It seems that black creatives are often positioned as perpetual rising stars. No matter what has been achieved, how far up the career ladder they climb, they are always at the precipice of a big break, suspended in up-and-comer limbo much longer than their white counterparts. Recipients of the Bafta rising star award for the last three years have been deserved black actors, who are still yet to be presented deserved best actor awards from the same institution.
This is no better illustrated than by Michaela Coel. This has been dubbed “her breakout year”, despite having won the Bafta for best female comedy performance for Chewing Gum in 2016, given a groundbreaking MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh TV festival in 2018 and boasting a list of credits (including Black Mirror and Star Wars) that would make her the envy of many contemporaries. Yet, it is her BBC and HBO series I May Destroy You that has finally entrenched her position as a televisual thaumaturge.
Its forensic and unflinching look at race, dating, social media, sexual abuse, consent and friendship is equally harrowing and hilarious. Coel plays the vexing but enchanting Arabella, a Twitter-famous author of the bestselling Chronicles of a Fed-Up Millennial who is failing to finish the first draft of her followup. The day before her deadline, she decides to pull an all nighter but soon ends up drinking with friends in a bar called Ego Death. She regains consciousness in the early morning, the night’s events a blur other than a vision of a man looming over her in a toilet. A particularly devastating scene depicts a kindly police officer helping an in-denial Arabella process the memory: it is because she had been situated below her assailant that she recalls his nostrils appearing “large and flared”.
Anyone familiar with her work will be well aware of Coel’s ability to defy expectations – firstly as a young, black, working-class British woman who continues to dominate the international TV landscape, and then again through what she creates. As with Chewing Gum – a chirpy coming of age story set on a council estate fronted by a sex-mad Christian – I May Destroy You goes where very few series have ventured. As well as period sex, we see the efforts of a black, gay character, Kwame, to report a non-penetrative sexual assault to the police, and the stigma and shaming that stop so many from doing so.
It was a fantastic, frustrating watch; I found myself getting as riled up by the messiness and moral ambiguity of the characters as I did by the commentary online towards the show. At times it felt like some of the most salient points it made were missed: viewers reacted first to their expectation of what Coel as a black woman who is outspoken on many of the issues the show addresses should be as opposed to what was actually being said (or not said) on screen.
In one scene, for example, Arabella at her most navel-gazing and self-destructive chastises a bemused doctor for using the term Afro-Caribbean to describe her. “That was ignorance,” she says. “I’m not Afro-Caribbean, I’m actually African.” It has been applauded on social media as a takedown of the conflation between black identities, which is a valid point. But to me, the scene itself reads clearly as an almost satirical take on the weaponisation of identity. Her livestreamed breakdown on Halloween was similarly cheered by some viewers. “Did you know crash test dummies don’t factor in breasts?” Arabella says correctly, simultaneously drunk on wine and the serotonin from likes. Though the character made salient points, the scene was more immediately a critique on the perils of social-media validation and virtue signalling. At times, I couldn’t help but wonder if we’d be so willing to project what we thought Coel should be saying if she wasn’t a black woman who had been open about her experiences of sexual assault.
While largely positive, the response demonstrates a popular expectation that even the most thorny issues be presented as black and white. But as I May Destroy You progressed, the only thing that became clear was that Coel resides firmly in the grey. Be it the character arc of Zain (who took his condom off during sex without Arabella’s permission) to Theo (a white woman who falsely accused a black classmate of rape when they were at school and goes on to run a support group for survivors of sexual assault) several outcomes are not just surprising but deeply uncomfortable. And Coel’s ending for the series was unapologetically ambiguous; it featured Arabella tracking down her rapist and playing out three possible conclusions. The third involved them having consensual sex.
Many wanted the show to deliver a definitive statement on how to process sexual assault. Instead, Coel posits questions many of us would rather weren’t asked at all, without necessarily seeking to provide the answers. Some viewers were confused, others angered. But many appreciated it as a work that provoked tricky thoughts. In a time where we are too often encouraged to think in absolutes, it makes her work singular.
By refusing to tie itself up neatly, I May Destroy You forces viewers to sit with ideas that are difficult, and at times soul-destroying. I do not begrudge Coel for that, I applaud her. Besides, she gave us fair warning in the title.