‘I May Destroy You’ And The Re-Writing Of Black Representation

Read our review of I May Destroy You here.

Naively, these last five to seven years, I thought Black representation in television had gotten better. I even wrote an opinion piece in 2014 about how exciting it was to see streaming services like Netflix and Amazon thrive, due to their inclusivity. I wasn’t completely wrong, as since then, these platforms have led the way on LGBT and ethnic representation. Netflix are now curating new content categories such as “Representation Matters” and “Black Lives Matter”. These highlight shows and movies that showcase the talent of people of colour, though you could argue that their hands have been forced by the events of the last year.

I was therefore shocked, midway into I May Destroy You, when I realised I was watching something truly groundbreaking. Everything that I thought I knew about black representation in television was challenged; the rulebook was thrown out and a new road paved. That’s the astonishing feat creator, writer, co director and lead actor Michaela Coel and her team managed to pull off. Within twelve twenty-minute episodes, an immensely relatable universe is created. Unapologetically almost all-Black, the show infuses pulsating personal intimacy with a brilliant honest exploration of Black millennial life. At its core, the show is a drama about consent that investigates different types of sexual assault. It stars Coel as Arabella, a young and successful writer based in London. We follow her and her friends Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu) as she navigates life after a rape.

Read our feature on Chewing Gum here.

Whilst we witness her exploration of the event and its aftermath through the series, Coel also manages to examine class, drug use, privilege, colonisation and decolonisation, infidelity, racism, sexuality, family, friendships, and the intricacies of how all these things make up a person’s life. It all may sound extremely heavy, and it is, but not relentlessly so. This is Michaela Coel, and as we saw in her earlier television effort Chewing Gum, she is extremely funny. Just like her E4 show, laced through this plot is some astounding comedic timing and plenty of belly laughs. The way the episodes are layered makes the balance between comedy and drama seem so effortless.

In August, Coel appeared on the American show The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, with titular host Noah drawing an analogy between her show and the comedy classic Seinfeld. He noted that while Seinfeld may have been described as a show about nothing, I May Destroy You was truly a show about everything. Arabella’s journey to recovery feels deeply personal, and sometimes watching the show you’re completely lost in her world. Despite this, it examines on a lot of universal aspects of life. Her messiness is so real, and the drama showcases her as both an anti-hero and downright self-involved and narcissistic. She’s imperfect; sometimes you root for her, sometimes you cannot stand her. Whilst a simple fact like this may seem trivial, it really is a change from numerous other shows that depict Black women. To this day, it is simply all too easy for Black characters to fall into stereotypes.

Shows like ‘Atlanta’, Issa Rae’s ‘Insecure‘ and importantly here in the UK, ‘I May Destroy You‘, provide a blueprint for people of colour to create shows for themselves outside of the realm of stereotypes.

Black stories have always carried an undercurrent of dread, or are limited to the same gritty struggles. These obviously do exist in some capacity, but not to the extent where it’s the be-all and end-all of every Black person’s experience. There were moments in the show where I did genuinely fear for the lives of the characters, simply due to the conditioning that I’ve had. I expected to see these Black characters in the very worst situations. There is terror sprinkled throughout, but the characters never become stereotypes or caricatures. For some of us Black Brits who are navigating our way through creative circles, watching characters like Arabella along with her friends is more life affirming than you can imagine. I May Destroy You depicts what our lives look like outside the white gaze; pretty normal, fully-formed and more multidimensional than a side-bit character can portray. 

In 2020, Coel was everywhere, and rightfully so. Every magazine cover, every headline seemed like a victory tour. After all, this was the woman who had turned down $1 million from Netflix for ownership of her own show. She deserved this crowning  moment as one of Britain’s best artistic talents. The most interesting piece came in late September from GQ: a Zoom conversation between Coel and Donald Glover. In my personal canon, this was a conversation I’d been waiting to hear or read for a while. Ever since Coel’s breakout, I couldn’t help comparing her to what is surely her American counterpart. As Jonathan Heaf puts it in the article, before Glover’s seminal show Atlanta, “certain television shows with all black protagonists were just not being commissioned as frequently as they could be, neither in the States and certainly not in the UK.”

Read why you should watch I May Destroy You here.

In 2016, when Atlanta dropped onto our screens, it presented a mix of benign and violating scenarios to create clever comedy. Laugh-out-loud moments were juxtaposed against scenes of police brutality. Shows like Atlanta, Issa Rae’s Insecure and importantly here in the UK, I May Destroy You, provide a blueprint for people of colour to create shows for themselves outside of the realm of stereotypes. This blueprint also extends to television networks as a model of success. It proves that they can get behind shows that aren’t a relic of past successes, but a new platform for a diverse leads and stories. The critical success of I May Destroy You only serves to back up this point.

What I hope for is that I May Destroy You can become a model for others to follow, where cultural and ethnic representations can be shifted to something that isn’t condensing, that isn’t wholly negative or wholly positive, but just simply relatable or true to life. The fact that it’s taken this long for me to look at a Black character on a show and be pleased is breathtaking. Streaming sites tend to have more diversity due to the global audience they attempt to reach, but if we’re seeing shows like I May Destroy You on a terrestrial network, then it’s a move in the right direction. Coel has created original characters and developed a show that defies stereotypes, including aspects of her own life while being widely relatable. It is refreshing that race is shown as part of everyday life, but not necessarily the cornerstone of your personality.

I May Destroy You is available on BBC iPlayer here.

Words by Warren Bradley

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