SPOILER ALERT: This post contains details of Queen Sugar’s Season 5 finale
“Looking back over the season, as emotional as it was for people to watch it when it aired, it was very emotional even when we shot it,” says Queen Sugar executive producer Paul Garnes of the fifth season of the Ava DuVernay created series and its ‘Onward’ finale last night.
After a 10-episode run that chronicled and detailed the coronavirus pandemic, police violence, the death of George Floyd, and the politics of division on Black America, the OWN drama based on Natalie Baszile’s 2014 novel took the lacerated Bordelon siblings, their offspring, extended family and rural Louisiana community to an optimistic place, or sorts.
The DuVernay and showrunner Anthony Sparks co-penned Season 5 finale saw a Covid infected Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) reach out to ex-husband Davis West (Timon Kyle Durrent) and find new depths to the initial dismay of their politically active son Micah (Nicholas L. Ashe). At the same time, elder sister Nova (Rutina Wesley) had a battle of reconciliation of her own with the consequences of the brutality of her cop lover Calvin(Greg Vaughan), that left a man in a wheelchair for life and the NOLA detective turning himself in to Internal Affairs. A very different sort of exit and an entrance occurred as young Blue (Ethan Hutchison) heads off to a prestigious school in DC, youngest Bordelon sibling Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe) learns that his wife Darla (Bianca Lawson) is expecting and their family looks to grow again.
With all that, and of course some hard truths, deep connections and bedazzled wheels from Hollywood (Omar Dorsey) and family matriarch Vi (Tina Lifford), the renewed Queen Sugar pivoted in new directions in what was both a traditional and poetic season ender.
Pivotal to getting the Oprah Winfrey EP’d Queen Sugar back in gear from Covid shut down, ARRAY Filmworks’ Physical Production boss Garnes sat down with me to dive into the Season 5 finale, where Season 6 is going and a considerable day in American history.
DEADLINE: I have to ask, does the finale airing on the same day as the guilty verdict on all three count in the Chauvin trial for the murder of George Floyd was announced change or re-focus your perspective on the episode?
GARNES: The Chauvin guilty verdict landing on the same day of the Queen Sugar Season 5 finale was another instance of art and life in synergy. At ARRAY, we experienced this during Selma as we edited the film just as Ferguson was happening. Overall, we stay committed to our work with social justice storytelling and sometimes those stories coincide with real life, which goes to show that the stories are real and urgent. As we chronicled Black American life in 2020 through our Queen Sugar storylines, the verdict simply served as a book end of that story.
On this historic day, we recognize an outcome that many others never received.
This verdict will not bring George Floyd back to his family, but serves as a reminder that our fight for racial justice must continue. pic.twitter.com/PPNq5EElPa
— Queen Sugar (@QueenSugarOWN) April 21, 2021
DEADLINE: This season saw Queen Sugar shut down, like everyone else, because of the pandemic, but it also saw Ava and you guys take that pause and retool and reframe the series to incorporate no just Covid and its effect on communities of color but police brutality, protest, uprising and sorrow during this past year of election. How did that change the series for you as America spiraled?
GARNES: Well, because it was happening to us in real time between Covid and what was going on throughout the country regarding George Floyd, I think for the actors, the crew, the directors, everybody, we were all actually dealing with this, processing what it meant, how it felt.
DEADLINE: Without being crass, how was that?
GARNES: You know, the actors and the directors didn’t have to reach far to figure out kind of what these feelings were.
DEADLINE: How do you mean?
GARNES: Dealing with telling your children about what is police brutality and what is happening, and why they may be different than everyone else, and all those moments were so real. Looking back over the season, as emotional as it was for people to watch it when it aired, it was very emotional even when we shot it. The isolation that was going on from Covid, the actors were feeling that in real time because they were quarantined. Because everything that we were used to and how we operated and how we interacted was all fundamentally changed, and so it was like the most extreme method acting probably ever.
DEADLINE: Airing on the night of the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial and with Nova and Calvin’s storyline of him turning himself into Internal Affairs for participating in a police beating that left a man crippled, this season of Queen Sugar and ‘Onward’ in particular seemed more on the nose than ever.
GARNES: Thank you
DEADLINE: But, can we talk about the penultimate ‘In Summer Time To Simply Be’ episode for a moment, specifically that powerful and true to life scene with Blue, Ralph Angel and the Black Panther figure, as Blue mourns the loss of Chadwick Boseman? How did you pull that off, from a rights perspective alone, there must have been over a dozen corporate hoops to jump through?
GARNES: Look, so much happened in 2020, and the phenomenon that Black Panther was and what that character and ultimately what Chadwick represented was almost like a reconciling of images against value.
It was the ultimate moment where, this actor, this character is a king and a hero, and it meant so much to, I mean, obviously it did well in the box office, but I think it meant so much to kids and parents alike because of what it represented. So, his sudden passing was such a crazy moment to happen while we were in the middle of George Floyd and Covid. A blow.
There was obviously a lot of disbelief, and as you go through all the different stages of grief, and part of that I think was something that certainly Ava wanted to capture between this father and this son. And you’re absolutely right, it was a very complicated concept to navigate on a corporate level.
I think ultimately what everyone agreed upon was that it was a powerful moment to be able to show on a show, regardless of IP and all the lawyers involved and all that. It was a significant emotional moment for people across the board, and I think that Ava had a very strong opinion about how important that was to spend that moment and show that moment through Blue’s eyes, through Ralph Angel’s experience with his son. We owed it to attempt to pull it off.
DEADLINE: And you did.
GARNES: Well, it was really an exciting day when we shot that, because we didn’t know when we shot it if it was going to actually all work out.
DEADLINE: Oh, really? You shot that scene on spec?
GARNES: Oh Yeah. We weren’t sure it was going to all work out at all. So, afterwards, we were so excited when everybody, all the stakeholders agreed and bought into the idea. But it wasn’t easy to get there.
Queen Sugar..just THE finest season of television. Art imitating life and our times. You taught us so much @QSWriters brava, Bravo. Glory and Hallelujah @ava you showed us humanity in its fullness thru every character. Thank you.🙏🏾🙏🏾
— Oprah Winfrey (@Oprah) April 21, 2021
DEADLINE: You are n production on Season 6 now, and I’m sure have plenty of road ahead, but a fifth season can be a real turning point for a series. A reimaging, a reinvention, a revitalization like what we saw in ‘Onward’ with Darla pregnant, Charley and Davis finding a new peace with themselves and maybe each other and Nova watching Calvin come clean, so to speak. So, my question is, has Season 5 changed Queen Sugar?
GARNES: It’s interesting, I think it has changed Queen Sugar in some ways because of what we all were going through sitting in our houses during the quarantine and processing what was going on
It gave us an opportunity to shrink the story down to the core elements of who our characters are and what they’re going through, and I felt like we’ve always been successful to try to make really three-dimensional characters. This season we were able to really delve into who they are and why they are. I think in that process what evolved was things about those characters that, we as producers, writers, actors, directors didn’t know yet, and you can’t take that away from who these characters have become and who they are.
DEADLINE: In that, we saw the return of a seemingly chastened Davis and the exit of sorts of a chastised Calvin, doing something that he said he should have done a long time ago. So, are we going to see a lot more of Davis in Season 6 and are we going to see a lot less of Calvin, or what do those cliffhangers of sorts predict for the future?
GARNES: You know, much like real life, there’s a cycle and there’s a season.
I think with Davis, we’ve seen now a full circle of his character. He started the series being very alienated from his family, from that world, and having to do a lot of soul searching to figure out who he was and why he was. It brought us back to a moment where Charley was in need and Davis was there for her, which sparred a little bit more of trying to figure out who they were as a couple. Remember when we met them in Season 1 was pretty much the day they broke up. So, I think moving forward we have that opportunity to explore a little bit more about, who they were before the breakup and understand why they were together and is there something more there that could happen again?
DEADLINE: And Calvin and Nova?
GARNES: Well, the Calvin-Nova relationship has always been super complicated, right?
DEADLINE: Super complicated is a distinct understatement Paul…
GARNES: (LAUGHS) Super complicated. So, you know, it started off at its core a married man and a single woman, and all of a sudden, they’re in this relationship. What does that mean, and how does she reconcile that just being a good human? And then you get into the more complex side of who she is as a community activist and you find out he’s a police officer, and how do those two things reconcile?
They’ve always kind of gone back and forth about trying to figure that out, but this season because of Covid and that intense environment of being with somebody every day and stripping away all the pageantry of being able to go off and have another life, I think it left the two of them in an interesting place of who are we really and can we live with ourselves? In the season finale you saw them both start to look at that. Could she live with herself being with him? His brutality and its consequences. Can he live with himself knowing how she now sees him? An interesting place to leave off the season.
DEADLINE: Of course, there are three Bordelon siblings and the youngest truly is in an interesting place to leave off a season, and yet so traditionally dramatic – Ralph Angel and Darla are having another child….
Like Charley and Davis, we met them at one of their darkest moments together, and them as a couple, the two of them individually as people, as a man, as a woman, as now a husband and a wife, the one thing that they didn’t truly share yet is that experience, the normal couple’s experience of having a child
Though they both love Blue and they both enjoy raising Blue, there’s still this deep-down desire for them to understand who they are as a family in that way. So, yeah, it’s a great way to end the season. I think there are a lot of people who are rooting for them and you know, it’s certainly, I think, a great milestone to end the season on.
— Queen Sugar (@QueenSugarOWN) April 21, 2021
DEADLINE: Overall, after all the darkness of this past year, much it steeping into the show, this finale is about hope. What were the creative decisions to get Queen Sugar there, especially as Anthony and Ava put this episode together.
GARNES: You know, we go back and forth, I think, throughout the different years of the show, and, as you know, we’ve ended with those moments in past.
I think it’s apt to mirror many of our lives where we reach those pinnacles, and in this season, the idea that Ralph Angel and Darla have been through so much, they got married, and Blue is going off to school. Both Ava and Anthony tried to work out just a moment of who they were and what they want. To me, their hopes and dreams were all in that moment, and that doesn’t mean that they won’t have things to face moving forward in the series, but in that particular second I think there was something that was just so pleasurable about, again, knowing the history of those characters, having that particular moment right then just seemed like a spot-on way to finish the season.
DEADLINE: So, if this fifth season was a one of change for Queen Sugar, on both sides of the camera, how is a bridge to Season 6 and the America of 2021?
GARNES: You know, it’s really kind of that dawn moment after the storm where you start looking forward again. I think that the season has been a very tough experience for our different families and we walked into the season finale on the verge of dawn, and the possibility of what could be next for each of the main characters.
You know, the way the finale is crafted you get a snippet or a glimpse of their futures, and some of them are filled with adventure, right? As you talk about with Blue and Micah, as they try to move on to new chapters of their lives and who they are and how they fit into the world, you also have Nova and Calvin and the world has changed, and neither of them knows what the new world is going to look like yet.
On the other hand, I always felt the constant in our show has been the Hollywood-Vi relationship. They’ve always been so centered about who they are and what they want, and even in stressful situations where you question everything, it seems like they always find their way back to the center of who they are and the two of them together can conquer the world. I really enjoy that last sequence of them riding the bikes along the Mississippi River and the two of them riding to the next part of their lives together. That’s the bridge for me.
— Queen Sugar (@QueenSugarOWN) April 21, 2021