Tuesday, September 6, 2016

REVIEW: 'Queen Sugar' - Charley, Nova and Ralph Angel's Lives Change Forever in 'First Things First'

OWN's Queen Sugar - Episode 1.01 "First Things First"

Charley, a savvy wife and manager of a professional basketball star, returns home to her family home - an 800-acre sugarcane farm in the heart of Louisiana - after her father suffers a stroke and she receives alarming news about her husband. She reunites with her estranged siblings Nova, a world-wise journalist and activist, and Ralph Angel, a formerly incarcerated young father in search of redemption.

Ava DuVernay is such a wonderful director. She fills every single second of the premiere of Queen Sugar with such raw beauty and emotion. At its heart, this is a family drama with some soap opera twists. And yet, the direction really makes the audience feel and care about these characters from the moment they appear on the screen. They are intriguing. Their introductions engage the audience. They make us curious to learn more about them. That's all because of DuVernay. She doesn't let any simple or everyday task be simplistic. She finds the beauty in the absolutely smallest moments. The opening scene is basically just Nova getting out of bed and finding her clothes after a night of passion with Calvin. But the way it's directed makes it so sensual and beautiful to watch. She captures the idea of intimacy all with the aching beauty of the human body. How its closeness is exotic. Its movement is an art form. Its love is exciting and passionate. Those are the emotions this premiere sets right away. The premiere doesn't let up at all following that initial moment.

This is the story of the Bordelon family. They have all gone their separate ways and are living their own individual lives. The audience sees them by themselves first without knowing that they are related at all. We see Nova awake from a night of passion. We see her treat a woman for her illness with marijuana. We see her passion for protests and inspiring others to do the same. With Ralph Angel, we see the close bond he has with his son, Blue. We see how he wants to be a good influence while also being very strict with him. We see him steal from a local convenience store just in order to make Blue happy. Meanwhile, Charley is off in Los Angeles living a luxurious with her professional basketball player husband. We see her want to teach her son, Micah, how to work hard and be smart about life. We see her worry about a potential reality show about her life. We also see her as she's faced with a very public scandal about the team. All of these details build and inform who these characters are. It's actually some phenomenal character development throughout the first half of this premiere. All three have distinct personalities. And yet, there's also the pull that is bringing them all together.

Charley's story is perhaps the most well-formed throughout this opening episode. She has the most to lose. She has this wonderful life with a picture-perfect family. She worries about cameras being in her face all the time. But she is encouraged to be a voice and a face for a good cause to empower women of color. All of that goes away immediately once the scandal breaks that a bunch of guys from the team raped a young woman in a hotel room. It's a horrifying story. One that she tries to manage for the team in order to help secure her husband's future. She releases the message that the players' personal lives should remain private. It's a strategy that works for a little while. Sure, she gets berated at a press conference with accusations of supporting rape. But her work still allows the team to play a game without creating too much of a ruckus. Of course, all of that careful planning and consideration goes flying out the window as soon as it's revealed that Davis was a part of the scandal as well. It's a powerful and emotional moment when she storms the court to confront him about it. She's pleading to know what he did. She doesn't care that she's in public. Her entire life is falling apart. She needs answers. She needs to know why he would betray her in such a way. She doesn't get any of these answers. In fact, this scandal may ultimately cost her more than her marriage as well.

Of the three siblings, Nova's story doesn't completely come together throughout this premiere. It's pretty much just the bare necessities to understand who she is. She is a generous soul. She enjoys pleasing others. She likes being a healer to the people who need it the most. When she shares her gift with an older woman, she doesn't want to be compensated for her services. She just wants this person to keep on enjoying life and being a beautiful soul. That is a nice, character building moment. But it is then offset a little bit by her being a more serious weed dealer. She makes plans for a friend to sell the product at an upcoming rally. It's something she encourages him to attend. So, it's clear right away that she's very outspoken with her beliefs and wants to create real change throughout the world. But that presents itself as a story of her investigating police corruption while also sleeping with a married detective. That relationship is a lot more complicated than it initially seemed in that first scene. She wants to rely on him as a support system. But he is only there for her when it's suitable for him. This is a very familiar plot beat on soaps. So, it should be interesting to see what this show does with it.

And finally, Ralph Angel's story has a lot of importance because he is closely connected with his father and his aunt. He's actually there living on the family farm. He's trying to set a good example for his son. But there's also a distance between them as well. Ralph Angel isn't the one who regular picks Blue up after school. That responsibility is on his father, Ernest. More importantly, he doesn't understand why Blue wants to see his mother. She's a toxic woman to him. He knows that Blue knows that. That's why he's so astounded when he asks if she's coming to his birthday party. She's not because Ralph Angel wants nothing to do with her. Darla is a drug addict who ruined their family. Ralph Angel isn't so great either. He's just six months out of prison trying to start over but still pulling small crimes. He's somewhat there caring for Blue but he's not the perfect image of stability either. He wants to create a memorable birthday party for Blue. However, he's overwhelmed the moment the party starts. He's able to pull it together when it comes to the cake but everything else is a disaster in his mind. Aunt Vi and her boyfriend, Hollywood, aren't too concerned. It's just a toddler's birthday party. But it ultimately is memorable for one devastating reason.

Ernest has a strong relationship with all of his children. He is supportive of them while still being a little judgmental about their life decisions. He's the owner of a sugarcane farm. But he's also hiding the truth that the farm is failing and that he's not even planting crops anymore. He's taken a job elsewhere cleaning floors. Charley knows about his financial difficulties. But he's too proud to accept any of her money. He wants to make it himself. And yet, he's not able to turn it around for the family. He has a stroke at Blue's birthday party. That's the key event that brings this family together. It's the core piece of action that will define the series moving forward with everything that it does. His hospitalization forces Ralph Angel to reach out to Darla even though he immediately regrets it. It forces Vi and Hollywood to learn the truth about the farm. It forces Charley to put her scandal on hold to be there for her family. Ernest is able to find some solace in the end. He's able to enjoy a final, beautiful moment with his grandson. It's a true moment of connection that shows the beauty that is human existence. And yet, he dies. It's a stark and bleak moment for the family. It's truly heartbreaking because Charley and Micah didn't get there in time to see him. The sex scandal took that opportunity away from them. Ernest's death will only add to the complications of this family's lives. It will also highlight the core emotions that this show so wonderfully portrays throughout this opening episode.

Some more thoughts:
  • "First Things First" was written by Ava DuVernay and directed by Ava DuVernay.
  • Ralph Angel doesn't even know who Ms. Velez is when she shows up in the kitchen during Blue's birthday party. And yet, he instinctively trusts her to watch Blue when Ernest is rushed to the hospital just because she's a teacher. At least, she's a good one.
  • Meanwhile, Darla has gotten a job with the city as a parking lot attendant for city hall. She got the job because she completed a program that helps former addicts. She wants to see Blue as well. But Ralph Angel doesn't want to hear any of it.
  • Ralph Angel's gun is introduced in one of his first few scenes on the show. So, it would not be shocking at all if it goes off at some point during this season.
  • Is Nova sleeping with Calvin because she actually loves him? Or is she doing it in order to get inside information for her story? Both are common and cliche plot points. So, it should be interesting to see which road the show goes down.
  • The score when Charley went onto the basketball court to confront Davis reminded me of The Leftovers score quite a bit. However, I love that score and it was just as effective here as on that show - which also does raw emotion in such wonderful ways. 
  • Charley walks through the empty fields of the farm promising her father that she will fix everything. It's a promise she hopes comes true. She has the money and business smarts to make a run at it. But it also plays as her needing to do this to make up for not being there for him in death.
  • Glynn Turman really is a great actor. His presence makes the loss of Ernest feel monumental to the audience and not just the characters. That's important for helping set up the stakes of the series.