Sitting at my grandma’s kitchen table in deep South Alabama fostered many memories like crowding at least 20 people around the dinner table for holidays, waiting hopelessly on Sunday mornings for the rest of the family to get ready for church and fighting my brother and cousins until one of us was up against the washing machine. But there is one visual memory I could never forget. A piece of artwork entitled “Family Grace” hangs dead center in her kitchen and shows a Black family of four praying over their meal. While this is a common practice in a lot of Black families, the piece is powerful not only because of the family’s fellowship with one another but also because of their fellowship with God. We do not have details about the family or its history; we just see them in unison.
The unity of the family is one of the strengths of creator and director Ava DuVernay’s show “Queen Sugar.” Every week the show airs on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), inviting viewers to join the Bordelon family as it seeks to rebuild its deceased father’s sugar cane farm. Duvernay’s ability to tell the stories of those in the margins is in a class of its own, as seen in films such as “13th,” “Selma,” and “Middle of Nowhere.” She also seeks to share her platform with women of color who are writers and directors. In “Queen Sugar,” DuVernay ushers us into the family’s unity as well as its brokenness.
The “Cosby Show” really changed TV, even though it might be tainted for viewers given Bill Cosby’s recent indictment and mistrial on the grounds of sexual assault. In fact, the show’s depiction of the family was one of its greatest impacts. In some ways, the Huxtables became the standard for a “successful” Black family. I do not mean to discredit one of the most impactful TV shows in history, but “The Cosby Show” did not force the audience to deal with its characters’ brokenness on a regular basis, which in some ways made them almost feel like superheroes that graced us with their presence on NBC. “Queen Sugar” takes a different approach by inviting us into the humanity of its characters and everyday life.
Every character on this show has flaws, and the directing team behind the show seeks to repeatedly remind us of that. For example, Nova Bordelon fights for those unjustly incarcerated in the city of New Orleans, but she can be a prisoner of her own insecurities. Ralph Angel Bordelon tries to raise his son, Blue, while he adjusts to life outside of prison. Charlotte “Charley” Bordelon West and her son, Micah, cope with the recent divorce from NBA star and former husband, Davis West. Darla fights to remain drug free, and Violet Bordelon and Hollingsworth “Hollywood” Desonier try to find love again at an older age despite relationships that have failed. The family remains intact despite the characters’ brokenness and sudden death of the patriarch that brought them together.
“Mainstream and conservative media would argue that a family with three single Black women and an ex-felon serving as the model male figure cannot be successful and loving, but ‘Queen Sugar’ shows that grace is a powerful thing for the Black family.”
While “Queen Sugar” rarely mentions God, it is still a deeply spiritual show. Black family members who love one another through their failings and inadequacies point to an unconditional love that can only be found in God. I have seen these faults firsthand as someone who knows what it is like to have an extended Southern Black family, but it is a family that is as strong as it can be. DuVernay and her team challenge society’s message that the Black family structure is weak and broken. Even through their brokenness, the Bordelons find joy and comfort in unity within the family. Despite challenges of running a farm coupled with their personal struggles, the Bordelons are able to celebrate their family’s beauty in the madness. This is perhaps the greatest example of God’s grace and image bearing on television.
For the Southern Black family, history has fractured the “traditional” family structure, from slavery to lynchings, to Jim Crow laws, mass incarceration and even one’s personal mistakes. “Queen Sugar” deals with those issues and allows the characters to find grace not only for themselves but also for those around them. In a time where Black life can seem bleak, Duvernay’s work and the imagery of “Queen Sugar” reminds us that there is hope in the family.
In a recent episode we see this grace in action after a physical altercation breaks out between Ralph Angel and Micah due to Micah’s treatment of Blue. This turns into a verbal assault between siblings Ralph Angel and Charley, Micah’s mother, over how they are living their respective lives and raising their children. As the police show up to the farm and challenge Ralph Angel about his current state of probation, Charley speaks up for her younger brother. Ralph Angel thanks Charley and then apologizes to her son, Micah. This reconciliatory scene, which takes place 24 hours after their fight, is one of the prime examples of grace and redemption the Bordelons show us every Wednesday night.
Mainstream and conservative media would argue that a family with three single Black women and an ex-felon serving as the model male figure cannot be successful and loving, but “Queen Sugar” shows that grace is a powerful thing for the Black family.