ACD Justice Journal: Stories & Ideas for Liberation

How ‘Queen Sugar’ Protests the Status Quo

Protest in Pop Culture, Part 2: Black Resistance on TV

By Makayla Gathers and Angelo Vidal

September 13, 2023

Content warning: this post contains descriptions of racial and state violence

We hate to break it to you, but your favorite cop show is probably racist, and Ice-T’s “chill vibes” and cheeky one-liners are not what most Black people picture when we think of police. The narratives you see on TV are often deeply twisted by white supremacy and copaganda.

Research shows that Crime TV falsely depicts the criminal legal system, often ignores its disparate racial impact, and legitimizes the harmful institutions that destroy Black people’s lives. So, what can we do about it?

ACD prioritizes centering the voices and experiences of those impacted by injustice to be more representative of the issues they face, and we encourage TV creators and viewers to do the same.

We wanted to highlight shows and episodes that more authentically portray moments of Black life and state violence than, say, Law and Order: SVU, for example (sorry, not sorry). Kindred and Bel-Air were close contenders, but we chose to highlight scenes from the TV drama Queen Sugar, largely due to its alignment with ACD’s mission and values

To us, Queen Sugar stands out because it protests tropes of white supremacy and copaganda, exposes injustice, and paints a beautiful vision of Black resistance. 

From left, executive producer Paul Garnes, creator Ava DuVernay, and star Rutina Wesley. Photo by Erik Carter for The New York Times.

BLack creatives take the wheel

It’s quite possible that TV’s gross misrepresentation of the interactions between Black people and law enforcement stems, in part, from a serious lack of representation in the industry. From 2018 to 2019, less than 12% of lead actors and 5% of showrunners in broadcast TV were Black. Queen Sugar is different.

Adapted from Natalie Baszile’s novel, the show is produced by Ava DuVernay – the award-winning filmmaker behind Selma and 13th – for the Oprah Winfrey Network. It features an all-Black cast and is said to be the first TV series with an editorial team composed entirely of women of color. When Black creatives come together, we see nuances of the Black experience that wouldn’t otherwise be portrayed.

For example, DuVernay takes the creative license to redesign characters from the original novel. Micah, who was originally written as a young girl, is cast as a teenage boy (Nicholas L. Ashe). The casting allows for timely commentary on the Black teenage boy’s experience in America and his criminalization, which has been the zeitgeist of police violence in the 21st century.

The Criminalization of Black Teen Boys

In the first episode of season two, Micah is pulled over by a cop, and immediately, you see fear and anxiety kick in. 

At a young age, Black boys are sat down to have the “talk” about what to do when pulled over by the police, but nothing stops your life from flashing before your eyes at the sight of those red and blue lights. More than a quarter of fatal police shootings of unarmed Black men and women between 2015 and 2021 occurred during traffic stops.

Despite Micah’s compliance, the cop pulls a gun on him when he reaches for his insurance, and later in the episode, Micah is booked at the police station. Here, Queen Sugar reveals some ugly truths of the legal system – like how rigged and dehumanizing it is. 

The station is disorganized and overflowing with Black men. Micah is denied a phone call, because there are 400 people in front of him. The scene parallels the racial disparities we see in St. Louis, where Black men under the age of 34 constitute the overwhelming majority of people arrested and detained in jail. 

When Micah’s parents arrive at the station, the police officers are, at best, unhelpful, and at worst, obstructive. It’s not until one of them recognizes Micah’s father, Davis (Timon Kyle Durrett), as an NBA player, that their demeanor changes completely. Only after Davis begrudgingly takes a selfie with an officer are they able to “find” Micah. 

At a young age, Black boys are sat down to have the “talk” about what to do when pulled over by the police, but nothing stops your life from flashing before your eyes at the sight of those red and blue lights.

After Micah is released, while his parents argue about Davis’ choice to take the selfie with the cop – his Aunt Nova (Rutina Wesley) notices that he peed himself and gently ties her sweater around him, offering that there is nothing for him to be ashamed of.

Micah is left to sort through his trauma and is unable to discuss it until the last episode of season three, when he tells his father the full story of what happened when he was pulled over: “He takes out his gun, pushes me down, and he puts the gun in my mouth. And he pulled the trigger, Dad!”

Ashe’s performance highlights how Black children are not treated as who they actually are – children.

The Stakes of Black Motherhood

Queen Sugar shows how the effects of state violence ripple throughout the family, and particularly harm Black women and mothers, an experience ACD has heard firsthand from St. Louis women whose loved ones have been killed by police.

During Micah’s altercation with the cop, his family waits for him at the dinner table. As time ticks on, his mother Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) panics, and viewers can imagine what’s running through her mind. Black motherhood comes with an acute awareness of the fact that the world is not a safe place for your child.

ACD client and mother, Umi Okoli, has spoken to her own fear in this regard. “My son is big for his age. At only 16, he’s already 6 feet 4 inches and 225 pounds,” she told the Marshall Project. “As he grew, I began to have a lot of anxiety because I knew he could get mistaken as an adult,” And being an adult black male in St. Louis — like anywhere in America — can be uniquely dangerous, especially when the police are involved.”

Charley finds Micah’s abandoned car off the interstate, in front of a graveyard. The cinematic juxtaposition emphasizes the culture of death the Black community has endured throughout American history and reminds the viewers of the countless Black bodies that never did make it home for dinner. 

A Vision of Black Resistance

Micah’s journey from shame and embarrassment to feeling empowered to lead his community in calling for change is a beautiful vision of Black resistance. In this sense, Queen Sugar goes beyond the exploitation of Black trauma for shock value, which is commonplace in the industry.

In his speech at a rally protesting the construction of a nearby prison, Micah says, “The real cost of the prison isn’t any dollars and cents, prisons aren’t made of bricks and mortar, they’re made of bodies and blood.”

Calls for abolition by Black and other impacted communities have historically been suppressed, but through Micah, Queen Sugar amplifies this message. He proclaims that carceral systems put “hope into cages,” and we couldn’t have said it better ourselves.


Queen Sugar is an example of the truth-telling role TV can play, but as revolutionary as it is, it’s not enough. We need more shows to do the same and as viewers, we need to seek out and push for representative stories. So, before you pick your next series to binge, consider these questions: Who’s telling this story and what perspectives are represented? What voices are missing and why?

Choosing not to be mindless about the media we consume is an act of protest in itself.

Part three of the Protest in Pop Culture series features a story from our client, Kris Hendrix, a mother, survivor of police brutality and living embodiment of protest. For more content, follow us on social media at @archcitydefenders.