Scrolling through iPlayer around a month ago, trying to look for the next series to binge-watch into the early hours of dawn …
… after lockdown turned my sleeping schedule entirely upside down, I spotted a thumbnail for a new series by Michaela Coel. I’ve been following Coel for a while now: her debut play Chewing Gum Dreams, performed at the National Theatre in 2014 introduced me to the world of one-woman theatre, and I watched her spin-off comedy series Chewing Gum on Channel 4, but a drama on consent seemed a bit heavy for the early hours of the morning.
By the time I started watching I May Destroy You, eight episodes were available for me to binge-watch in one sitting … nd I did because – oh wow, is it good!
There’s a lot of hype surrounding I May Destroy You right now. Articles have ranged from the great – billing the series as a critical hit on both sides of the Atlantic and a game-changer for British TV – to the not-so-great – such as journalists feeling the need to vie Coel against another white female writer, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and don’t get me started on Allison Pearson’s piece for the Daily Telegraph that praised the show for being ‘so brilliant you don’t watch it thinking that most of the characters are black. That’s irrelevant. They are human beings equipped with the full repertoire of virtues and vices.’ Something tells me this was her first time watching a series including more than that one token black character.
The one thing in common with all these critical responses are that people are shook by what Coel has managed to create. It feels fresh, original and celebrates black Britons in a way so seldom seen on mainstream TV.
Writing for the Guardian, Candice Carty-Williams (Writer, Queenie) said that Michael Coel plays the first on-screen writer that she can relate to. Yeah, both Carty-Williams and Coel’s character, Arabella, are black, but I think her statement goes further than this. I think the relatability of Arabella also functions in a similar manner to the way in which millions of women of different racial backgrounds found they could relate to the black women in Bernardine Evaristo’s Booker Prize-winning Girl, Woman, Other. I initially thought Evaristo’s characters would predominantly be relatable to black women, but when – by some uncharacteristic circumstances – I found myself in a book group discussing Girl, Woman, Other, white women repeatedly professed that Evaristo had created characters that they saw aspects of themselves in for the first time.
I think the reason why people are so shook about I May Destroy You is because Coel has managed to do the same. In the process she has shown us that programming black writers and showcasing black talent on our screens is not only necessary to address the fact that the overriding majority of people in the TV, film and theatre industry are white and middle class, but that series’ that do so can potentially appeal to a wider (and not only black) audience that identifies with something beyond the white, middle-class perspective we’re so used to.
It has been widely acknowledged that Coel’s writing feels subversive. Everything from the structure of the series – the constant flashbacks or commencement of plotlines that suddenly and unexpectedly dissipate – to its subversions of genre – comedic yet serious in its exploration of sexual abuse, rape and consent – to its exploration of the complexities and many grey-areas surrounding the issue of consent feels like it’s doing something we’ve never seen on British TV. The thing is, though, it never feels like Coel is trying to be subversive just for the sake of it. Coel’s way of telling her story might feel like something we haven’t seen before, but I think that’s mainly because we very rarely see a black woman being given the freedom to tell her story any way she wants.
I was in a Zoom conference this week where someone made the argument that the reason why the theatre industry needs to see fundamental structural change is because it doesn’t make sense to try and shoehorn Afro-centric narratives into Euro-centric spaces. I think the reason why Michaela Coel’s writing feels subversive is because it has refused to conform to the structure that audiences expect from a BBC series. Screenwriters talk about how – more than any other kind of writing – writing for TV or film is essentially very methodical: you have to write an episode to a certain time and need to make sure you tick all the boxes the audience want to see over the course of that episode. But I think Coel shows us that this isn’t necessarily the case. Yes, this is one – and definitely a very successful – way of writing for screen, but what if, like theatre, this way of writing doesn’t actually fit the stories that writers historically rejected by this industry want to write?
Because, alongside exploring the nuances of consent, this is the other fundamental issue explored by I May Destroy You: how can young black artists, whether they be writers like Coel’s character Arabella or actors like Weruche Opia’s character Terry, make it in a creative industry dominated by white audition panels or white publishers? The power dynamics of this come into play when Terry is asked in an audition to remove her wig so that the audition panel can see her natural hair, or when Arabella is overjoyed to find out that the head of her publishing company is a black woman. Arabella’s experiences within the publishing industry are not all positive though; while the publishing house benefited off the popularity of her first book thanks to her social media following, they fail to support her after she realises she has experienced sexual abuse, and so she is ultimately left alone to publish her second book.
The ending of the series – Arabella publishing her second book alone – therefore comes around full circle to Coel’s own achievement – writing and directing a series that the BBC gave her full creative freedom over. The last episode of I May Destroy You was so poignant and intelligent in its offering, not of a solution, but for closure for Arabella in her experience of sexual abuse. The three unsettling and unexpected conclusions offered almost made me forget the final scene – Arabella sitting in a bookshop reading from her newly published book. But, reflecting on the series, it is this scene that really sums up the success of Coel’s series to me. When black women are given the freedom to write without preordained constraints, we have the potential to create highly provocative and original work that can resonate with audiences for a while.
So, for goodness sake, start programming black women and trust them with creative freedom – we’ve been knowing we’re great, it’s time the world knew too.
I May Destroy You is available to watch on BBC iPlayer now.