“As we’ve gone through the four seasons it’s been a juggling act to make sure that this feels relevant, but also has the intimacy of the black family dynamic that so many of us who work on it know to be true and want the show to be even more representative of,” Queen Sugar creator Ava DuVernay says of Wednesday’s Season 4 finale and the heart of the NAACP Image Awards-winning OWN series.
Certainly the “I Am” episode penned by showrunner Anthony Sparks was dynamic, to put it mildly. Coming off a season that packed more into 13 episodes than most series do into their entire run, there was an election, a diary, a corrupt revelation, reconciliation and forgiveness between Rutina Wesley’s Nova Bordelon and her Kofi Siriboe-portrayed brother Ralph Angel. Amidst a politically inspired arrest, new home and a discovery of a departed, there was also the revelation that the mysterious Parker Campbell who has been looming all season is actually played by Amirah Vann and that the Underground alum is the hidden daughter of Bordelon foe Sam Landry (David Jensen) – which means new councilwomen Charley Bordelon West (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) has a problem.
— Queen Sugar (@QueenSugarOWN) September 12, 2019
Coming off all that and the obvious bridge to a potential Season 5 of the Oprah Winfrey-EP’d series, DuVernay, a multiple Emmy nominee for When They See Us, and Sparks chatted with me about tonight’s Queen Sugar.
In an overview of the season that has just ended, the two also spoke of the stories with stories they are trying to tell, the growth of Micah West (Nicholas L. Ashe) and Blue Bordelon (Ethan Hutchison), #blackjoy and how they are trying to do something unlike anything else on TV.
DEADLINE: So, now the season is over, Charley is elected to the council, her true foe has emerged and Mama’s burial plot is discovered on the farm. This was a jam-packed finale for a jam-packed season. Is one set of stories over for the Bordelons and St. Josephine parish and we are moving towards a Queen Sugar 2.0 in the future?
SPARKS: Absolutely. It’s been a fantastic season and it was an ambitious season in the sense that how do we wed coming from a place of character as we always do, but also how do we wed a lot of the things like social justice, sexual assault and family dynamics. Our show is one that is not shy about what some people would call politics but what I prefer to think of us as dealing with the world as it is while also talking about and creating space for the world as we wish it were or the one we want to move towards.
DUVERNAY: As we’ve gone through the four seasons it’s been a juggling act to make sure that this feels relevant, but also has the intimacy of the black family dynamic that so many of us who work on it know to be true and want the show to be even more representative of.
DEADLINE: Four seasons is a lot of road for any series to travel, so how does that meta and mega aspect work on Queen Sugar at this point?
DUVERNAY: Yes, but the bottom line is every week we try to give you a protein bar in a Snickers wrapper. You know, get a little bit of sexy, a little bit of soap in there, a little bit of drama, little bit of Charley and giving her threats and so forth to deal with within that. At the same time over the course of the four seasons we’ve dealt with all kinds of I won’t say issues but the reality that affects the lives of people of color and women in this country.
DEADLINE: Did Season 4 play out like you envisioned?
DUVERNAY: This season has been one where we had a target early on and having Anthony in his first season as a showrunner really helped us get to the place that I wanted to be. We worked very closely together. He started as a writer in the room and has been one of the few people in the writers’ room that’s been with Queen Sugar since Season 1, so he knows it as well as I know it.
DEADLINE: Anthony, how was the ride?
SPARKS: (laughs) For me stepping in as showrunner, particularly on this show, was sort of a perfect scenario for me to become a showrunner. You know, being showrunner and executive producer was something that was definitely a goal of mine as it is for many writers, television writers. Now, it is a job that often falls into the category of be careful what you wish for, but for me it was as natural a progression under the umbrella of Queen Sugar and Ava’s universe as I could hope for, actually.
DEADLINE: What made the route so relatively smooth?
SPARKS: You know, I had been empowered on the show by Ava even before I was showrunner. I was encouraged to truly participate in the execution and creation of the stories for the series you know, from day one, so for me becoming showrunner was more of being thankful that she entrusted the show to me.
DUVERNAY: Anthony was perfect. I think his familiarity with the characters as they were built helped us to reach new heights this year — at least that’s what our audience tells us.
DEADLINE: One element that we saw a lot this season and in the finale was the growth and poignancy of Nicolas’ now college-attending Micah and Ethan’s Blue in this family and world. They are truly growing into their own …
DUVERNAY: These two black boys growing up in the rural south, one who’s father is formerly incarcerated, one who’s father is a famous athlete, and there’s a real juxtaposition of the two lives of these black boys we are developing on the show.
DEADLINE: How do you mean?
DUVERNAY: Well, the privilege that they enjoy within the black community, the privilege that they don’t enjoy outside of the black community, all those questions being things that we tackle.
DEADLINE: This year more than ever…
DUVERNAY: Yes. I think one of the things I’m proudest of that culminates in this season is the handling of Micah and his interaction with police. You know, we have handled and shown you the effects of police aggression and police brutality on a boy, on a human being and how that is ongoing. I’m so proud of that, because that is a relationship to the police as handled in a way on our show that I’ve not seen anywhere else and that’s why we wanted to handle it that way.
SPARKS: What we did with Micah this season, which is something that we had started long ago, and his journey to where he is now, it mirrors the journey a lot of people have gone through.
Often shows don’t have the space and time, or frankly the knowledge or the interest in really sticking with a story like that beyond the spectacular moment you might get in an episode where someone’s pulled over. Most television shows you’d do that story, there might be a follow-up beat later, and then you move on as if it never happened, and we try very hard not to do that on Queen Sugar. That’s not our storytelling
DUVERNAY: Earlier in the season you actually see little Blue in the back of a police car for the first time. He gets lost in a park and he’s put in the back of a police car while they wait for his guardian and it was very triggering to a lot of our black viewers watching that.
DEADLINE: What was the reaction?
DUVERNAY: Fear for the innocence that we’ve come to know with this boy now being in the clutches of the state in the back of that police car. Which is why this season we are not just jumping around from issue to issue but really taking a long-tail approach as we tackle the things that are most important to the black community.
SPARKS: Blue being in the back of a police car. Well, that was something that happened to me that I wanted to sort of explore. I have a memory of my first time being in the back of a police car when I was 7 years old.
DEADLINE: What was that like, then and now?
SPARKS: You know, I’m only 7 and I don’t really understand what’s happening, but I understand that something significant s happening.
Now a number of years later you know, I can still look back at that moment as having an echo effect on my own relationship, personal and institutional relationship, with law enforcement. Now I have two sons who are twins and one day I’m going to have to decide can I let them drive together when they’re teenagers in a car? What does that look like to the outside world? What might that look like to law enforcement? Will they think they are they a gang because there’s more than one black boy in a car?
DEADLINE: Those are not questions white parents have to ask themselves or even often think about …
SPARKS: I know, and so these questions that we’re planting, they are rooted in real world questions and real-world situations and so they will continue to give us amazing, amazing stories.
Tonight marks the season finale of the 4th season of #QUEENSUGAR. I salute our beautiful crew and cast who worked so hard each day to bring the story of The Bordelons to life. Tonight is dedicated to our #QUEENSUGAR family. With love and gratitude, A. pic.twitter.com/QvGKl45ygU
— Ava DuVernay (@ava) September 12, 2019
DEADLINE: Speaking of continuing, there hasn’t been a Season 5 renewal yet, but how are you planning for it if it happens?
SPARKS: You know, you reference Queen Sugar 2.0 in a certain sense, I sort of see what you’re saying when you say that. What I will say is that the family has been incredibly tested internally and externally this season and I think they’ve come through a certain amount of fire internally that deepens the bonds of family.
The work on Season 5 hasn’t started yet so I can’t really say exactly what that’s going to be, but I think you’d get a lot of clues frankly from the finale. In some ways you don’t know what’s going to happen because of some of the really unexpected twists. But as the finale showed they’re all being grounded and there’s new territory being broken for almost each of the characters. so I would suspect in Season 5 that you will continue to see the characters move into this new ground.
— Dawn-Lyen Gardner (@dawnlyen) September 12, 2019
DEADLINE: In a show where the land is a character unto itself in many ways, do you literally mean new ground?
SPARKS: (laughs) As we all know with families there are these incredibly complex living, breathing organisms where you could say things can be settled in one moment and yet they can twist and turn in a way based on what’s happening that turns a relationship on its head again. We are fully committed and we are going to go deeper and deeper on the life journeys of these characters situated within this historical and political context, I want you to feel like you got a full meal but there is so much more to keep going and keep doing, you know?
DEADLINE: One element that really struck me towards the end of the finale was Micah and Keke taking selfies at school and posting them with the hashtag #blackjoy. It was so affirming after the tough road they took to get there, as did many other members of the family.
SPARKS: One of the things that I love that is sort of central to Ava’s work is that even within the willingness, ability, bravery if you want to call it of going after and trying to find a way to represent real-world stories and people that have a lot of pain attached to them, one of the things that she insists on, and frankly that I’ve learned more with working with Ava, is an insistence on that’s not all our lives are, even in the midst of great difficulty.
So there’s an insistence on joy, specifically black joy, that is also central to our series.
I think that joy means a lot more here because we show you a journey of what it takes to earn that joy and what it takes to sort of insist on that joy. So within #blackjoy or the notion of black joy is also this element of resistance and perhaps even revolution – because it against what you might expect a “typical” person, whatever that is, to feel given some of the difficulties that they go through.
So getting back to Micah and Keke (Tanyell Waivers) and talking about black joy, I think what you’re going to see are two people who are determined to hold onto that despite what comes their way and to define what that means for them in the 21st century.