In the canon of black American television, black fathers have been a staple – particularly on some of our most beloved sitcoms. From James Evans on Good Times to Phillip Banks on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, these men have been the ultimate father figures for those of us who are deeply connected to our fathers and for others who felt a paternal void. Despite varying economic statuses and levels of education, these men were pillars when it came to representing idyllic versions of black nuclear families. They were respectable, whole and constant. After all, according to the CDC, black dads who live with their children are the most involved fathers of any race.
And yet, as much as we admire these characters, reciting classic lines, words of wisdom and reminiscing on our favorite scenes, these TV dads don’t look like the young black fathers we see on a daily basis. These are the young men pushing strollers down 116th street in Harlem or even styling their daughter’s hair on Instagram. Since networks and creators were so concerned about putting out a specific black image, they failed to pave the way for certain types of black fathers to be seen onscreen. These men look like our brothers, friends or even the towering figures who raised us. Though we’ve observed single black fathers on TV before like Flex Washington on One on One and also involved fathers like Kenny Chadway on Showtime’s Soul Food, Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar is the first time we've seen a single millennial black father in a TV drama. Kofi Siriboe’s Ralph Angel is an anomaly on television. Stoic but loving, Ralph Angel is struggling to parent while trying to unravel his own identity as a black man, father, ex-con and landowner. His presence is very refreshing.
When we first meet Ralph Angel in the first season of the critically acclaimed OWN series, he’s in panic mode. Recently released from prison and without two nickels to rub together, the 20-something father sits his young son, Blue (Ethan Hutchison), on a park bench and heads into a corner store -- gun in hand. It’s an act of desperation, one that comes from the pain of not being able to offer a child necessities. It also stems from a place of pride. Despite his close-knit family, he is too ashamed to ask for help. It's challenging to parent in the best of circumstances, but when labels still keep you shackled, it's nearly impossible. Though he’s out of jail, Ralph Angel's freedom comes with certain conditions. A mark on his record makes it much more difficult for him to find a job, and a lack of resources can make anyone spiral out of control.
However, in DuVernay's carefully crafted narrative, Ralph Angel’s past is just one part of his story; it doesn’t represent who he is as a man. As the series has pressed on, we've watched him fight for custody of Blue, even when it meant defying his Aunt Violet (Tina Lifford) or laid a heavier weight on his already burdened shoulders. Ever present and hands-on, Ralph Angel is a nurturing and steadfast father, someone who reads Blue stories at nights, gives him baths, reassures him during bedwetting incidents, and most importantly, shows him affection or provides a stern word when necessary. The bond between the father and son is both candid and poignant.
Though his immaturity and inexperience have led him astray more than once, Ralph Angel has been intentional about giving Blue the best life he can. In the season 2 finale, he reassures the tearful little boy that he would always return for him after an extended absence due to work. In one of the most touching scenes of the series, Ralph Angel tells Blue how he came up with his name, deciding to name his baby boy after his Aunt Violet because he wanted Blue to be someone and to have a unique name that meant something. The constant reassurance between a young black father and his son is revolutionary for television. In season 2, when a nosy waiter questions Blue’s love for his Barbie doll, Kenya, Ralph Angel steps in quickly redirecting the man’s attention while affirming to his son that there is nothing wrong with his toy preferences. This isn’t to say that Ralph Angel is void of hypermasculine traits, but he’s continuously working to grow and build as a father and a man. His patience and choices are also indications that he's learning.
In season 3, Ralph Angel is grappling with his connection to Blue and what it looks like without the ties of DNA. Darla's (Bianca Lawson) absence in her son's life is also causing Blue to act out and exhibit behavioral problems. His son's actions are now forcing Ralph Angel to question if he's the right person to raise the precocious little boy. Thus far, the sole Bordelon son is doing his best to put his son's needs before his own. More than that, Ralph Angel's journey highlights questions and concerns that aren't often discussed when it comes to black fatherhood. Seeing a young black father in the thick of it all on Queen Sugar makes us all feel just a bit less isolated and a little safer.
Queen Sugar airs Wednesdays at 10 PM on OWN.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami.