Michaela Coel is taking over the world.
If you’re not familiar with the British actress and writer’s name yet, learn it now. Her new show, “I May Destroy You,” which she wrote and stars in, has been earning accolades all over the place. The show’s reviews include words like “blazing” and “jolting,” “riveting,” “stunning,” “volcanically talented” and “the best drama of the year.”
The show is a candid and arresting look at the aftermath of a sexual assault, with Coel’s protagonist Arabella trying to piece together what happened on the night when her drink was drugged and she was raped. (It’s based on a real-life experience Coel had several years ago.) The show might not be for everybody — given its premise, it’s more than fair if rape survivors or anyone else preoccupied with the darkness of the world right now needs to look away.
But, for all of its gravity, “I May Destroy You” is eminently watchable, its actors completely charismatic, their onscreen friendships often joyful. The parties they attend and the conversation they have and the worlds they navigate feel lived-in; authentic in ways it can be hard to capture on film. And while it’s often relatable, it still speaks from a very specific point of view, and one that isn’t often prioritized on TV: young, creative Black Londoners.
The show’s consideration of consent is curious and empathetic, with many of the characters experiencing violations and boundary-crossing much less defined than penetrative rape, and trying to make sense of those confusing sexual experiences. And its treatment of Arabella’s assault isn’t linear, either: she denies, dissociates, and has to carry trauma that’s only partly remembered.
Watch: “I May Destroy You” hits home for sexual assault survivors. Story continues after video.
In a long interview with Vulture published Monday, Coel makes it clear just how urgent her voice is, beyond the confines of the show. She talked about the ways she was undermined by white producers and studio executives while working on her previous show, “Chewing Gum,” which she also starred in, and which was based on a one-woman show she wrote after theatre school. On the first day of shooting, for instance, five Black actors were crammed into one trailer, while a white actor was given her own.
“The production office felt like the place I have no access to: the curtain rod behind where Jesus is dwelling,” Coel said.
Kadiff Kirwan, a “Chewing Gum” cast member who was also in an episode of “I May Destroy You,” called Coel’s treatment by the higher-ups “absolute bullshit.”
“It’s like she built this house and gave the keys to someone, and they locked her out of different rooms in her own house,” he said.
Following that experience, Coel delivered a powerhouse speech at the very prestigious MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival. At 30, she was youngest person to deliver a lecture as part of the influential series, and the first ever Black woman. That was when she spoke publicly about her assault for the first time, and when she was clear about what made the power dynamics on the “Chewing Gum” set so difficult.
The speech, which is on YouTube, got through to some powerful people.
“She’s this thing that we all say we want most, which is this cool young woman of colour, who happens to be a fantastic writer — the joke Holy Grail of modern television,” BBC drama commissioner Piers Wenger told Vulture. “And here she was, talking about what a shit time she’d had.”
Opportunities are granted less often to Black and other racialized creators than to white people. But as in Coel’s experience, even getting access to a show you created and starred in doesn’t actually grant you equality. If you’re not treated with respect when you arrive, and given the chance to really carve out a place for yourself, not much progress has been made.
Here in Canada, some Black actors at Ontario’s prestigious Stratford Festival — the establishment in terms of Canadian theatre — have shared their experiences in recent weeks. As white actors complain that it’s “harder” for them to get roles now that diverse casting is more common, many racialized actors still face hostility just for being there, and are often told implicitly (and occasionally explicitly) that they don’t really deserve their success.
If you want to watch Coel’s genius in action, “Chewing Gum” was regrettably taken off Netflix, and isn’t available on streaming platforms outside of the U.K. (boooo). But you can — and should! — watch “I May Destroy You” via Crave.
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