“Queen Sugar” is a visually stunning production, making the most of the waterlogged bayous and swampy farmland of rural Louisiana. Especially when it’s set in nature, the production glows with carefully created loveliness. The sunlight filters through the clouds and over the shoulders of the Bordelon family with celluloid fluidity, rendering everything within the frame weirdly beautiful, even if the characters are engaged in the most banal of activities. It is a special kind of grace for the characters, because the lens so actively humanizes the Bordelons even as others in the narrative would diminish them.
This is not a new strategy for Ava DuVernay, who is an executive producer on the series, wrote the premiere, and directed the first two episodes. (It also reunites her with her “Selma” executive producer Oprah Winfrey, who also serves the same role here.) “Selma” (2014) was notable for not just the stories of the civil rights movement it focused on, but for the dignity that DuVernay’s vision offered its struggling, oppressed characters. “Queen Sugar” offers similar benediction to its characters — especially its lead, Nova Bordelon, played by “True Blood” alum Rutina Wesley.
DuVernay was not nominated for an Oscar for “Selma,” but these days, her name in the credits has become a kind of cachet of its own: Last year she directed a few spots for Apple Music that featured Taraji P. Henson, Kerry Washington, and Mary J. Blige kicking back and gushing over their favorite music, in a packaged expression of effortless, carefree existence that was both very political and very cool. She’s since signed on to direct “A Wrinkle in Time,” which makes her the first woman of color to helm a film with a budget of more than $100 million.
And now there’s “Queen Sugar,” an adaptation of a novel by Natalie Baszile about a woman who unexpectedly inherits a sugarcane farm. As a meta-commentary on DuVernay’s exceptional place in a male-dominated profession, the series will be directed entirely by women in its first 13-episode season.
The program is laudable, in vision and execution. Winfrey and DuVernay have said that they wanted to showcase topics that mattered to them in “Queen Sugar” — such as mass incarceration, about which DuVernay has made a documentary. And in making a story that centers on black women owning property, the producers are offering a theme of empowerment to one of the most disenfranchised demographics. Furthermore, providing a venue for legitimacy and clip reels for these underemployed directors is the type of effort that more networks need to be doing.
But while the show’s direction, from DuVernay and others, is excellent, the writing is, unfortunately, another matter entirely. The producers made several changes to the plot of the source material, and the result is a morass of backstories that fail to cohere into something with forward momentum. (DuVernay wrote the first episode; Tina Mabry and Jason Wilborn wrote the second and third released to critics.)
It was surprising to learn that the television adaptation added the lead character of Nova (Rutina Wesley), a journalist and activist who dabbles in the occult and makes mysterious handoffs of stacks of cash. Wesley is sublime, and DuVernay films her so gorgeously that “Queen Sugar” could just be that, and be enough. But amid the show’s complex narrative, Nova’s story, like so much else in the plot, appears to be a self-indulgent embellishment.
In fairness, it’s not that surprising that the plot of “Queen Sugar” is so poorly rendered. The slow start, confounding pacing, difficult-to-follow plot points, and chronic lack of urgency are all hallmarks of someone who has never written for television before. And in changing the source material, the thematic throughlines of the original book become harder and harder to locate.
Nova and her siblings — ex-con Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe) and wealthy basketball wife Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) — are reunited on their father’s farm in their hometown of St. Josephine, La., after he falls ill — and a scandal hits Charley’s husband in Los Angeles. All three siblings’ lives are presented without much sense of what details are most important, which becomes increasingly frustrating throughout the first hour, as it’s less and less clear why the audience has been asked to watch this story. The moments spent observing Nova’s voodoo rituals, or the extended exploration of Ralph Angel’s relationship with his ex, only matter because “Queen Sugar” has assumed the audience already cares about the Bordelons. But we don’t, and with some characters, it’s difficult to ever find a purchase into really investing in them.
For DuVernay, this set of flaws is ironic. When she was snubbed by the Academy for her work on “Selma,” the implication (made explicit by several anonymous voters) was that it was the subject matter that elevated the film, not its director’s creative vision. “Queen Sugar” presents the opposite scenario, where DuVernay’s talents with the camera elevate an otherwise messy adaptation hobbled by unsatisfying storytelling.
To be sure, it seems possible that “Queen Sugar” wants to be nothing more than a soapy Southern fantasy of deep roots and sprawling family, with overarching character beats less significant than the mere existence of these conversations and concerns on television. If that is the case, DuVernay has ensured that the series will, at least, be a very fine-looking one.