Queen Sono Only So-So: Netflix’s first original scripted series from Africa

My roommates and I squeezed close together on the couch, snacks in hand, and prepared to binge the much-anticipated Queen Sono. As first-generation women of the African diaspora, we were excited to delve into the dramatic espionage tale starring Pearl Thusi as a raunchy undercover spy protecting African intelligence while contending with a tumultuous past. Written by South African writer and director Kagiso Lediga and produced by a primarily African cast and crew, Queen Sono is Netflix’s first African original scripted series.

As a fellow African creative, I was excited to support an African production—the first of its kind. However, as the series unfolded, Queen Sono left much to be desired. While Sono, the protagonist, is a sexy and dynamic Black female lead, her character is sullen, angry, and reckless for most of the show, creating for unlikeable qualities that often lead her into trouble. In many episodes, the various fight scenes come off as amateur and predictable.

Queen Sono is set across various major cities in Africa, such as Johannesburg, Zanzibar, and Nairobi. However, for those of us familiar with the continent, we know that most scenes were filmed in South Africa—even when they were purported to be elsewhere. In many ways, it seemed that Queen Sono’s trite plot and characters conformed to the standards of Netflix originals: quick, flashy, and binge-able. With its plot holes and setting discrepancies, some wonder whether Queen Sono received a smaller budget than other Netflix shows. But the streaming service-turn-content creator does not release its streaming or revenue numbers.

Despite some of its shortcomings, the writers of Queen Sono did find ways to integrate the rich and complex histories of colonization throughout the script and plot, exploring themes of class warfare, economic inequity, white imperialism, and legacies of patriarchy. Those of us within the African diaspora are intimately aware of how these subjects and their long histories continue to significantly impact the standard of living for Africans today—from access to clean water to tyrannical leaders to universal education. I found myself rooting for the liberation group that sought to hold greedy politicians accountable for their corruption, a dream that many African natives yearn for. Shade was definitely thrown along with some mild humor that alleviated the weighty tension of these subjects.

The release of Queen Sono is the beginning of a much larger effort to invest in original African productions throughout the continent from Nigeria to South Africa. Revenue projections from streaming platforms are expected to exceed $1 billion in sub-Saharan Africa by 2024, and Netflix is gearing up to fill that market. After witnessing the success of smaller, local productions in Africa, such as with Atlantics and Lionheart, Netflix has begun to shy away from standard Hollywood portrayals and expand into original content worldwide. Star Wars actor John Boyega is one of the first African celebrities to kick off the partnership with Netflix and capitalize on this opportunity to produce non-English language African feature films.

So, what do partnerships like this mean for the international media industry? First and foremost, it is undoubtedly exciting that (finally) Netflix and other media conglomerates are investing in African production teams and writers who can tell our stories from personal experience. Not only does this mean we get to see more African actors on screen and witness stories that reflect our narratives, but it also stimulates the film and media industries within African economies.

Even modest allocations that come out of Netflix’s staggering $8 billion original production budget will enhance the quality, reach, and production value of several local projects that often have trouble finding funding. As Netflix diversifies its content library, the vice president of international originals predicted that within years, “half of the top 10 most-watched shows in a given year are going to come from outside of the U.S.”

On the other hand, as an apparatus that seeks to monopolize the global media industry and become the primary source of content throughout the world, it is hard to trust the corporate aspirations of Netflix. Storytelling and representation on screen hold the power to make people feel seen. In the hands of a media colonizer like Netflix, I worry that our stories will become diluted in hasty, half-hearted productions that seek ratings over quality. I can’t help but wonder if the dynamics of working with a multi-million-dollar budget affects the intimacy and authenticity of which stories are told and through what perspective. Today, viewers—myself included—are inundated with content saturation across competing streaming services. While the promise of an influx of original African content is enticing, as is the case with Queen Sono, viewers are ultimately hungry for quality over quantity.

Our stories are layered, nuanced, and intimate—undoubtedly there’s a lot to work with. I am cautiously hopeful to see what comes out of this creative investment and push into Africa. Blood & Water, the next African original series to be produced by Netflix, is slated to be released later this year.