Queen Sono review: Season one, episode one
“Elite spy Queen Sono fulfills an intel mission in Zanzibar and makes a shocking discovery about Hendrikus, the man imprisoned for her mother’s murder”Episode summary by Netflix
Queen Sono, the much anticipated first African Netflix original, dropped on the streaming service today.
One episode in, and it would be hard not to be hooked. Here’s my take on episode one*
Pearl Thusi plays undercover spy agent, Queen Sono, an ass-kicking anti-heroine with a dark history. It’s standard plotting from the great tradition of spy thrillers but the specificity of it within a South African context is the thrilling bit.
I say South African as, while the creators tried to live up to the heavy expectation of being the first AFRICAN Netflix production, some of their attempts to include different parts of the continent can be a tad heavy-handed and doesn’t entirely land.
The most egregious of these attempts is the awful accent comedian Loyiso Madinga is saddled with, as Sono’s loyal tech guy. And I say this as something of a Madinga stan.
Diprente films, the creative powerhouse behind the series, usually shines when capturing the easy ebb and flow of dialogue – even between different ethnicities and classes as their characters intersect. A casual scene in a previous collaboration between lead actress Thusi and Diprente, Catching Feelings, illustrated this beautifully: early in the movie the character played by Thusi switches from model c-bred goddess of the social scene to artful cop briber – code-switching to smooth vernac as she hands over cash to diffuse the tension mounting between a traffic cop and her husband, played by Diprente’s creative heart: actor, writer and director Kagiso Lediga.
But this deft touch is lost in the scenes with Madinga which is such a damn pity as:
a. He’s brilliant, and
b. They’re in the opening scenes of Queen Sono – the ones that need to hook an audience IMMEDIATELY, particularly in this cutthroat age of streaming algorithms.
The scenes shot in Zanzibar’s Stone Town in the opening sequence are slick but perhaps a bit derivative. The backstory of encroaching rebels in the Congo looks beautiful and stark enough to be a Spoek Mathambo music video, but it’s pretty ambitious to stray into the politics of that region with a generic “free the black man from colonial influence” banner.
But hey, I’m South African so maybe I’m being too hard on us here. I would love to know what reviewers and bloggers from the rest of the continent think about this one.
To be honest, I actually adore the ambition and scope of what Diprente and Thusi have evinced so far in episode one. It’s uneven at times and reaches beyond its grasp at others but damn, it’s refreshing.
Thusi shines – which helps as she’s in pretty much every scene. An actress needs a lot of presence to carry that off and Thusi has it in boatloads.
One senses a lot of work twinned with Thusi’s drive: a combination that has seen her star in international productions – and then bring home that experience to partner with Diprente and its key creator, Kagiso Lediga. It’s a smart move: using her enormous clout in the country to create the kind of roles she WANTS to play – instead of being relegated to bit parts in international productions.
Wherever her performance may be less than stellar or the direction lacking, her presence and swag make up for it.
I was intrigued at how they would shoot the fight scenes on a budget that was surely limited compared to the sort of productions that churn out increasingly beautifully choreographed fighting sequences (The Witcher, particularly, is testament to this).
The solution was quite lovely in its simplicity: instead of going for clean and beautiful, Sono’s energy is raw and physical. There are times when the action scenes seem a bit stilted but again, Thusi makes up for it with the brute force of her performance. Fisticuffs in the narrow streets of Stone Town, Zanzibar, pulse with energy – even when one cut of her picking up a heavy man and flipping him over looks far too staged. But you forget it the next moment when she stomps on him, gloriously inelegantly – a scene that made its way into the trailer.
Thusi’s physical prowess is a joy to witness and she comes across surprisingly strong – something she noted in interviews was a discovery to her too.
The unadulterated rage evinced in this early scene signals some great mental unrest simmering within Sono, referenced again when her employer pleads with her to get a psychiatric evaluation.
Her scene with said psychiatrist however, who is played as a potential love interest, leaves something to be desired. I love how the M&G’s Kwanele Sosibo nods to the reversal made famous in Russian Doll, noting the switch between male and female archetypes in the series: “As Queen’s long-suffering childhood friend and now a therapist, William gently supports her, putting up with her powerful personality.”
But the chemistry falls flat, and it takes his girlfriend in a later scene to clarify what the vibe was between the two (I honestly thought he may have been her brother at first). Let’s hope that gets better.
Back to Thusi’s simmering inner rage, we’re told about her martyred mother. Here Lediga shines with his penchant for using the powerful tropes of our political history as story blocks. References to a delinquent president and a foreign family with their hands in state coffers draws on our recent state capture history.
This playing with history is done more creatively in the character of Sono’s mother. With nods to Winnie Mandela and Chris Hani, we learn of freedom fighter Safiya Sono, who was assassinated in front of a young Queen. (Lovely to spot local visual artist Lady Skollie – real name Laura Windvogel – playing Safiya in flashbacks and memorial footage!)
This narrative thread – and key motivator for our lead character – leads to the episode’s thrilling final scene.
Firstly we have to talk about the music in this scene. Playing off the tension between the pro-African Sono and the white Afrikaans man believed to have murdered her mother, we are treated to a haunting version of Afrikaans poet Ingrid Jonker’s “korreltjie sand” sung by Lark frontwoman Inge Beckmann (two more individuals I stan). Beckmann’s dark energy and Jonker’s political legacy and activism are just perfect for this moment.
Sono fakes her way into the prison where the murderer is being kept, on the eve of being released on medical parole. It is a beautifully-shot sequence, and the tension against the taut and soft track makes for a devastating build-up. If this was being produced within the crazy dramatic rules of Shondaland I would expect this to be the moment where Sono bludgeons her mother’s killer to death before he can taste freedom – an end perhaps foreshadowed by her brutal takedown of those pursuing her in Zanzibar.
Instead, Queen settles in for a talk, only to discover that the man professing to have murdered her mother may not have even been at the scene of the crime at all.
It’s an interesting and nuanced twist, but I’m not sure it’s interesting enough to get international audiences to tap on that “next episode” button. It’s hard to tell because being a South African who has followed these people’s careers I so badly want to like this. I just hope everyone else does too.
- The incredible cinematography and Thusi living the Jozi live we should all aspire to – cruising on her fold-up bicycle through the streets of Braam and jumping on the Gautrain.
- The music score – it got off to a rough start when there was a bit of a cheesy moment when Sono flashes a was of cash at some Zanzibari women she enlists in a classic outfit switch to fool her chasers. The pop beat seemed forced. But afterwards it was mostly sublime.
- Rob van Vuuren! In a wheelchair!
- Some of the scenes can drag – something that counted against the otherwise promising Catching Feelings.
- Madinga’s accent ?
“Just some consistency would be nice. If you’re going to be a bitch, just be a bitch. Commit.”
Sono in response to her frenemy Miri’s offer of support straight after a dressing down. This initially worried me as I thought: Oh no, not this tired trope of the office bitch, especially with Miri sporting the clipped accent of a young Naledi Pandor and pin-straight weave. But I’m guessing the trope is being turned on its head in later episodes as it’s later revealed Sono and Miri go WAY back. (And at the very least, episode one passes The Bechdel Test.)
*Tempting as it is to binge-watch the entire season at once I want to take my time on this one and process each episode. And if you’re wondering why a current affairs journalist like myself is writing about this…
We are living in an unprecedented golden age of television, with gems of creativity and excellence dropping on services like Netflix all the time. However, this abundance is twinned with a decline in reviewing capacity and quality. I’m no film fundi, but I’m tired of watching brilliant tv and finding very little analysis of it online. These blogged reviews are my attempts to help change that. Note: I was not given any prior information or early viewing of this series and am reviewing this using the same access as an ordinary audience member.
Written by Verashni Pillay for verashni.com. Please do not republish without permission.