folk hearsay, DuVernay got non-Black people to admit the whole dirty mess of it. I’m talking Newt Gingrich and John Ehrlichman, Ya’ll, among several others. Now you may come across a blog post that claims DuVernay supposedly crafted the claim that politicians created myths about crime statistics in an otherwise peaceful landscape to justify the measures used to increase incarceration rates. Let me just say that that blog’s writer (David Edelstein) is not Black and therefore hasn’t been to any of the secret Black meetings in which we discuss that we already know crime is a real problem. Thus he would say some stupid shit like that. (The movie isn’t happening in a vacuum, Dave. We know what’s up. DuVernay simply reveals just how deep and far the criminal justice system has gone to target people of color. This ain’t the kind of news we’re likely to see at 6pm or 10pm on regular television, so it needs to be reported and you need to take several seats, Dave.)
New episodes of Queen Sugar air on OWN on Wednesday nights and gets a righteous four fists from me. 13th can be viewed on Netflix and it gets a blazin five fists. One.
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