Imagining Integration through Post-2020 Media: Reflections on Netflix’s Sweet Magnolias
I saw Netflix’s first season of Sweet Magnolias, based on a novel series by Sherryl Woods, in late spring of 2020, when my wife and I were hunkered down in an apartment at the west edge of Harlem. COVID was killing scores of New Yorkers, but especially those who were Black and Brown (Mays and Newman, “Virus Is Twice as Deadly”). People were also flooding the streets to protest the anti-Black violence epitomized by the George Floyd murder.
Sweet Magnolias offered a different picture of America. The first season of Sweet Magnolias, created by Sheryl J. Anderson based on the series of books by Sherryl Woods, tells the present-day interwoven stories of three women in the idyllic South Carolina town called Serenity. Having grown up within the White evangelical community in the suburbs of Knoxville, Tennessee in the eighties and nineties, I recognized much of the southern folkways I saw in Serenity: the homey phrases like “bless your heart” and “lickety-split,” the iced tea consisting mostly of ice and sugar. On the other hand, Serenity lacked the big box stores, the trailers that sagged under a heavy load and the urban communities that never recovered from “urban renewal,” the economic depression, the failing schools, and, above all, the strict de facto racial segregation.
The title “Sweet Magnolias” refers to an interracial sisterhood of those three Serenity women. One of this core group, Helen Decatur, played by Heather Headley, is Black. Intimate friends with the other two women, who are White, Helen ties the Sweet Magnolias together. She is in many ways the most powerful and empowered of characters, an unfettered single woman and a prominent lawyer in private practice. The Sweet Magnolias trio is a microcosm of an integrated, close-knit town, united by baseball, the ownership of crisply kept, impressive homes, a few common mom-and-pop restaurant hangouts, and religion. Everyone in Serenity seems to be Christian, an enduring fact about the South, but everyone, including the prosperous and cautious White people, attend an Episcopal Church pastored by a Black woman priest (played by a Zen and long-suffering Tracey Bonner). This is remarkable in a state where most 35% of adults identify as evangelical Christian and 2% identified as Episcopalian, which, despite its inclusive teachings, had only 4% Black membership in 2015. (For a history of the racial divide in Protestant churches, rooted in support for enslavement and segregation, see Jemar Tisby’s 2019 book The Color of Compromise.) In Serenity, Black and White people consort easily with one another. It isn’t the South I remembered. At least in terms of race, Serenity seems an exceptional place.
I wondered, though, if the South had changed since my youth, and Sweet Magnolias was simply reflecting that change. When I read research by the Center for Othering and Belonging at University of California, Berkeley, I found that America’s patterns of integration have indeed changed: the United States is even more segregated now than in 1990—although, surprisingly, the South is somewhat more integrated, ahead of the East and West Coasts. As the Center for Othering and Belonging’s research, as well as the work of ethicists like Elizabeth Anderson, have shown, this segregated state of affairs is where systemic racism takes a severe toll—especially on Black and Brown people. Segregation also, as Heather McGhee has recently argued in The Sum of Us, has a deleterious effect on the quality of life of White people of almost all classes but the very rich, undermining common goods like public education and air quality.
It is true, as Adrian Horton writes in The Guardian of the show’s first season, that in watching Sweet Magnolias we suspend disbelief and enjoy a representation of American life where the “horror of America’s racial contract is out of sight.” When a TV show contradicts the way things are, we can call it fantasy or escapism; we might also see Sweet Magnolias as alternative history or speculative fiction.
Initially, though, I felt it was phony, a Mayberry in which Dr. King’s dream had been realized, just like that, on the first take. Given the BLM protests going on, this picture seemed like escapism. But I kept watching with my wife, who is African American, because I really liked the image I saw. We both liked it. Sweet Magnolias is just as comforting as The Andy Griffith Show, but actually conforms to the image of the society I would like to live in: a South where people are as sincerely kind as they seem to be. Now and then racism is acknowledged, but only as an echo of the past—a somewhat repressed past, as in backstory of thwarted high school sweethearts, Ryan Wingate (played by Michael Shenefelt), who is White, and Helen Decatur, who is Black. Helen remarks that it was Ryan’s father who didn’t approve of him being with a Black girl. And the refusal of parents—of the White and Black bourgeoisie—to acknowledge another interracial teenage love affair motivates another character, Isaac Downey, in a poignant performance by Chris Medlin, to return to Serenity seeking his biological parents. It is significant that the one color line that cannot help but re-assert itself in utopian Serenity, is the major taboo of the Jim Crow South: Black/White love.
Heather Headley’s performance of Helen Decatur, especially in Season 2, is one of the strongest on the show. In Season 1, Helen is a Black woman expected to be strong for a lot of people and shoulder the burden of their personal business, yet in Season 2, the pain of her first love deferred is revealed as an underlying wound that prevents her from loving in the present. In Stealing Home (2007), the first book in the Sweet Magnolias, Helen is not Black but White: she’s introduced to readers as “a blond barracuda in a power suit” (11). Headley’s revision of the character, a blend of toughness, tenderness, and humor, makes all the difference.
I recently watched the second season of Sweet Magnolias with my wife and loved it. The second season reflects tangentially on America today: there’s a popular uprising of small business owners and concerned citizens against a corrupt city government; there’s a tortuous process of reconciliation after a marriage is torn apart by infidelity; and there’s the attempt to go back and address wounds from dreams of interracial love long thwarted. The wonder of it, though, is that despite Serenity’s drama we can count on eventual true, justice, and reconciliation.
Questions of realism aside, Sweet Magnolias projects an image of a society I want to live in. Though it hints at the importance of truth-telling, healing, and forgiveness, Sweet Magnolias approaches the current racial reckoning obliquely: through a utopian imagination, not critique. And utopia, as Ernst Bloch insisted in The Principle of Hope, is a key function of art in the face of injustice and suffering.
However, there is a more general danger that we will be charmed into complacency by the diversity of TV these days. It’s amazing the number of Black stars who are now front and center in film and television, and I’d like to see even more of that trend. But without systemic and material change to rise to the level of the symbolic and representational change—without abolishing all the color lines of this nation and creating prosperity for everyone—I feel uneasy in the celebration.
Representations of race on television tend to fall into two categories. The first is direct confrontation of racism through historically based drama and documentary, treating slave narratives, racial conflict, civil rights struggles, and so forth. The second is an unproblematic representation of diversity in the present, as if that’s the way we are today. But we seldom see imaginative, utopian stories of how actually to abolish the color lines that persist today. At other periods, literature like this has been possible: in the 1930s and early 1940s, proletarian novels by authors like Myra Page, Richard Wright, and William Attaway, narrated great migrations and strikes, assaults on poverty, wealth inequality, and White supremacy. Today, art tends to ruminate on the past or leap into the far future rather than represent a path from one to the other. If we are to “achieve our country,” to borrow James Baldwin’s phrase from The Fire Next Time (295), media representations of a multiracial America need to combine critique, utopia, and transformation. We need radical and speculative art, television, film, fiction, music, and social media representations of America that do not merely project the world as we’d like to see it but also imagine the trajectory, the steps, towards achieving it.
“Adults in South Carolina.” Religious Landscape Study, 2014. Pew Research Center.
Anderson, Elizabeth. The Imperative of Integration. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.
Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. In Collected Essays, edited by Toni Morrison. New York: Library of America, 1998.
Bloch, Ernst. The Principle of Hope, three volumes. Translated by Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, and Paul Knight. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1986–1995.
Horton, Adrian. “Sweet Magnolias Review—Low-Stakes Netflix Drama Is a Syrupy Watch.” Guardian, May 19, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2020/may/19/sweet-magnolias-review-netflix.
Lipka, Michael. “The Most and Least Racially Diverse U.S. Religious Groups.” Pew Research Center, July 27, 2015. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/07/27/the-most-and-least-racially-diverse-u-s-religious-groups/.
Mays, Jeffery C. and Andy Newman, “Virus Is Twice as Deadly for Black and Latino People Than Whites in N.Y.C.,” New York Times, April 8, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/08/nyregion/coronavirus-race-deaths.html.
McGhee, Heather. The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. New York: One World, 2021.
Menendian, Stephen, Samir Gambhir, and Arthur Gailes. “The Roots of Structural Racism Project: Twenty-First Century Racial Segregation in the United States.” Othering & Belonging Institute, University of California, Berkeley. https://belonging.berkeley.edu/roots-structural-racism.
Tisby, Jemar. The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019.
“Sweet Magnolias Episode Guide.” IMDb. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt9077540/?ref_=tt_ch.
Woods, Sherryl. Stealing Home. Don Mills, ON: Harlequin MIRA, 2007.