As someone who spent a significant portion of his junior year of high school as an exchange student in South Africa, my fascination with the country always rested upon the culminating forces which make South Africa such a beautifully globalist society.
For instance, I was surprised by the influence of global sports from the NBA to the Premier League. The South African students that I knew and their families frequently vacationed abroad, using Facebook and Instagram to capture moments and share photos with family members who lived in Singapore, Dubai or London. Despite the immense economic and political unrest that characterized the country’s recent past, my own experiences within the nation gave me confidence that South Africa was quickly becoming a global force for good on its own continent.
Netflix’s newest spy thriller “Queen Sono” does a spectacular job of emulating this global culture. The series sets a precedent for Netflix as its first all-African produced series. The show does not limit itself purely to one African culture, however. The show is filmed on location in South African cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town as well as countries such as Kenya and Nigeria. The new series follows Queen Sono, (Pearl Thusi, “Quantico”) who works as a field agent for the Special Operations Group tasked to prevent global terrorism. Only her closest friends know that Queen is the daughter of Safiya Sono, a freedom fighter who was assassinated when Queen was just a young girl.
The opening sequences of the series immediately throw the audience into the show’s world of espionage and high-stakes chases; Queen is shown on a mission in Tanzania tailing a lead, and her fashion and dynamic appearance are aligned with the accented colors of Zanzibar’s street markets. Her choreographed kicks and jabs quickly make her character out to be a certified badass.
However, the intended importance of her first mission comes across as unclear. When she returns to the offices of SOG, Queen is reprimanded for her rebellious work ethic. Queen’s metropolitan lifestyle is largely representative of South Africa’s millennial generation who must face the immense task of living within and repairing a society crippled by the decade-long effects of apartheid. On another progressive note, “Queen Sono” makes several remarks concerning the corruption of South Africa’s own government. A particular scene shows a SOG command room surveilling the South African president’s dealings with foreign oligarchs. This choice by the creators assures Queen’s agency job is a lawful good, and that “Queen Sono” is not merely government propaganda, unwilling to criticize its own failings as a country. Instead, Queen and her peers work in the shadows to change the country’s messy politics from the inside.
The effective choice to make our heroine a tough-as-nails woman of color amplifies the intersectionality that South Africa’s media landscape is continuing to promote. In multiple instances, Queen’s dialogue with varying characters switches mid-sentence from English to Zulu, Swahili and Afrikaans. While the repetitive multilingualism may sometimes come across as distracting to an American viewer, this manner of speech is a distinctive norm for South Africans. The languages infused into the show give audiences a sense of the global culture of South Africa.
The promise of spy-related drama tends to dwindle later on as Queen is shown returning to her home life and meeting with friends. At times it feels like “Queen Sono” sacrifices valuable screen time to the point that we forget she’s even a secret agent. The first episode is mainly filled with long, drawn-out exposition that becomes lost in the introduction of many unconnected subplots. While it would be in the show’s favor to more equally balance the scenes of espionage and personal life, Queen’s down-to-earth interactions with her grandmother make her a much less one-dimensional protagonist. The African/hip hop infused soundtrack is catchy, but seems to be placed merely as a backdrop to certain scenes and ring annoyingly similar to those of a TLC reality show.
Despite a few minor storytelling distractions, the promise of “Queen Sono” makes it possible for American audiences to experience new cultures and storylines right from their couch, which is a net positive for expanding representation and social dialogue within our media landscape. With “Queen Sono” as a precedent, there will be room for even more enticing international series arriving on streaming services in the coming years.