Showing Black Lives Matter: Queen Sugar's Revisionist Plantation Mythologies

Curator's Note

Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled -- which erases slavery from the Civil War -- and protests over Confederate monuments -- epitomized by Charlottesville, VA -- exposes the persistent deployment and cultural power of Lost Cause mythologies. Cemented through popular cultural, this southern version of history insists that the Civil War was fought for states' rights, not slavery. It has been most seductive when paired with the plantation ideal, a romanticized conception of the antebellum South featuring gowned belles, chivalrous gentlemen, and happy, loyal black "servants" in grand, white-columned plantations. Hollywood has been particularly good at (re)creating this iconography, visualizing an age of chivalry masking slavery's systematic exploitations and dehumanizations, unabashedly celebrating whiteness while erasing the black bodies and labor enabling it. Though overt deployments of the Lost Cause have diminished since the civil rights era, the romanticization of the plantation persists, fueling white supremacist ideologies.

Queen Sugar, created by Ava DuVernay for the Oprah Winfrey Network, continues the revisionist project undertaken by recent media examinations of slavery (12 Years a Slave, Underground) to challenge these entrenched ideals. It connects modern black lives and southern spaces to the history of slavery, exposing the modern manifestations of plantation economies while celebrating contemporary black life. The Bordelon family's sugar cane fields are central to this; filmed in lush, lingering shots, the black-owned, black-worked land is visually and narratively connected to both antebellum and contemporary white-owned plantations, as well as black success.The land represents their literal and figurative inheritance, including the racial/racist and capitalist inequalities that still mark black life in America and multiple generations of black resistance and survival.

The series’ connection of past and present, centering of blackness, and beautifully photographed landscapes (and black bodies) are potent antidotes to still-pervasive white-authored ideals. Epitomized in Season 2’s credits, Queen Sugar ties black subjectivities to the southern iconography – plantations, vast fields, Spanish moss – which long stereotyped them, reclaiming dominant antebellum imagery for the people who worked the land, then and now, and the aesthetic beauty long deployed in regional myths which erased them from cultural memory. Its superimpositions literalize this critical insertion of black lives and bodies into mediated southern spaces. And though Queen Sugar’s cinematic aesthetic problematically plays into discourses of “quality” television, in an era when Coppola remade an all-white The Beguiled and the president sanctioned pro-Confederate violence, the beautiful depiction of a modern black South powerfully insists that black lives and histories matter. 


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