ATX Television Festival: Talking race, gender and politics with the ‘Queen Sugar’ cast
On Saturday, ATX Television Festival hosted a screening and panel discussion about the Oprah Winfrey Network family drama “Queen Sugar.” Set in New Orleans and the fictional small town St. Josephine, the story revolves around the Bordelon family, three estranged siblings who are reunited after the death of their father. In the show, the Bordelons struggle to save the family farm and launch a sugar mill in the town.
Before their panel at the fest, we sat down with actors Dawn-Lyen Gardner (Charley Bordelon West), Rutina Wesley (Nova Bordelon) and Kofi Siriboe (Ralph Angel Bordelon) as well as showrunner (and Austin indie film scene standout) Kat Candler to talk about the show.
Austin360: I feel like the setting is almost a character in this story. How familiar were you with that rural, bayou lifestyle before you started working on this show? And what was the most striking thing about it when you started immersing yourself in it?
Dawn-Lyen Gardner: I wasn’t familiar with it at all. At all. I have family that is very much from the South. I feel like I grew up in the South when I was at my grandmother’s house, but I hadn’t spent time on the land. I feel like the land really is, it’s like a pulsing voice in the show. Every time that we film on that land something sort of magical happens. And there is some truth to the history of that land, feeling that energy, feeling that sort of voice and drive. It’s very strong. It’s been such a discovery of what the show is sort of about, which I think in a lot of ways is just legacy.
Rutina Wesley: I’ve filmed in New Orleans before so I’m very familiar with it. Something keeps bringing me back there, and I’ve grown to love it. It’s become my favorite city in America. Something about the energy, you can’t really put your finger on it, but the energy is so mysterious. There’s not a word for it because there’s good, bad, history, all sorts of stuff. But you do feel it and it’s in the air, but the people are so welcoming and the food is really good. ... I kind of love that we’re putting a spotlight on it because a lot of people just think Bourbon Street, French Quarter and have a beer.
It seems as if a black rural experience isn’t really depicted anywhere on TV other than in your show. What parts of that were the most interesting for you to explore?
Gardner: It’s radical. It’s radical to see black people on landscapes like that. I don’t know of any show ... where you literally see a black person in context of farmland. That to me is such a revolutionary thing because it opens up the possibilities of black people and how they see themselves. We associate black people with only urban life, but that’s just not the case. I’m really excited and proud to be part of something that in that way sort of put a spotlight on a culture that has elements of the city life, but it’s informed by so much more. It’s informed by their relationship to the weather, it’s informed by history and generations who have done what they’ve done. That is such a special special thing.
In your show, you’ve never shied away from hard issues. Nova’s story line obviously has always tied up with social justice and police brutality. But this season, taking that into a small town with a protest in the high school, it feels like the stakes are higher. I’m more nervous about how terrible things could turn out. Do you have that feeling?
Wesley: The stakes are different. It is a smaller city, but that’s not going to stop her. That’s going to make her do it more. For Nova, it’s like, “How can I speak truth to power whatever way I can?” One protest leads to this, leads to the next, so I think she’s just taking sort of the reins and galloping until someone stops her. She is kind of unstoppable in a way. …I love that we explain the issues ... but I feel like we do it in a way that we’re not beating you over the head with it. It’s in a way that people are actually engaged and want to hear more about it. Also, being in Louisiana with the highest mass incarceration rate (in the country) ... makes it all the more important.…I feel sometimes in a show making the stakes high like that makes people more awake when they feel like everything is at stake ... maybe people will start talking about it and have the conversation and something will get done. Hopefully.
I feel like Charley. I’m walking around locking all the windows. I have that unnerved feeling where if something goes wrong, who’s going to protect them? They don’t have white allies in the town.
Gardner: They don’t. You’re right. It’s been, I think, an important thing to unpack, because honestly, as someone who comes from the urban environments, I don’t understand or quickly know that life … where literally… there’s a whole chunk of people who, because of history and because of the reality of skin color and the reality of racism, simply are not for you -- simply are not rooting for you and/or are actively trying to block you. I can tell you, there are times when I’ve had experiences in New Orleans this year where I was like, “Oh right, it’s the South.” It doesn’t matter that it’s 2018. It doesn’t matter. These things are so super duper real. They’re tangibly real. And I, someone who’s not from there, had no idea before living there, shooting the show. I had literally no idea. No idea. Not that it seemed like exaggeration but I didn’t know the day to day of it.
People talk about everyday racism. You can experience that anywhere in America, but in places like the South, it’s normalized and accepted. And as of right now, I think it’s being pushed a bit. We’re seeing people being very vocal and having no problem with people knowing who they are and what they think and want.
As people working on a show that doesn’t shy away from these issues, have you ever been caught in the crossfire? I feel like there’s so much white rage bubbling up out there right now.
Kofi Siriboe: Absolutely. I just dropped a project about mental health, and Huffington Post said it was specifically about black mental health and there were a lot of comments like, “What do you mean black mental health? We all experience mental health.” But you never lived the black experience and everything that comes with it. So the fact that people feel like it’s right to stand up for something like that ...
It’s obvious that this world has been constructed not for us but against us, it’s very necessary for us to be specific and deliberate when we’re talking about how to deal with our community. Every day it’s a balance of, in my mind, how far do you want to go, because I am black. I lived the black experience before “Queen Sugar” and after “Queen Sugar.” Am I going to be politically correct or am I going to say, “No this is about black mental health.” I can feel at home on a show where (show creator and executive producer) Ava (DuVernay) and Oprah are specific about who we’re talking about and what we’re talking about. And being caught in the crossfire isn’t the worst.
Ava DuVernay made the decision to use an all-female directorial team for “Queen Sugar.” How does having a female-driven crew impact the show?
Kat Candler: For me, coming into this show, I had countless doors shut in my face as a director. “Until you have that episode under your belt, then you can come back to us .” And I’d have development execs say, “Off the record, let’s talk about why women aren’t getting hired.” It’s because you’re not hiring them.
So us sort of saying throw the rule book out and Ava mandating that it be all female directors, for me, there’s such a shift in energy on set. There’s just this camaraderie. There’s this support system. There’s just this real sisterhood behind it on set and beyond, too. Because it’s such a struggle. Once we leave this show, this very protected supported show, and go out into the world on these other sets with these other crews, we all sort of have each others’ backs. We’re all in constant communication about our experiences, the good, the bad, the future. For me, having not only female directors but female grips, people of color in every single position, was an experience I hadn’t had on a set before.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)