With 'Queen Sugar,' Ava DuVernay Offers a Complex Examination of Black Masculinity

In DuVernay's skilled hands, black men of 'Queen Sugar' are given space beyond caricature.

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Complex Original

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There is no filmmaker I trust more than Ava DuVernay. From the time I had to track down the only theater playing her debut feature length film, I Will Follow, to taking on the first major portrayal of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the big screen in Selma, she has given me every reason to believe that she will approach the stories of black life in America with the respect and empathy they deserve yet are so often denied. So when Ralph Angel Bordelon, played by Kofi Siriboe, robbed a convenience store in his first onscreen moment of DuVernay’s new television show Queen Sugar, I didn’t worry. I knew she had a plan.

Queen Sugar is adapted from Natalie Baszile’s novel of the same name and premiered on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) Tuesday. The first episode is the best first episode of television I’ve ever seen. It is so ambitious, so carefully crafted, so beautifully captured, and so undeniably black that my only concern after watching it (and collecting myself from the puddle of tears it left me in) was that it was so good that white people may come along and steal it.

Get an inside look behind the premiere of #QueenSugar with @AVAETC. Don’t miss episode 2 tomorrow, at 10/9c.https://t.co/hnkh0tuiJu

At a screening the week before the show’s premiere, DuVernay said that she believed black life deserved to be treated as it is lived. She wanted a drama centered on a black family that didn’t consist of quick cuts and rapid soap operatic dialogue, so the show’s pace is intentionally slowed. The cinematography is rich and lush and the music is blended but evocative, because when does this ever happen for television shows helmed by and starring black people?And that isn’t a diss to shows that embody different qualities, but in order to tell the full range of our stories, we have to employ the full range of artistic tools at our disposal.

Ava DuVernay's Queen Sugar offers an examination of the spectrum of black masculinity that is raw, complex, and loving where we want it, yet tough, critical, and damning where it needs to be.​

Ralph Angel (it’s neither solely Ralph, nor Angel, as he explains, it is Ralph Angel) is a formerly incarcerated man raising his young son, Blue Bordelon, with as much help as he can get from his family. He’s having trouble locking down a legit job—or doesn’t seem to be trying, perhaps defeated from six months of rejection.

Ava DuVernay's Queen Sugar offers an examination of the spectrum of black masculinity that is raw, complex, and loving where we want it, yet tough, critical, and damning where it needs to be.​

It’s not yet revealed how Ralph Angel wound up in prison, though his anger at Blue’s mother, a former addict working through recovery, suggests that he may blame her. In one scene from the first episode, Ralph Angel manages to throw a fifth birthday party for his delightfully sensitive son. Ralph Angel looks into Blue’s eyes with a look of love and excitement that jumps off the screen and felt real to me as a viewer. Such a simple moment of tenderness could have dripped with unearned sentimentality if not so deftly acted and directed.

Black men are rarely given that kind of space to just be. Instead, our caricatures are more often used to further degrade or as props for valuable lessons. Ralph Angel, on the contrary, is intentionally written as complex in his simplicity. Rather than employing the overdone "good guy who made bad decisions” trope, DuVernay exposes a spectrum of Ralph Angel's qualities. He's angry, tender, and protective; he lies, he's ashamed, he's desperate, he's loving, and most of all, he's trying.

That intimacy and vulnerability between Black men. That is NEVER shown on screen. Thank you @AVAETC #QueenSugar pic.twitter.com/YOiD0x2En5

It’s not by chance that it’s a black woman who’s able to give Ralph Angel this much life.When you care, as DuVernay does, enough about the people in your stories that you want them to exist as whole human beings, this is what happens.It is also no accident then DuVernay uses the characters of Queen Sugar to critique the toxic masculinity adopted by far too many black men and asksus to consider the price of male entitlement and violence.

Ralph Angel’s sister, Charley Bordelon West, is married to star basketball player Davis West. Their life in Los Angeles includes all the spoils of wealth and fame, and their squeaky clean family image affords them public respect that comes in handy when sexual assault allegations surface against Davis’ teammates. Ever the stalwart team player, Davis stands by his guys in the media. No one—least of all Charley—would suspect Davis’ involvement in the actions of young men Charley describes as having “no home training.” But when a gossip website leaked video footage showing Davis lifting an intoxicated woman over his shoulder, groping her, and then carrying her into the room where his teammates awaited, Davis' defense crumbles.

Up to that moment, we’re given no reason to believe that Davis is anything but a stellar basketball player, beloved public figure, attentive father, and loving husband—and that’s exactly the point. In the rush to judge the assault victim (“These thots be thirsty”) Davis was protected—by his teammates, his league, and Charley. When she rushes the court during a game to confront him after seeing the video, it’s as much about her sense of betrayal than his actual actions. She was a nationally recognized scholar who dropped her own pursuits in order to support Davis’ career ambitions. She fulfilled the role of supportive wife all the way up to employing her skills to help PR effort after the allegations surfaced. For all she did, her payment is being married to a rapist.

Charley and Davis' relationship is a singular example of a larger issue: Black women stand behind black men in all things political and personal—but become victims of the same misogynistic violence they fear. Davis’ entitlement has many victims: the young woman who is violated by him and then the media circus; Charley, who sacrificed years of trust and loyalty; and his son Micah, who struggles with his feelings about his now-fallen role model.

Thank you @Oprah & @AVAETC for showing the layers & depth of US to US with love and care. #QueenSugar #GimmeSugar pic.twitter.com/aayofwv0bA

But, as with all things in this show, it doesn’t cut that simply. There are no heroes or monsters in this story. It’s as messy as we are as humans.

In DuVernay’s hands, that mess is beautifully rendered and given meaning beyond the screen. Ralph Angel and Davis are but two examples, but the show has more to say about various modes of black masculinity. Queen Sugar has the potential to do with black masculinity what Mad Men did with white masculinity: explore every crook and crevice, mining it for all the filth, shine, success, and failure that has guided black men through the morass of survival in America.

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