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The Broken But Hopeful Heart Of Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar

The ‘Selma’ director’s OWN series is a moving tale of a Southern family’s attempts at redemption

[Note: Spoilers for the pilot, because we can’t really talk about the show’s premise without revealing what happens in the first hour.]

Queen Sugar (OWN) is the kind of TV show that makes you believe — in the capacity for healing, and in creator Ava DuVernay’s stately yet tremendously moving vision. Three adult siblings return home to their father’s 800-acre sugar cane farm in rural Louisiana — a place the two sisters, journalist Nova (Rutina Wesley) and sports manager Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), couldn’t wait to escape when they were younger. Their recently paroled brother, Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe), has nowhere else to go. Individually close to their father (Glynn Turman), the Bordelons are estranged from one another for the usual reasons brothers and sisters grow apart: geographical distance; mutual disappointment; engrossment in their own families, careers, and interests. Charley promises her father that she’ll “fix” things after his death at the end of the pilot. Unsurprisingly, her siblings resent being seen as problems.

Debuting commercial-free tonight (September 6), Queen Sugar measuredly reveals the pricks and aches each Bordelon has learned to live with. Charley alone is walloped by life, when her NBA-player husband, Davis (Timon Kyle Durrett), whom she reps, gets caught in a humiliating sex scandal. It’s an exceptional, almost otherworldly circumstance in a world that’s mostly interested in and shot with an eye toward naturalistic beauty. The scenes of sour but thoroughly relatable unease among the siblings in the first two DuVernay-helmed installments attest to the Selma filmmaker as an actor’s director. The grief, melancholy, and frustrated attempts at redemption are so instantly poignant (and confidently orchestrated) that I wondered if every episode would make me cry.

Executive-produced by Oprah Winfrey, the series touches on black issues like media underrepresentation, racially discriminatory financial predation, biases in the criminal justice system, and the difficulties of post-prison rehabilitation. But at its broken but hopeful heart, Queen Sugar is a fascinatingly knotty family drama and a half-lovely, half-searing portrait of blackness in the rural South. The deceptively calm sugar fields quickly become a battleground, with men shakily aiming guns at one another. A passive-agressively polite funeral director balks when the woo-woo Nova tries to insert an object into her father’s casket that the mortician doesn’t consider “Christian” enough for his mortuary. Confronting an outsider, the siblings instantly meld into one immovable force. They show up in all white at the service, honoring their father the best way they see fit, tradition and “appropriateness” be damned.

But such moments of peace and solidarity are rare. Nova and Charley are united in their dismissiveness of Ralph Angel’s abilities, but their competitiveness with each other keeps them from letting their guard down. Yet neither woman is as hard on Ralph Angel as their aunt, Violet (Tina Lifford), who learns an earth-shattering secret about the farm she’s lived on her whole life after her brother’s death. Violet justifiably worries that the occasionally negligent Ralph Angel’s overprotectiveness around his elementary-school-age son, Blue (Ethan Hutchison), is another way of avoiding parenting. And Charley’s controlling tendencies chafe against her teenage son, Micah (Nicholas L. Ashe), who wants to return home to Los Angeles — and to his fallen father.

Former True Blood star Wesley is clearly DuVernay’s muse, at least visually. The show opens with the camera gazing at Nova’s long, ribbonlike dreads draping her sleeping face, then sweeps down her glowing, tattooed skin in an idolatrous shot that feels as pointedly celebratory of black womanhood as Olivia Pope does. (Later, we learn why Nova bristles against the suggestion that the man who’s slept in her bed for years attend her father’s funeral.) But Nova’s character — the one sibling who doesn’t appear in Natalie Baszile’s source-material novel — is barer compared to her brother and sister, and Charley’s situation feels a bit too exotic. The most compelling character, at least in the first three hours, is Ralph Angel, as the son who cares most about upholding his dad’s legacy while feeling deeply conflicted about his own fatherhood, including being unsure about whether to allow Blue to see his addict mother (Bianca Lawson).

Queen Sugar takes three hours to get to where most drama pilots would take just one, when the second generation of Bordelons decide to revitalize their father’s land — their only inheritance. But the introductory trio of episodes make us hopeful that this 13-episode season and the already planned sophomore year will give the Bordelons the time and space to heal. “They make us scared to fight,” says Nova about the cruelties she’s used to covering for her New Orleans newspaper. Back home, they might finally lay to rest their barbs and suspicions — and cultivate new gardens instead.