The 2020-21 award season has officially begun with Emmy madness, following the highly-anticipated nominations that were recently announced with a record-breaking number of Black talents earning their due for stellar performances that didn’t go unnoticed.
The stunner of the bunch is actress Kerry Washington who garnered a whopping four nominations, one of them for her work on Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere. HBO hit show Insecure was also recognized with noms for stars Issa Rae (Outstanding Lead Actress) and Yvonne Orji,(Outstanding Supporting Actress), including Outstanding Comedy Series.
It was a great day for usual suspects and pleasant surprises. And while the healthy number of Black creatives being represented across the board has been hailed as solid proof of the industry’s goal to dismantle long-held adherence to inclusivity, it’s hard to ignore the troubling trend that continues to leave out a slew of worthy, even not worthier Black contenders in the cold.
There’s a handful to choose from, but for the sake of this argument, my attention is focused on the magnificent offering of OWN’s gem — Queen Sugar.
The sweeping generational one-hour drama created and executive produced by the one and only Ava DuVernay, with Oprah Winfrey also serving as executive producer was adapted for television from the novel with the same title, written by African-American writer Natalie Baszile.
The show made its epic debut in 2016 to raving reviews that were more than deserving, based on the memorable introduction to the Bordelon siblings; Charley, (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe) and Nova (Rutina Wesley) against the backdrop of historic complexities of Louisiana.
The Bordelons are united in the endearing quest to preserve their birthright, which like most dynasties situated in locations that still sift of residue from centuries of brutality and oppression —is bitterly rooted in the inheritance of land.
Under the trusted tutelage of DuVernay, and a roster of all-women directors, who are selected to enhance progressive vibes on set, in a non-pretentious way, when you consider how organic it should be to hire women who are equipped with the skill set for the job at hand — the first season of Queen Sugar effortlessly initiated the blueprint of excellence.
For me, the love affair happened without coercion because it was so damn fulfilling to be swept away by a sophisticated drama, featuring Black leads, and a diverse supporting cast, who work immensely well together to deliver episodic treats that are boldly assertive, without falling into the trap of operatic accompaniments that tend to be annoyingly distractive.
As with most quality shows, the fabric of success is woven into strongly written characters, who exude traits that inevitably collide for explosive reveals, that are borne from frictions that can’t exist without familial fibers that bind.
Charley Bordelon, the second eldest of the three siblings returns to rural Louisiana to settle the logistics of the 800-acre sugarcane farm that was bequeathed by her late father who died unexpectedly. Her half-brother Ralph Angel, is the father of a young son, Blue (adorably played by Ethan Hutchison), and his release back into society after doing time, is the storybook of societal oppression, that cripples the outlook of the formerly incarcerated. Nova, the eldest, is dedicated to the wellbeing and enlightenment of her community, which she uplifts though activism as a seasoned journalist, and spiritual healer.
The connectivity of the Bordelon clan is far-reaching with the embrace of allies with like-minded fondness for the traditions that span lifetimes to empower the present, and the infiltration of white detractors, who are positioned to override the earned pursuits of those they deem unworthy.
The intrigue of Charley’s journey as the biracial child her father had with his Caucasian wife, after he relocated, who shockingly inherits the family’s prized possession, despite building a bougie lifestyle in Los Angeles as her athlete husband’s manger, and devoted mother to her teenage son, is catapulted by a series of events that turn her brief visit into an extended one.
The polarizing presence of the” one who got away” expectedly creates tension that deepens when the particulars of their father’s will is unleashed, and both Ralph Angel and Nova have to contend with a scarring betrayal that unveils the relatable internal battles that are spearheaded by festering trauma.
The intricacies of a pure gem like Queen Sugar can only thrive from the passionate translation of a gifted storyteller like Ava DuVernay, who shared her initial vision for the forthcoming ambitious project:
“I love heightened TV shows, whether they’re in action, mysteries or thrillers. But I also love and long to see, especially with people of color and women — centric narratives, how beautiful ordinary life can be. My hope for Queen Sugar is that it triggers a memory, a smile — that sticks to your ribs a little bit.”
As an avid viewer, it’s humbling to digest engrossing drama that vividly portrays the climaxes of everyday struggles, in ways that showcase how it’s all intertwined with twigs that are purposely entangled to enslave communities.
The underprivileged are criminally stripped of their basic rights, and are unduly punished for succumbing to formidable obstacles that are cyclically installed by systemic injustice.
Queen Sugar does an impeccable job of producing the graphicness of existing as a young Black man, newly released from prison, who runs into slammed doors in attempts to pick up the pieces and reshape his future for the betterment of himself and his young son.
The controversial themes of cultural warfare, class conflict, and gender are very much present in the unfolding saga of the Bordelon family, who are surrounded by vultures, posing a constant threat to the dignity and status of an African-American family poised to reclaim their legacy.
Clearly the structural emphasis of Queen Sugar, and the way it aptly resonates with present times, by highlighting the traitorousness of the judicial system, the deadliness of police brutality, and the normalized oppression in a country that unapologetically adheres to the statutes of white supremacy is too overwhelming for recognition by mostly white Emmy voters.
OWN’s solid entry is entering its fifth season, and has remarkably never earned nominations for an Emmy, Golden Globes or SAG. Thankfully the NAACP Image Awards have been attentive and generous with 12 nominations and two wins for Outstanding Drama Series and Outstanding Writing in a Dramatic Series.
When you consider the clogged landscape of quality offerings in key genres, it’s understandable that a handful of contenders would slip under the radar, especially when they avoid the treatment of obsessive analysis, that transform these shows into mutilated caricatures of what they were intended to be.
Queen Sugar is cohesively constructed through empathetic lenses, that exhibit light-heartedness with the vibrancy of a romanticized culture that possesses unfiltered truths of that specific existence.
There’s also homage to real-life catastrophes that typically plague Black people in America, who were born and raised in hometowns that host buried carcasses, that manifest into haunting remnants of unsettled debt.
I have come to accept that the Emmys are nonchalantly overlooking Queen Sugar because it’s literally good to be true, which ironically is proof of worthiness.
This isn’t an attempt to take the shine away from popular shows with mostly Black cast members, that make the cut when Emmy season rolls around. White voters have to be sensitive to the loud word of mouth, and will surely do whatever it takes to check the right boxes to escape online furor.
And again, the ones chosen for the honor, have been consistently engaging with impressive numbers as evidence. The concern is really about how the system of nominating non-white shows can be problematic, when the really good are relentlessly shunned. It’s a frustrating issue that white shows are able to overcome, due to how white Emmy voters hunt for those specialities with the thrill of discovery.
For white viewers, Queen Sugar will not be an easy sell. The “white savior” elements aren’t implemented for the comfort of reassurance when it comes to the “not all white people” stance, that aims to distort the authenticity of the Black experience.
It’s serious stuff that requires the unobscured view of the active emergencies that hover within the community, and the expanse of societal ills that continue to harass the harassed with no resolve.
Emmy nominations are great, but heartfelt love letters to the people who desperately need it is even more profound, and Queen Sugar will always win in that major category