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‘Queen Sono’: On her own secret service

This bright and pulpy spy series with some significant political pointing-of-fingers is made remarkable by its setting and heroine, played by Pearl Thusi

Pearl Thusi in Netflix’s first African original series, ‘Queen Sono’.
Pearl Thusi in Netflix’s first African original series, ‘Queen Sono’.

Few years ago, there was a rumour that Beyoncé Knowles would be a Bond girl. She had already spoofed that part in Austin Powers In Goldmember as Foxxy Cleopatra years ago, and this would not be a stretch. Although as one of the best known and, as she has herself accurately described, most “fierce" people on the planet, I always felt her better suited to be not a second-string cameo with a naughty name, but the entire string section: as Lady Bond herself, 007 at her most lethal, a Bond who could sing her own song.

We aren’t that far. For this Women’s Day column, I binged Queen Sono—Netflix’s first African original series—about a renegade secret agent with excessive screen presence and an Afro so majestic it would make 1970s blaxploitation icon Pam Grier applaud. Created and directed by Kagiso Lediga and starring the striking Pearl Thusi as the titular superspy, Queen Sono is a bright, pulpy and defiantly unsubtle thriller series with some significant political pointing of fingers. It’s a ride, made remarkable by its setting and heroine.

She knows what she’s doing, and part of her assignment is taking on the sexism entrenched in the genre. Walking into a glamorous party on a reconnaissance mission, she wonders if the human resources department is aware she’s being used as a honeytrap.

The idea of a female secret agent isn’t new, but it has taken a while to even out the playing field. After palling around with assorted Marvel superheroes since 2010’s Iron Man 2 (Hotstar), Scarlett Johansson’s character Black Widow will be making a solo outing to theatres this April in a film with her name on it. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Killing Eve (Hotstar) told a compelling story of a lethal female assassin chased by a female investigator, but didn’t have the budgets a show fronted by men might have. Even Queen Sono, for all its home-grown style, doesn’t look as spectacular as it could have. Still, it is a rousing start.

Africa makes for a captivating backdrop, even in chase sequences. The countryside is teeming with colour and flavour, and the characters love their land. In one scene, a character talks about moving to London. Queen Sono sneers at the possibility of living in a “shitty city where it rains all day", and it isn’t hard to see her point as she strides through fields soaked in sun. The action is quick and fast, and Thusi is a screen-conquering talent, an absolute hero who isn’t merely a male spy with better hair, but unmistakably her own woman: Early in the first episode, she is ambushed by an old man coughing. As she goes to help him, he beckons her pursuers. Done in by sympathy—what a difference from the cold, battle-hardened 007.

Also different from the Bond films is this show’s urgent political voice. Six pacy, 45-minute episodes don’t give the makers enough time to go deep, but there is a certain heft to what it says, from the thin line separating terrorists from freedom fighters to the colonizers who keep coming to Africa, loving the land and livestock more than the people. Corruption and surveillance is a mainstay of the show’s intrigue, where the (fictitious) president of South Africa is described as “the most bribable statesman on the planet".

The first episode is a bit too over the top, but Queen Sono—the daughter of a slain freedom fighter whose shadow still looms large—immediately captures the viewer’s attention, all bold and badass, doing her things while the funky soundtrack celebrates her melanin. Thusi is a star, the kind of thrilling performer you want to see elbow someone in the windpipe as well as have wistful conversations with her grandmother, Mazet, played by the lovely Abigail Kubeka.

The series picks up speed at a rate of knots after the pilot, creating a suitably strong adversary for Queen Sono—a Russian security contractor called Ekaterina, played by Kate Liquorish. The tension escalates well and the women frequently get the better of the men—mostly less-complicated creatures. The show is primarily in English, alongside several African languages, and makes for a perfectly satisfying weekend binge.

If this column has made the series sound radical, then I must steer you right. This is very American in style, the kind of thing the colonizers love watching, a series where a tiny secret-service outfit seems responsible for everything, and takes on an ice-cold Russian villain. Yet I find this appropriation of Hollywoodized storytelling itself intriguing, as the African creators use a Western syntax to shine a light on their own local issues.

Queen herself has all the dramatic complexity of a John Woo character from the 1990s—a classically misunderstood rebel who has an immensely loaded backstory and never, ever plays by the rules—and that’s a heavy compliment, in my book. The actor makes this character immediately interesting, and brings a nice offhandedness to the action and intrigue—as if hand-to-hand combat is second-nature to her, and she has to slow down for the cameras and the rest of her world.

Some close to Queen Sono call her Q. In the James Bond films, Q stands for Quartermaster—like the supply officer in the military—who outfits Bond with his gadgets. It’s a highly enjoyable part, immortalized by the late Desmond Llewelyn, but this new Q has a lot more fun. This master gives no quarter.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

Twitter - @rajasen

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