Last month, Oprah Winfrey and director Ava DuVernay premiered their new Queen Sugar series on the Oprah Winfrey Network.
The show follows the family drama of the Bordelon siblings. Charley (an NBA wife and manager), Nova (a journalist and activist), and Ralph (out of jail and trying to provide for his son) are pulled from their separate lives back to rural Louisiana by their father’s death and their inheritance of his enormous, untilled sugarcane farm.
But what many may not know is that the OWN series was adapted from the novel Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile.
The book follows Charley Bordelon and her daughter Micah who move from California back to Charley’s family home in St. Josephine, Louisiana, after the death of her father. Charley tries to ease into her new lifestyle and emerge from heavy debt as she works to get her father’s massive sugar-cane farm back up and running. This task becomes more formidable by the strain of Ralph Angel’s, her estranged older brother, presence. Cane farming is an expensive trade involving monotonous manual labor, and a large amount of luck. With the help of experienced farmers, she dives into work that will test her soul.
Baszile’s novel tackles different themes surrounding family drama as it relates to responsibility. Charley wrestles to reconcile her responsibilities and different roles as a mother, a sister, a daughter, and granddaughter, and how each pulls her in different, often conflicting, directions. She wants to reconcile her relationship with Ralph Angel, but every step she takes closer, he does something to set it three steps back.
Charley and other characters, like their sassy grandmother Miss Honey, deal with present guilt from past actions and inactions. Miss Honey blames Ralph Angel’s implosive cycle of drugs, alcohol, and joblessness on herself. When Ernest was younger and set to move to California, Miss Honey paid the family of Emily (Ralph Angel’s mother) to stay away from him. As a result, Ralph Angel was raised by his single mother who also suffered from mental illness. So Miss Honey projects her guilt on to her daughter, Violet, and granddaughter Charley when they refuse to give him the benefit of the doubt.
With a short learning curve, a tight budget, and growing expenses, Charley has to protect the cane farm from insects, torrential Gulf Coast weather, oversaturation, and other setbacks. When Charley traded “the sea for a sea of cane,” she became a black, Californian city girl trying to make it in a predominantly white male southern industry. Both real (in the “polite” racist and sexist comments St. Josephine men make about her not “belonging”) and perceived (she loses her ring in a field on a dark night, but panics and stops searching after a flashback fear of “white boys in pickup trucks”), these tensions fuel both Charley’s determination and doubt throughout the book.
One major theme the novel continuously wrestles with is the complicated relationships between mothers and daughters. As much as Charley struggles to keep the farm healthy, she often broods over how she can be a better mother to Micah, particularly in scenes where Charley decides how to handle Micah’s frustration over leaving California and not having kids her age to play with.
At times, Baszile’s ethos and voice seems to overshadows the character’s: she tries to convey the difficulty and deliberation it takes to be a good mother. This depiction humanizes black mothers and their relationships with their kids beyond the oversimplification of “a mother’s love.” No doubt that the Bordelon women love each other, but they also compete for each other’s affection (Charley vs. Micah and Miss Honey, Miss Honey vs. Charley and Violet, Violet vs. Miss Honey and Ralph Angel), and have to learn how to let go of the maternal pleasure of needing to be needed. In Queen Sugar, we see that maintaining loving, vulnerable, and cordial relationships between family members is just as tedious as planting cane with rundown equipment.
Although the central plot and premises remain the same, DuVernay and her writing team make some interesting changes from the novel to the show. In the novel, Charley is a widow, and ex-art teacher in the inner-city, while in the series, she’s a NBA wife with a MBA and mansion in Los Angeles. Aside from the passing of her father and getting his affairs in order, Charley has to deal with her husband’s sexual assault allegations and the media dogpile surround it.
In the show, Ralph Angel (now the youngest sibling) becomes less of a tragic tale and more of a conflicted single father “wrestling with the world” (as his aunt Violet said during the premiere). He and Blue’s mother have a toxic, co-dependent relationship. Baszile’s original Ralph Angel had a life that seemed to give him nothing but loss, even after moments of serendipity. Friends and family try to help him in his quest to get his life together and do right by his son Blue, but he cannot keep a job due to his volatile attitude. At low points, he self-medicates with drugs in order to repress his memories of his losses (relationship with his father, his mentally-ill mother, and the death of Blue’s mother).
Other characters are changed as well: the Bordelon’s siblings father Ernest moved to California in the book, but stayed in St. Josephine in the show; Remy Newell, from white to black; Hollywood, from a fair-skinned, blue-eyed Creole admirer of Charley to Aunt Violet’s brown-skinned lover; Micah, from a precocious middle-school-aged girl into a teenage boy. And so far, Miss Honey’s character is not in the show.
But one key adaptation is the addition of Nova, a journalist, activist, and the oldest sister of the Bordelon trio. Although she has complicated and secretive personal life, Nova takes helm as the matriarch, the spiritual and emotional glue of the siblings. Her storyline may turn out to be one of the most rich ones in the show.
As a family drama, Queen Sugar appeals to all readers and viewers, but in writing the book, Baszile wanted to offer a “complicated, nuanced, and loving” depiction of an African-American family. “I wanted to tell a story about people whose life experience mirrored my own,” Baszile said in a Colorlines interview. “I wanted to tell a story about a family that’s had its struggles but isn’t broken in some stereotypical way.”