The suffocating cinematography of Queen Sugar

By the fifth episode of Queen Sugar, directed by Victoria Mahoney, the universe’s stresses on the Bordelon clan have been unrelenting. The onslaught of difficulties and setbacks seem almost insurmountable in “By Any Chance,” and for much of the episode these accumulate through brilliant blocking, camera work, and especially how the framing translates, for viewers, the figurative position of characters. For much of this episode, it seems the Bordelons are trying to keep the frame from crushing them, but the frame seems to be winning.

A analysis of the visual rhetoric of episode 5 of Queen Sugar Season 1 originally published on October 5, 2016, on medium.com.

By the fifth episode of Ava Duvernay’s (@AVAETC) Queen Sugar, directed by Victoria Mahoney (@VictoriaMahoney), the universe’s stresses on the Bordelon clan have been unrelenting. The onslaught of difficulties and setbacks seem almost insurmountable in “By Any Chance,” and for much of the episode these accumulate through brilliant blocking, camera work, and especially how the framing translates, for viewers, the figurative position of characters. For much of this episode, it seems the Bordelons are trying to keep the frame from crushing them, but the frame seems to be winning.

Charley Bordelon West dominates this episode — but rarely the screen — as she juggles allegations of rape against her husband, a son caught between his parents and paparazzi, and her father’s cumbersome farmland. As Scott Eric Kaufman points out in a post on the visual rhetoric of Mr. Robot the “cumulative effect” of framing can manifest the feeling of characters and expand to those watching them.

When she [unwisely] confronts her husband’s accuser, the two women battle rhetorically. Though Charley [publicly] maintains her husband’s innocence, the bribe she’s offering indicates that her position is tenuous. Here she wants to dominate the screen, though Dawn-Lyen Gardner’s tilt away from center indicates that she’s feeling defensive. It is when she reiterates her willingness to work for a new offer that she can dominate the center of the screen. If Melina Gold takes a bribe, maybe that exonerates the Wests or at least casts doubts on Gold’s integrity. But when Charley underestimates and condescends to Gold, again (by defining “intractable”), she loses ground.

When she gets home, Charley calls her lawyer who predictably chastises her. While the lawyer dominates the screen’s center screen, balancing between the phone and her notes like Lady Justice, Charley is feeling boxed in.

Around her, the thresholds create a series of bars closing in. Charley is both her husband’s manager and trying to save her father’s farm, but this episode suggests her tendency to attack everything single-handedly isn’t be sustainable. By filming Charley through windows, she becomes more distant and out of focus (there’s a similar effect when she speaks to Micah in her car at the beginning of the episode). Charley is trying to solve the allegations against her husband, instead of dealing with her own emotions. In the process, she’s closing herself off.


When Charley speaks with Ralph Angel, the dynamic shifts.

Ralph Angel’s blunder with the infected crop eroded Charley’s trust in his ability to manage the farm, and this exacerbates the power imbalance between them.

Charley is allowed to occupy the center of the frame (though she hasn’t completely escaped her enclosure), but there is no reprieve for Ralph Angel, whose problems are piling up.

His parole officer has expressed an imperative that Ralph Angel maintain his job, but his sisters have little sympathy. Though he wants to take more responsibility in running the farm, his past has him backed into a corner.

When he gets his first paycheck (and it’s short) Ralph Angel finds himself between a rock and a hard place — between honest day’s work for less-than-honest day’s pay and the illegal activities of a coworker who already screwed him over once.


Violet and Hollywood

There’s a similar telegraphing for Violet and Hollywood’s [separate] introductions. New management at the High Yellow is changing procedures from the informal familiarity at which Violet excels to the mechanical operations of a big city chain.

This carries over to her run-in with old friends (who are conventionally successful) at her place of work, which has Violet torn between equal footing and a waitress’s perspective.


Searching for refuge, Violet calls her beau, who’s not at work as we might have expected.

Hollywood is at a hospital and as the camera — waist level — zooms in to catch him, the ceiling tiles and thresholds give the feeling that the walls are closing in.

While Vi has called him for support, to forget about her overwhelming feeling that’s enclosing her, Hollywood is rattled by his own problem.

He’s feeling particularly helpless as he walks through the door marked “Psychiatric Ward.”


It’s not all dour this episode.

While the Bordelon sisters love each other, they are both dealing with personal things that they’re unwilling to confess.

Though they sit on a bench with familiarity, there’s something keeping them apart. It takes Aunt Vi’s company to change the dynamic. Maybe with enough family and laughs (and a little bit of weed), the Bordelons can thrive.


Later, farm work keeps Charley caged — she has no idea what she’s doing — but it’s clear Remy Newell is her best chance for saving the farm.

This scene is a breath of fresh air for the two would-be farmers (and for us). It’s clear there’s a lot of potential for the land, and for Charley and Remy.

When [desperate for a win] Charley overspends at auction and loses her chance at a decent tractor, it’s Deus Ex-Remy that breaks through her self-constructed wall again.


Out of body experience.

At the end of the episode, Charley gets a call from Melina Gold. Gold is making her demand, but at the same time, it’s a sort of concession. Charley is working for an outcome that will allow her family/the media/the world to move on.

Wisely, Mahoney allows Gardner’s acting to carry the scene. Her face dominates whole screen, but this is far from a clean victory.

Mahoney allows a reflection or echo of Charley to take the frame’s center. This is where Charley wants to be, in control, but she’s not quite there. Gold wants an admission of guilt.

Charley is beside herself. And it’s becoming increasingly unlikely that she and her family can emerge unscathed. What is she willing to compromise to put this scandal in the past?


Note:

I skipped over Nova because she mostly has her own storyline going on. But I particularly love how Mahoney constructed certain shots of her break-up scene with Calvin through a plant.

This gives the scene and intimate, voyeuristic feel. As the two [now ex-] lovers lob darts at each other with the kind of weight that comes from two people who know each other intimately.

When Nova’s declares that she’s going after systemic injustice Calvin retorts “because of one kid.” It’s clear he doesn’t understand, and though they continue to speak, the conversation is over.