In this week’s mid-season premiere of “Queen Sugar,” we see that new beginnings often require a reckoning with the past. The episode, “Yet Do I Marvel,” named for a poem by famed Harlem Renaissance writer Countee Cullen, puts us in the mood of renewal, mirroring the time period in which it was written, where black people migrated up north and thrived in ways that once seemed impossible. Charley has emerged from the obstacles of last season with bouncy, natural curls, laughing and smiling with Remy on a rainy, warm day in New Orleans. Ralph Angel, who we last saw in an emotional marriage proposal to Darla, enjoys the same lightness as he playfully discusses independent films with her and they stroll by an expansive green park. The heaviness of the past seems to be behind them.

The two-part premiere show us what’s possible for these characters if they continue forward, and how the bonds of family can complicate movement. Director Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust) is attuned to the details and nuances that bring this world, and show, alive. The beginning frames are shot wide, and move with characters effortlessly. You can feel and see her poetic influence on the visual design of the show, and how it merges with the distinct color palette that’s already been set up.

Meanwhile, Nova, still immersed in her new romance with Dr. Robert Dubois (Alimi Ballard), breaks a story about the Zika virus and its potential threat to the Lower Ninth Ward. Her switch from reporting about community injustices to a potentially harmful contagion causes fear and confusion in some of the community, who were used to her past work. But, with the encouragement of Duboi and support from other major outlets and organizations, she continues.

Later, the surprising arrival of Charley’s mother Lorna (Sharon Lawrence), is revealed and shot in a way that plays with our expectations of what it means to be a part of a “black family.” Thus far, there’s been no mention of Lorna’s race. Scant details have been shared about the affair between Ernest and Charley’s mother, which upended the family. When Charley enters a restaurant to meet with Lorna, the camera shows us an older black woman sitting at a table, while a white woman appears out of focus in the foreground. As a black man approaches the black woman, the white woman is pulled into focus, and Charley greets her off-screen, before we see a wide shot of both of them in the frame. This is a fascinating, insightful reveal which speaks to the expectations of race and identity. It is expected that Charley will sit with the black woman because she “appears” black, but appearing black and identifying as black does not necessarily equate to one’s biological or cultural background. What does blackness mean, and how do we carry it? How does a biracial woman carry it?

Charley wrestles with this question as she cries in Lorna’s arms later in the episode about the brutality that Micah experienced at the hands of the white police officer last season. She blames herself for not preparing him for the harsh realities of the south, and struggles with the decisions that Lorna made while raising her, such as sending her to boarding school to get the best education in a white environment, while also sending her to Louisiana for summers with her black family so she would know “where she came from.” But these decisions just beget more complications as Charley reveals the confusion and isolation of having to manage one’s blackness. This, she proclaims, is something that her white mother can never understand even as Lorna attempts to pry into, and evaluate every inch of her daughter’s life. The episode ends on them locked in a tearful embrace as Aunt Violet sits in magenta hospital gown and waits to have a check-up after experiencing a number of unusual symptoms throughout the episode.

 

Part 2…Episode: Drums at Dusk

 

In “Drums At Dusk,” the hope and newness that the Bordelons experienced is disrupted by each character’s ties to the past, and the unresolved nature of family. Darla must reckon with her inability to reach her parents and give them the good news about her engagement.  Earlier, when Blue drew a colorful picture of a family tree for a class project, his innocent questions about her parents, their names, and what they look like brought back the reality that they are not involved in her life.

When Darla tries on an elegant wedding dress in a bridal store, Charley recalls her own mother’s disappointment at her “shotgun marriage” to Davis, since she was pregnant at the time. Darla looks into the mirror framed in white lace, with an emptiness in her eyes, finally confiding in Charley that her parents want nothing to do with her. Meanwhile, Ralph Angel still revels in the inheritance that his father left him as he gazes out into endless rows of sugar cane, in a beautiful wide shot.

The questions of family and legacy continue as Nova and Dubois discuss the uncertainties about having children, against the very strong familial expectations that they should. Their conversation is followed by sensuous love-making that makes me question whether this very union, one that seems new for both of them, might bring them to consider lives that they never thought they’d have- where having children might be desired.

However, new beginnings don’t always come without complications. Aunt Violet receives a surprise visit by a grocery store owner who wants to sell her pies in his stores, though on the eve of this good news, she’s still struggling with health concerns that we don’t quite know the extent of. When she goes to share the news and the business contract with Charley, she finds Lorna in her office instead. There seems to be decades-old resentment between the two women, and Vi warns her that her presence in the city will only open old wounds in the family. What are those old wounds? What exactly happened between Lorna, Ernest, and his deceased wife? We know there was an affair, and even a second marriage between her and Ernest, but what were the circumstances? This encounter opens so many possibilities for this show related to race, to infidelity, to interracial relationships in the post- Jim Crow south. I am interested to see how it will develop.

Later, while leaving a grocery store, a man calls out to Darla as she walks to Ralph Angel’s truck, calling her “Star” and saying he can “pay extra” for her services. She tries to avoid his advances, but he only continues as she walks off, crushed by the experience. In the car, she sinks into her seat with tears in her eyes, as Ralph Angel asks who the man was and she denies ever seeing him before. The camera lingers on Ralph Angel, who’s visibly disturbed by her lie, and her past as a prostitute.

This incident makes it hard for Ralph Angel to see Darla in the present- as a loving mother who’s been clean for two years- leaving their future union in question. The scene also shows a troubling element of Ralph Angel’s personality, to selfishly lash out and place blame on the women around him, instead of taking responsibility for his actions. Here, he judges Darla for her drug addiction and prostitution by justifying his past criminal behavior as a means to take care of Blue, unable to see that his actions, and subsequent absence, probably affected Blue in the same way as Darla’s. Earlier, Darla shows an openness to premarital counseling at a nearby church but Ralph is against it. Some compromises will need to be made in order for this relationship to work.

Each character in this episode seems to be experiencing the aches and pains of hope bounded by complication, of surprises that both elevate and disrupt the status quo of their lives. Micah is in love with Kiki, but she wants to wait to lose her virginity, a stark contrast to the girl he was with in season one. Charley, met with the uncertainties of only owning the mill with no claim to the land she thought she had, has to figure out a new business plan and shake up the antiquated racial dynamics of the Sugar Cane Society, while Nova has to adjust to the passion and purpose that Dubois brings to her life.

Upcoming episodes should show us how the characters either continue moving forward in their new situations, while making sense of the past, or allowing it to stop them in their tracks.

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About The Author

Nijla Mu’min is a writer and filmmaker from the East Bay Area. She tells stories about black girls and women who find themselves between worlds and identities. Her short films have screened at festivals across the country. Her filmmaking and screenwriting have been recognized by the Sundance Institute, IFP, and the Princess Grace Foundation. She recently directed her first feature, Jinn, starring Zoe Renee and Simone Missick (Luke Cage).

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