Nestled into this episode of Queen Sugar, Darla earnestly suggests adding a porch swing to the home that she can now call her own given her engagement to Ralph Angel. This is more than just an effort to make the home more of her own. It’s an effort to have what she calls a “clean slate.” For Darla, this marriage can’t be an extension of what’s come before — the hurt, the accusations, the pain with love in short supply. But clean slates aren’t possible. We are the sum of our wounds and wonders. Healing yourself is possible, but you can’t erase your mistakes or completely rewrite the ways people view you. That’s something Darla and Charley learn acutely.
“Drums of the Dusk” is even more heart-wrenching and evocative than the midseason premiere. Director Julie Dash and cinematographer Kira Kelly grant the actors a beautiful canvas. Emotional turns simmer. The most provocative moments are rather quiet and tender: the frustration dashing across Darla’s face when Ralph Angel turns cold, the way Violet’s face drops when she sees Lorna, Charley dreamily moving through rows and rows of white wedding dresses. What has stayed with me most is how Darla experiences one heartbreak after another.
Darla really doesn’t have friends or much community to call her own beyond Ralph Angel and Blue. So it’s Charley who accompanies her to try on wedding dresses. Darla seems hesitant to enjoy the moment or even relish how genuinely great she looks. Darla urges Charley to be honest. “Honesty is in my blood. My mother is the queen of brutal honesty,” Charley says as she discerningly yet appreciatively admires Darla’s potential wedding dress. The friendship between Darla and Charley has become one of my favorite relationships in Queen Sugar. Actors Bianca Lawson and Dawn-Lyen Gardner complement one another, each providing different amounts of steeliness and yearning. It’s rare these two characters allow themselves to be fully vulnerable. Charley goes on to admit issues within her relationship with her mother: “I was with her when I went wedding-dress shopping. I had fallen in love with the first dress I ever tried on. She hated it … she said it made me look pregnant. Which I was.” This admission allows Darla to talk about how she left a voice-mail for her mother and hasn’t heard back. She’s yearning for acceptance she’ll likely never get. Charley advises her that while her blood relatives may never reach out to her, she has a family in Ralph Angel and Blue. But does she?
Ralph Angel is the kind of man who cannot handle much reality. Despite all he’s been through, Ralph Angel has the distinct quality of someone in stasis. It’s like he hasn’t grown up emotionally from his early tragedies. This quality is apparent in the ways he provides no support for Darla. When she walks out of a store, a man leaning against a car in the parking lot refers to her as “Star.” Hearing this name, she bristles. She tries to rebuff him but the man is insistent. “Nah, I’d recognize that ass anywhere,” he bellows. Darla’s tears and nervous energy make it clear she does know him. Does Ralph Angel comfort her? Of course not. After he watches this moment play out between Darla and this disgusting stranger, it’s like a light switch goes off. Whatever charm and warmth he’s shown her recently drains from his face. What’s left is a clenched jaw and simmering anger. This stretches into the evening as Ralph Angel continues to pull away from her. The blocking and framing masterfully communicate the fractures widening between them.
Ralph Angel has not grown like Darla has. He can’t even pretend to be okay for Blue’s sake, preferring instead to brood. “This is the first night living in this house and you’re acting like you don’t want to be anywhere near me,” Darla says when she can no longer ignore Ralph Angel trying to sleep at the far edge of the bed. Ralph Angel is all too eager to throw it in Darla’s face that she obviously knew that man in the store parking lot, that Star was the name she went by when she would have sex to get drugs. Does Ralph Angel reckon with the depth of Darla’s pain? How hard she’s worked to better herself? No. Instead he’s cruel. “You can’t keep punishing me,” she exclaims. But Ralph Angel prefers to not handle this terrain even as it is clear he’s pushing away the woman he loves in the process.
“Toxic masculinity” is a term that has been bandied around a lot in recent years for good reason, but it’s important to discern the reasonings behind its various permutations. Ralph Angel’s anger and stoicism is a by-product of a culture that demands such from black men, a mode of survival that’s deeply rooted in his own issues he likes to pretend don’t exist. Darla deserves better than to be continuously punished by him.
While Darla navigates Ralph Angel’s moodiness Charley contends with perils of racism and professional pitfalls at her first Saint Josephine Sugar Cane Society meeting. Of course, Sam Landry gave her the wrong time so she shows up an hour into the meeting and misses the important business. It’s an obvious power ploy meant to destabilize Charley and remind her of her place. This is further highlighted by the ever-silent black assistant and black maid on Landry’s property. Things get even worse when Christina Bertrand DeMore, one of the few people left at the meeting, doesn’t even make attempts to be cordial. Christina cuts off Charley’s efforts and makes no attempt to make room for her. She might as well be another silent black servant on the premises. When Charley suggests Keke for an honored position at the sugarcane ball, Landry and his compatriots throw a look that ripples across the table. They want Charley to be seen not heard, to not recognize her place, to not dirty their pristine way of life by recommending a black girl for their ball. The dynamics of this scene are very true to life for a black woman navigating primarily white spaces.
Lorna doesn’t understand this. After looking at Charley’s business plan, she quickly recognizes that all the farmers in the collective bring less than 1,000 acres. Charley tries to explain that white farmers wouldn’t even entertain her and so she ended up working with black farmers who did give her a chance, but don’t have the land of their more powerful white peers. Lorna thinks that it is easy to just “reach across” the racial barriers to convince white farmers to use her mill. “Sounds like an excuse to me,” Lorna says, ignorant to how condescending her comments sound. It’s a painful moment that frames a painful truth: Despite how much Lorna loves Charley, she doesn’t understand what she’s talking in ways that are hurtful. Charley decides she’ll have her own ball at her mill for the black community inspired by Keke’s persistence.
It astounds me how deft Queen Sugar has been this season in exploring the interlocking emotional and political threads that define the arcs of the Bordelons. I’m less enthusiastic about what’s going on with Nova. Would she really be okay taking money from Timothy North, who is not just an “asshole” but an outright racist? Although I appreciate that she and Robert share a desire to not have kids as well as putting their career first, I wonder about how she’s changing in his presence. The look on her face after he gives her keys to his place in Atlanta suggests she isn’t all in. At least we got a great sex scene between them that highlights how exquisitely Queen Sugar lights and understands the beauty of blackness. Ultimately, I’m curious to see how the Bordelons navigate the realization that the clean slates and easy narratives they desire are impossible.
• Violet’s illness continues to get worse. Although the doctor’s office scene teased at the end of the previous episode isn’t elaborated, she’s seen here briefly looking up fibromyalgia. I need Violet to be okay!
• Micah, with no finesse, suggests that he and Keke take a shower together after their volunteer work with Nova. She completely shuts this down, admitting she hasn’t had sex yet and wants to wait until she’s in love.
• Violet’s opportunity to make her pies for a local grocery store and Ralph Angel’s awe at the land that is now his own both call to mind the dynamics of generational wealth. It’s hard — nearly impossible — to move beyond the need that snakes through previous generations.
• I can’t wait to see Violet and Lorna interact more often. Violet is hoping to protect Nova, “who just lost her daddy for the second time after you stole him the first time,” she tells Lorna.