When I arrive on the set of Queen Sugar on an afternoon in early July, on the final day of filming for its third season, the air is thick with heat and the potential for rain. While the series is most associated with New Orleans, much of its filming takes place elsewhere, including a soundstage in Vacherie. But today we’re in Edgard — a small town of less than 3,000 nestled in St. John the Baptist Parish.
Clouds as thick as cotton-candy tufts hang overhead. The Mississippi River quietly roils to our right. Dotted throughout the terrain are the crew’s forest-green shirts, emblazoned with pivotal quotes from the show — including “Don’t Change Nothin’” a nod to Ralph Angel’s (Kofi Siriboe) response to finding out Blue (Ethan Hutchison) is not his biological child. This is a land I know well, as my own family lives in nearby Loreauville, located in Iberia Parish. Edgard is larger than Loreauville, but they are similar in their constitution: small towns with more churches than streetlights or post offices. Sugar cane for miles, only obstructed by long-forgotten homes crackling with vines, nature reasserting her hold. It’s a land I associate with dirty rice and crawfish boils, zydeco music blasting from kitchen windows, solemn Catholic mass at churches like St. John the Baptist Catholic Church — which is less than a mile from the set and operates as the base camp today. A cluster of white trailers for the cast are spread across the lot, overlooking the church’s small cemetery. And if you look past the hulking equipment and mammoth trees on set, you can see the gorgeous cream-and-pale-green home of one of Queen Sugar’s most cherished characters, Aunt Vi (Tina Lifford). It’s this home and sprawling estate that acts as the setting for her wedding with Hollywood (Omar Dorsey), which aired in Wednesday night’s finale.
A gaggle of fans from Maryland are on the road leading to the home when I arrive. They were on their way to New Orleans and stopped when they recognized Aunt Vi’s house in the distance. A crew member lets them take it all in from the side of the road before they move on. This is an unlikely setting for a popular series, brought to life by one of Hollywood’s most incisive and inspiring power players, Ava DuVernay. She isn’t on set today (her upcoming Netflix series, Central Park Five, is deep in pre-production), but her name buzzes on the lips of cast and crew with the sort of reverence that is associated with sainthood. Television is bristling with distinctive portraits of black identity in recent years, including Issa Rae’s spritely summer cocktail Insecure and Donald Glover’s peripatetic treatise Atlanta. But DuVernay’s Queen Sugar — which was recently renewed for its fourth season — feels like a class apart for its keen and loving focus on everyday black rural life. What makes the series so beloved among fans is evident here on set, from the shorthand of the crew to the laughter among the cast members: This is a series that privileges joy and is powered by an understanding of familial ties.
The Queen Sugar set is usually closed to journalists, in order to help the actors and directors who are often first-timers focus on the work without added pressure. Queen Sugar notably only employs women directors, many of whom count the show as their first television gig. There are women on every level of crew. As I watch them navigate the set, it feels like Queen Sugar’s biggest legacy will likely be what occurs behind the scenes. When Dawn-Lyen Gardner — who plays the complicated and at times Machiavellian Charley Bordelon — arrives later in the afternoon, she comes bearing a wrap present for cast and crew: an all-natural bug spray made in New Orleans that donates some of its proceeds to the National Park Service. Wrapped with the bug spray is a note. On one side it reads, “Nevertheless She Persisted.” On the other is a message from Gardner: “Thank you. For every long night, sweaty brow, encouraging smile, bug bite, and movement of your heart. This village is simply extraordinary. So proud of what we created together, counting myself blessed to be among you.” It’s both a cheeky and useful gift, nodding to the sheer fortitude it takes for everyone to film in the soupy, overbearing atmosphere of rural Louisiana.
The third season of Queen Sugar focuses intensely on the love stories the main Bordelon characters have with themselves, each other, and of course, the land, the most astounding aesthetic spectacle on the series. Southern Louisiana has become a character itself, illuminating the notions of familial legacy that course through the series. While interior scenes take place on the soundstage in Vacherie, the most memorable moments on Queen Sugar occur when characters are on the land they’ve inherited. Is it any wonder that Aunt Vi and Hollywood’s wedding would make use of it?
The relationship between Aunt Vi and Hollywood is perhaps one of the most adult on television. While the show initially focused on the May-December dynamic, and all the complications that stem from an older woman being with a younger man, the writing of their relationship has grown much deeper as the show has evolved. A major wrinkle in their romance this season — even more than Aunt Vi’s independence and desire to keep her own last name — is her lupus diagnosis.
Lifford, who plays Aunt Vi, spoke to me under one of the many gargantuan trees dotting the front lawn of her character’s home, between setups of the finale’s Darla and Ralph Angel scene, which was also shooting that day. She looks stunning up close, even under the thick heat that causes most people on set to wilt. “The lupus just represents that thing that so many women deal with … compromised health, and we don’t have time for that,” she says, laughing. “We don’t have time to take our energy that is needed so many other places and give it to an illness. The secret here is that if we had been given some of that energy to ourselves, maybe the illness wouldn’t be there. I don’t know how that works. But when it comes to Aunt Vi, that’s a lesson she’ll be learning over and over again: She’s got to stop, and now with the support of Hollywood as well, [it] makes her have to include giving to herself.”
Our conversation is abruptly halted when some fire ants from the tree we were sitting under fall onto my chest. I yelp in panic, but Lifford springs into action, quickly brushing them off. It feels like a real Aunt Vi moment, who on Queen Sugar, is a multidimensional rendering of an archetype black families know well — our loving, sharp-tongued aunties and matriarchs who seem to have a greater understanding of how the world works. “We all know Aunt Vi, we all have an Aunt Vi, and yet she has never been rendered on TV, in film, on the network or on TV,” as Lifford says. This archetype pops up occasionally in pop culture, but typically in the margins, only coming into focus to dole out wisdom. But the writing and acting that brings Aunt Vi to life charts not just her relationship with her nieces and nephews, but with herself. She’s shown in full bloom — a woman coming to grips with her own aging, desires, sexuality and the creative/business potential of her beloved pie business. “For a long time we resisted the idea of a Hollywood and [Aunt] Vi wedding,” says Anthony Sparks, an executive producer who wrote the finale and will take the reins as Queen Sugar’s showrunner for season four. “They were created and built as a nontraditional couple who didn’t necessarily need the ‘traditional’ trappings of society to validate them. The wedding offered us a chance to tell a very nuanced story about a woman who says, at one point in this season to Hollywood, ‘I don’t need you.’”
Later that evening, I ride from the base camp to the house with Lifford, now dressed for the wedding. The details of her cream-colored dress are even finer than how they’re rendered in the finale — the diamond bracelet swishing at her wrist, the pearl earrings, the lacework, her hair in pin curls, makeup perfect even in the humid environment. I ask her what she’s most looking forward during the wedding scene, and she cites Dorsey’s wardrobe: “I have no idea what Hollywood will be wearing!” (Dorsey’s outfit reflects the simplistic elegance of Aunt Vi’s gown – he wears a pearl-hued, single-breasted suit, with a pale flower pinned on as a broach.)
We arrive at dusk, and I use my phone as a flashlight to guide her way, along with the other assistants. Aunt Vi’s home wasn’t originally what Hollywood had in mind for their wedding. “They just came back from Italy, and he has all of these ideas about what he wants to do,” Dorsey explains. “He wants to plan this big blowout wedding. At the end of the day, they are simple people and they didn’t have to do it real big.”
“I think the writers did a brilliant job of taking us into Hollywood’s fantasies about how he wants to lavish his love through expenditures, you know?” Lifford adds. “It has gone from talking gondolas and flying to Europe and it has reduced itself, like a fine reduction, to this beautiful, quiet, luscious affair.”
Showrunner Kat Candler says “simplicity” was the guiding principle for the wedding. “Just getting married in the backyard with the family, it was all about their family, all about them, and that simple act of marriage and of love,” says Candler, who also directed the finale.
By the time the wedding setup is complete, the sky has crossed from deep cerulean blue to a velvet navy. The front lawn is transformed. The light emanating from the string lights draping overhead, coiled around a tree, is almost golden. Dusky rose floral arrangements dot the white linen tables stretching across the lawn. Candles burnish in small lanterns. Attending the wedding are the Bordelon siblings, Micah (Nicholas L. Ashe) and his girlfriend Keke (Tanyell Waivers), and Prosper Denton (Henry G. Sanders), a longtime friend of the Bordelons who has a tender, paternal story line with Charley this season. They’ve been told they’re coming to a celebration for a rally, but quickly catch on that they’re walking into something far more meaningful. Sitting beside me as I watch the cast run through rehearsals, and eventually begin filming, is Gardner’s mother, a petite Chinese woman with a shock of green hair.
Candler and cinematographer Antonio Calvache’s work on the wedding reflects what Queen Sugar is particularly strong at: using the natural environment to frame the scene. When I speak to Calvache — who helped DuVernay craft the decadent visual grammar the show is praised for — he emphasizes their dedication to using natural light. At times, the characters and land are awash in a honeyed afternoon glow that almost looks as though they’re transfixed in amber. Achieving this aesthetic comes with its challenges: namely, navigating the weather. Whenever lightning strikes, the set must be shut down for 30 minutes, which can impede work running smoothly when you’re chasing the light in the first place. Thankfully, the worst we deal with today is the thick heat, mild humidity, and soft rain (which left the land so muddy, I’m still scraping it from my Doc Marten combat boots).
One of the most stunning shots in the finale is when the Bordelon siblings and family walk from their cars through the yard, their bodies in silhouette against the obsidian night sky. Calvache and Candler used a large amount of negative space for the wedding to make the subjects of the frame stand out even more, and relied heavily on close-ups. Throughout filming, the two huddle together, making small adjustments as the cast, decked in formal wear, contend with the heat.
It’s an understatement to say that shooting in these conditions takes a lot out of you. Everyone has been working since the afternoon, and for the crew, much earlier. We’re approaching midnight, and they won’t be done until past 4 a.m. Between shots, I can see the heat wearing on Lifford and Dorsey. But when they hear action, their faces soften into a loving repose. The scene is bumpy at first, with the pastor fumbling his lines. But once everyone gets into the right groove, it quickly becomes a loving tribute to one of the show’s central romances.
“I love you from a well so deep that I could dig a dozen years and still not get to the mystery of you,” Aunt Vi says, her eyes brimming with love. Hollywood is so humbled by her words, he trips up reading the vows he wrote. Soon enough, he launches into the story of how he met her, on a day when he was feeling low. “I want to be your soft place in this here hard world,” he says, his gaze never wavering from hers. During the filming of this scene, script supervisor David Bush confers with Sparks about variances in the speeches, making slight tweaks to adjust the rhythm. Both Dorsey and Lifford play the moment with quiet understanding and warm companionship. These are two people who have been through it all, and have dedicated their lives to one another.
Ending its third season on a note of such unfettered joy feels quietly radical. So much of modern television focused on black life seems empty of the joy of blackness, instead turning its focus to what weighs us down. And it is the joy I felt on set — the hum of laughter between takes, the jokes Bianca Lawson and Kofi Siriboe traded between scenes, the dexterity of the crew lovingly turning the front yard into a glittering oasis — that stayed with me long after the twinkling lights that framed the wedding scene drifted out of view.