It took me months to actually write about Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade, partly because when it was first released, I just wanted to look at it, over and over again. And that’s what I did, until Paste crowned it the album of the year (so far) and I was asked to write about the content, as well as the beautiful form of the piece. Some works of art are so breathtaking, you just want to celebrate their beauty for as long as humanly possible. Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar premiere, “First Things First” is one of those things. I’d go so far as to argue that it’s better at poetry than it is at plot, and so as critics do, I must celebrate that poetry but also critique some weaknesses in the plot, and all that it’s wanting.
The opening scene is stunning—like a near-perfect stanza that makes use of both silence and sound (something DuVernay is somewhat of a master of, as seen in Middle of Nowhere and Selma). We meet Nova (Rutina Wesley) and immediately sense that her character represents that rare human, capable of basking in her own solitude in one moment, then fluidly transitioning to the arms of her lover (as if in a dance), in the next. Throughout the premiere, Nova consistently stands out amongst the other characters, as strong and as strange as the best kind of poetry—a woman who speaks with an incredible clarity, but also seems to hold fast to her secrets.
We are also introduced to her brother, Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe), a protective and flawed single father, and Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner). Unfortunately, it was Charley’s storyline in the premiere that most distracted from the lovely poetry we experienced otherwise. A woman shaking out her locks, a little boy and his doll, the beauty of Southern land—these things contrasted so sharply (and perhaps, necessarily so) against Charley’s Los Angeles backdrop. Hers is a world where she and her pretty husband Davis West (Timon Kyle Durrett) celebrate their perfect lives and argue about whether or not it’s right to give their privileged son a fat stack of cash in the morning. Charley hops into a droptop Benz and meets two other basketball wives so they can talk about doing a reality show. Charley plays coy and seems resistant to the idea—but something tells us she’s seriously considering becoming a reality star. While all of this is clearly meant to distinguish between the different worlds the siblings (Nova, Ralph Angel and Charley) are living in, it automatically boxes Charley in, and little of the dialogue rings true. And so it’s impossible to feel for these basketball wives (they are really presented as nothing more than that), when their husbands are suddenly caught up in a scandal.
However, it was the scene at the basketball game that really took away from the premiere, and so much of the authenticity that characters like Nova and especially Violet (Tina Lifford) and Hollywood (Omar J. Dorsey) brought to the narrative. A poem can play around with the fantastical and so can good TV, but the fantasies must be presented clearly as such for the audience to buy into them. Many of us, for example, fantasize about the day when an entire basketball arena will erupt in anger, after the crowd sees a video of a man carrying a drunk and unconscious woman into a hotel room. In that fantasy, they’d boo the basketball star and scream “rapist,” while his wife storms the court and attacks him, screaming “What did you do?” like Charley does to Davis. But in the real world, we know there is little more than silence when a man, especially a beloved celebrity, is accused of rape (see, for one recent example, Derek Rose). This is another scene that asks us to cheer on Charley—because, isn’t this what we’ve all, always wanted to see? A woman who doesn’t stand by her man and play the good wife? Unfortunately, it’s so unrealistic, it distracts from the story. I believe we live in a world where a black woman, like Nova, could be a healer, an activist and a lover to a married white man; I believe we live in a world where a desperate father, like Ralph Angel, would leave his son at a playground to rob a convenience store; I do not believe we live in a world where Charley’s scene in the arena is possible. More realistic reactions to the video of Davis and his teammates preparing to rape a woman might be shouts of “That’s what she gets for being so drunk!” or “We need to hear the whole story first!” and of course, “He’s famous—why would he need to rape someone?” The plot suffers from the invention of the fantasy world, where the public sides with the victim first.
The good news is, this is only the beginning, and Queen Sugar has plenty of time to complicate Charley’s narrative. The presentation of her celebrity lifestyle didn’t work for me, and so I look forward to watching her new life unfold down south (though she will surely be forced to deal with the LA world she’s leaving behind). By the end of “First Things First,” she’s arrived in Louisiana, and her grief-stricken collapse into Nova’s arms tells us that we have plenty to look forward to. Tension between these sisters and their brother will make for some compelling TV, as I expect they’ll all be redefining themselves in a world without their father.
The beauty of poetry is that it can convince you of anything. I’ve written about how it has convinced me that, as a black woman, I am capable of being free, and Queen Sugar, understood as a kaleidoscopic portrait of black womanhood, already has a similar effect. But the danger of poetry is that it can convince you of anything: it can be so beautiful, that it tricks and manipulates those who drink it in. Its form can be so affective, that one forgets about the content—or forgives the content, for being flawed. TV doesn’t quite have the same luxury, so Queen Sugar, stunning as it is to simply look at, will have to do the work required to make the plot as exquisite as the visual poetry it already boasts. The good news is: Ava DuVernay. My time spent with her work tells me that we can expect the director and her team at OWN to make good on the promise of reinventing the family drama, one stanza—or scene—at a time.
Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer and the TV Editor for Paste. This New York-based writer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.