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‘Queen Sono’ Review: Pearl Thusi Is Compelling in Netflix’s Otherwise Unremarkable Espionage Drama

Netflix's first African Originals series is a James Bond-esque South African spy-thriller with a commanding black female lead.

"Queen Sono" Netflix

“Queen Sono”

Netflix

This week, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos and a team of executives have been traveling through the African continent, meeting with local creatives, as part of an aggressive content expansion into areas that are still relatively untapped sources of talent. Sarandos is doing so as the streaming giant’s first African original series, the spy-drama “Queen Sono,” is released worldwide February 28.

As a series created entirely by Africans, with a majority African cast and produced on a Netflix budget, “Queen Sono” is certainly a novelty that will likely draw audiences for that reason alone. But, in the long run, with a second season very likely — given how the first season ends — it’ll need to rely on more than its landmark arrival in order to stay relevant and stand out in a world awash with content.

The series stars South African actress Pearl Thusi (“Quantico”) as the title character, a James Bond-like operative who takes on dangerous missions while contending with personal struggles and various relationships. The African continent is both her charge and playground. She’s a member of a seemingly small and besieged South African intelligence unit called the Special Operations Group (SOP), tasked, somewhat unrealistically, with protecting the country and the entire continent from any kind of threat, including terrorism, corruption, and European neo-colonialism.

But Queen is certainly up for the task, dashing from one African country to another by air, land, and sea, nurturing ties, collecting necessary intel, and fending off some really mean dudes, all with a sometimes immaculate style.

Queen is, of course, skilled with a variety of weapons and stands virtually unmatched in hand-to-hand combat. She is beautiful, sensual, efficient, and reckless — at times taking risks that roil her supervisors — but what movie or television super spy isn’t known for going rogue once in a while (not to mention the rest of these attributes)?

However, she’s not just beauty and brawn. Further complicating the character, and the series, is a lingering backstory about Queen’s mother, a prominent activist who was assassinated under mysterious circumstances when Queen was a child. Her rage and remorse over her mother’s death set the show’s overall brooding tone, as the story unfolds against the backdrop of a South Africa still trying to find its footing in the world, 30 years removed from Apartheid.

The engine of the first season’s plot is a fraught partnership between a posse of black nationalist rebels and a Russian security company called Superior Solutions (the SS likely intentional), controlled by heiress, military contractor, and all-around badass Ekaterina Gromova (Kate Liquorish).

Gromova, who would probably be a mixed martial arts champion were she not an evil, sociopathic corporate executive, eventually emerges as the series’ primary villain. And once she’s introduced, it’s immediately obvious that both she and Queen will tussle at some point. The journey to that inevitable end consists of rudimentary depictions of surveillance and police work, debates about African progress and historical restitution, as well as the usual betrayals and occasional sex scene.

There are also frequent fight sequences, shootouts, and chases in cars, on motorcycles, and on foot — enough to satisfy the average espionage fan, although each isn’t always believably staged, nor with much style. It’s all standard spy-thriller material, but minus an enormous Hollywood studio budget.

What does make “Queen Sono” standout is its setting, which allows the series to introduce themes that likely aren’t being discussed during dinnertime conversations in many homes, at least in the West.

Scattered throughout are what amount to slogans calling attention to some of the stark realities of the lingering effects of colonialism. For example, an armed group of revolutionaries, making their way across the continent, declares its intent to liberate Africa from “white religion.” Also, a non-governmental organization (NGO) executive publicly calls the series’ resident villain a “neocolonialist” during a heated exchange. The irony of this moment, which certainly isn’t lost on the series, is that both are white non-African women, having a quarrel over what the fate of Africa should be, and who should lead that charge.

Furthermore, the series takes shots at international financial institutions like the World Bank (“It’s drowning Africa in debt!”), criticizes African leadership, Conflict diamonds (aka Blood diamonds), and more. These flourishes aren’t necessarily there to move the plot forward, and sometimes do feel inorganic, but they help contextualize the series’ overall backdrop and might even educate audiences on ongoing geopolitical debates that affect Africans and Africa, without the didacticism.

Consequently, the continent is unquestionably the other star of the series. “Queen Sono” captures the splendor of its many locales in a way that most of the world rarely gets to see. African content creators don’t often get to tell their own stories with the kind of budget that a studio like Netflix can provide (even though they aren’t on par with the budgets of average American series), and “Queen Sono” maximizes whatever amount the streaming giant allocated to the six-episode first season.

Shot in 37 different locations across the continent, including cities in South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, and Zanzibar, “Queen Sono” captures an Africa that might be a shock to some audiences in the West, who are used to very specific, limited depictions of the continent and its people.

Against this lush and at times frenzied backdrop, Thusi is commanding, playing Queen with a dignity befitting the character’s name, as if hinting to Africa’s pre-colonial past, when real kings and queens ruled over powerful and vast empires. Supporting performances are mostly competent, but Thusi just seems to be operating on an entirely different plane; one that sometimes makes her co-stars appear stiff in contrast. (Though Abigail Kubeka as Queen’s sardonic grandmother, is a charming standout.)

The ending all but screams that a second season is on the way, given the cliffhanger. And should it happen, by the time it arrives, the novelty of “Queen Sono” being Netflix’s first African Original series would have long worn off. This means that series creator, writer, and director Kagiso Lediga will need to up the ante with his script, and, like his main character, take some risks, so that it’s less of a derivative of an American procedural peppered with “Africanisms,” and is instead unapologetically African.

So consider “Queen Sono” version 1.0 of Netflix’s African Originals. It’s a somewhat unremarkable start, but there is plenty of room for improvement with future upgrades.

Grade: C+

The entire first season of “Queen Sono” is now streaming on Netflix.

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