Maverick Life


With Queen Sono, the super-spy series finds a dynamic home in Jozi

With Queen Sono, the super-spy series finds a dynamic home in Jozi
Production stills from the set of Netflix Queen Sono with Pearl Thusi, directed by Kagiso Lediga. Credit: Chris Duys / Netflix

Netflix has made us fickle. A series has to be really good to hold your attention all the way through. Queen Sono is really, really good.

Queen Sono is really good. We gobbled it up in two days following its February 28 release – all six episodes. And I was sorry when it was finished, immersed in the world of super-spy Queen Sono and the memory of her mother, the liberation fighter Safiya Sono; the strong women characters made it most compelling. As sorry as I was when we got to the end of Queen of the South and the Narcos series – riveting drug underworld stories or the thriller Ozark.

The comedian Kagiso Lediga and Tamsin Andersson are the polymath executive producers who have moved from comedy to drama with aplomb. They own Diprente which produced Late Night News with Loyiso Gola which one of our three 24-hour television channels must surely pick up soon. Our frenetic news agenda needs a light touch.

Queen Sono is a joint venture between Diprente and Netflix; it is the entertainment streaming company’s first script-to-screen original African series. Netflix is punting it big: there’s lots of African content on Netflix but this is the first big punt.

The stunning posters are everywhere: graffiti in Maboneng and Hillbrow, billboards throughout the city, the entire Gautrain station at Sandton. Real money has gone into the production and it shows.

It is a South African story with a moving African setting, shot in Zanzibar, Lagos (Nigeria) and Kenya. It features a storyline about illegal diamond mining in the DRC but the team found a stand-in site for that.

The series muse is Johannesburg and it is shot across 37 different locations. This is probably why I loved it. Lediga captures Jozi in all her contemporary dynamism and swag – Melville, Maboneng, the CBD, Park Station, Soweto (including Avalon cemetery) and the suburbs. Queen Sono (portrayed joyfully by Pearl Thusi) is Jozi personified, especially in the scene where she flips the bird at men who cat-call her in a street. Nova (Enhle Mbali Mlotshwa) also brings home the city spirit and gives the series spunk and fun. She is the love interest of Queen’s bestie, William (Khathu Ramubulana).


The story

It’s a familiar story: Queen is a super-spy with the intelligence agency. She is investigating a shadowy Russian company owned by Ekaterina (played icily by Kate Liquorish) funding a third force that is somewhere between Al-Shabaab and the EFF.

It’s led by Shandu (Vuyo Dabula), a political entrepreneur who wants to liberate the masses while making a little something on the side. The Russians are mining illicit diamonds and buying political influence. Wink wink.

If it sounds familiar, it is. Queen is also investigating the death of her mother Safiya (the fine artist Lady Skollie) and the two stories intersect and collide quite dramatically. Safiya doesn’t have a speaking role but her storyline is clearly built on the story of Chris Hani, the liberation hero assassinated before he/she could deliver a true and radical freedom.

James Ngcobo is the President and he is as dodgy and hungry to eat as you know who. It’s a local story but also a continental one. The action in Zanzibar and the market fight scenes pay homage to the island’s fabulousness. There is good and bad, but more bad, which is about right for Mzansi. Lediga is a talented writer and he threads enough into the narrative to make it a piece relevant to continental and international viewers. The script could have been tighter with more navigation – I needed to read the script notes to truly understand the full story, but don’t let that put you off.  Kwanele Sosibo, reviewing in the Mail & Guardian, has noted the high number of comedians in the line-up – this makes for nuggets of fun sprinkled into a script which could have erred on the side of hectic downs.

Production stills from the set of Netflix Queen Sono with Pearl Thusi, directed by Kagiso Lediga. Credit: Chris Duys / Netflix

Film has truly found its mass mojo: South Africa has always had a great scene but it’s been good at the fine art end of film and less sustained at the mass market. With the success of romcoms like Catching Feelings and Love is a Four Letter Word as well as strong local series, we’re onto something. The fight scenes are great (Thusi said in an interview that she enjoyed the action in Quantico and it shows) and the bomb plots at Park Station and the FNB stadium are plausible enough to suggest expertise in a genre vital to film success.

Production stills from the set of Netflix Queen Sono with Pearl Thusi, directed by Kagiso Lediga. Credit: Chris Duys / Netflix


A view from Kenya: a knock-off of the same themes but lots that’s great

I asked my friend Charles Onyango-Obbo, a legendary editor and cultural aficionado, what he thought. Here’s his short review.

“It was colourful, and the music/soundtrack was great. My biggest problem with it is that it is too derivative, a knock-off of much of the same themes, dialogue, and even logic we see in similar Western series (not westerns but from the West). The attempt to blow up the stadium is a common storyline, and in this case it went almost to the same script as Tracker* (which in several ways I thought was a better story). But the cinematography was great. Pearl Thusi is definitely a great actor and they should have developed her more. And where they take the biscuit is the attempt to grapple with the story of the liberators who have sold Africa short, and the role of the international criminal actors. This element started to come together well towards the end, but then it ended. If it were me, I would have cut out two of the middle episodes and redone them. But we all like a strong black woman with big natural hair – or their bald opposite as in Black Panther – on screen, don’t we? There’s something affirming about it.” ML

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