Diprente Films, 2020
Kagiso Lediga and Karabo Lediga
📷 : Used with permission, Netflix
Movies and TV shows about toughness and athletic competition
Mysteries or whodunnits
Cinematic representations of spies are usually of U.S., European, or Israeli descent, predominantly male, and between 40-60 years of age. Think Eric Bana as Avner in Munich, Gary Oldman as George Smiley and John Hurt as Control in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, George Clooney as Bob Barnes in Syriana, and Leonardo DiCaprio as Roger Ferris in Body of Lies. There are a handful of female spies but unlike the subtlety of their male counterparts, they are usually presented as action characters with a lot of sass and pop. Think Helen Mirren as Victoria in Red, Angelina Jolie as Evelyn Salt in Salt, and Charlize Theron as Lorraine Broughton in Atomic Blond. Queen Sono presents an interesting departure from these stories and depictions. First, rather than a film, it is a six-episode Netflix series. Second, the story is set in South Africa and features a little-known Black actress, Pearl Thusi (Quantico, Catching Feelings), as Queen Sono, a South African spy who kicks her antagonists’ tails as she gathers intel from countries like Kenya and Zimbabwe.
Queen Sono is the daughter of Sofia, a celebrated militant and activist who was killed when “Q” was a child, an event which haunts her to this day. Raised by her scrappy paternal grandmother, Mazet, and supported by Dr. Sidwell Isaacs, intelligence director and close friend of her mother’s, Q joins the government’s security agency (SOG) with aspirations of doing field work. She becomes a part of the South African president’s secret service detail and eventually moves into the country’s intelligence ranks.
The story contains parallel plot lines, one of which consists of Q’s private mission to learn who was behind her mother’s assassination and hold them responsible. This operation allows us to see beyond Q’s tough veneer, exposing the deep hurt she masks from the loss of her mother. It makes her actions appear reasonable, as she uses her elusiveness to enter a prison to confront the man accused of the crime, and later takes on a fictitious identity to gain access to a family to casually extract information she needs.
The other storyline involves Q’s legitimate job, which is to dismantle an organization headed by eKaterina Gromova. Played by Kate Liquorish (Still Breathing, Eye in the Sky), eKaterina is a ruthless corporate leader from Eastern Europe who wants to take over the security and communications infrastructure for all the African governments. While Q has many occasions to show off her fighting skills, she bleeds a few times during her physical confrontations and even loses one of them. Combined, the two storylines make the character a realistic portrayal of a spy – making her human versus automaton-like.
One of the things I like about the series is it forces us to distinguish the countries in Africa. Too often, we view Africa as a monolith rather than a continent of 54 nations, each with its own set of languages, customs, cultures, sociopolitical systems, and economic challenges and priorities. In media, women and children in Africa are typically depicted as poverty-stricken, malnourished, and without shelter or living in huts. The preponderance of the images leads us to generalize this reality to all countries on the African continent. In Queen Sono, people live in homes and apartments in urban areas, not huts in rural areas at the edges of towns where movies about Africans tend to be set. And as we see in the series, even countries rife with problems have spectacular views of forestry and waterfalls. But urban areas and landscapes are rarely if ever depicted in Western cinema set in African nations. So, in this sense, Queen Sono is an exception. The scenes across several African countries help us to appreciate the distinct systems, cultures, and even problems of each.
Although Black people have been in the U.S. for over 400 years, our past and present experiences continue to shape our sense of belonging in the country that has been our home longer than most Europeans and all people of color, except Indigenous Peoples. It is interesting to see so many patriotic Black people in South Africa who take ownership of it and view it as “[theirs] to protect.” For example, they carry a high level of disdain for President Malunga, the current leader of the country, because of the depths of his corruption and greed. Yet, they still respect him because he is the elected president. This mix of commitments comes through as Q’s aunt, Nana, played by Connie Chiume (I Dreamed of Africa, Black Panther) who is well-connected and active in politics, hosts a luncheon for the president at her home. Before carrying a tray out to the patio, she says to her daughter, “It’s not every day we get to host a president. Let’s go and put on a show for that a***h***.”
This thread runs throughout the show as we observe “Q’s” commitment to her role at SOG to “keep South Africa safe.” We also see it in her lover, Shandu, played by Vuyo Dabula (Invictus, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom), who is vocal and active in his commitment to freeing Congolese, South Africans, and others on the continent from being exploited by white diamond miners, other outside groups, and the corruption of political leaders like President Malunga.
Queen Sono is similar to the 1970s films, Coffy and Foxy Brown, each about a Black woman pursuing vigilante justice. Both films feature Pam Grier as an early 30-something African American woman who seeks revenge for an attack on her sister (Coffy) and boyfriend (Foxy Brown). The films contain a lot of action for a time when it was rare to see Black women on screen as leads, let alone in such strong and active roles. The Queen Sono character is a modern-day blend of Coffy and Foxy Brown. Each work is even named for the lead characters.
It is refreshing to be presented with a strong lead character of color from a part of the world we rarely get to see so broadly and extensively. Queen Sono is a substantive piece about a woman dealing with a personal struggle while fighting publicly sanctioned battles. The presentation passively breaks down our ideas of countries in Africa as similarly impoverished and rife with instability, and of the people who live in them as poor and apathetic. While I understand the pandemic interrupted Netflix’s plans to continue this series beyond the first season, my hope is that the company revisits this decision with the goal of completing the narrative. It is a visually entertaining presentation bolstered by a solid story.