Arts

Why haven’t you watched Michaela Coel’s 'I May Destroy You?'

Micaela Coel explores the topic of sexual assault in a fast-paced society and how we deal with our trauma.

Micaela Coel explores the topic of sexual assault in a fast-paced society and how we deal with our trauma.

Image By: BBC/Val Productions/Natalie Seery

A cluttered bedroom, slips of paper and notes pasted hastily on a wall — it looks like a television drama where detectives work diligently to find a serial killer on the loose — but, in this case, it’s the bedroom of the young, British writer, Arabella Essideu. 

Just the first frame of BBC One and HBO’s “I May Destroy You” leaves the viewer with a mountain of questions.

Written and created by Michaela Coel, whose most notable works include “Chewing Gum,” “I May Destroy You” is the television show of the summer. With flawless direction, writing and acting, it touches on the humanness of us all in the cultural context and stratosphere of the #MeToo movement; it is what good television is and should be in today's cultural landscape. 

Coel — a London-based actress, screenwriter, singer, director and producer — wrote, produced, directed and starred in this 12-part comedy-drama series. Drawing off her own experience of sexual assault, Coel weaves Arabella’s trauamatic, gut-wrencing story together while maintaing top-notch humor, though often rooted in the tension and darkness of the situation at hand.

The tension, flowing freely through all of the dialogue, keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat. The dialogue, infused with English and London slang, is fast; the intimacy between Arabella and her friends is obvious through every word, every ting, every innit

This Black Britishness, an integral component of the story and the characters, as described by Bolu Babalola, at Vulture, “is not notable, and to understand that it is not notable, you must first recognise that it is present and important. You must recognise that it matters. Black Britishness need not be removed to relate to the show. 'I May Destroy You' as a piece of art, is not in the business of servicing those who ignore the needful. It is an intellectually and emotionally vigorous show that gloriously presents its world without explanation. It is a show that states that when one says rah, you don’t need to understand to understand.”

Contemporary television, so often confined and constrained to Whiteness and Americanness, deserves more put forth by creatives like Coel, who draw on their background and their distinct personal experiences, yet connect the story to the humanness of us all.

Coel was offered $1 million to develop the show with Netflix. But after learning she would not receive rights or any percentage of the copyright of her experience, her idea, her show — she turned down the offer. 

In a stunning profile, at Vulture, E. Alex Jung describes the brilliance of Coel and her show. “There is no writers’ room; she is her own fuel and engine. As she imagines her onscreen character, Arabella, she considers her own life and the lives of others.”

It’s Coel’s story, but a masterful fictionalization, bursting with complex storylines and characters experiencing everything that makes humans human. It’s practically impossible to describe what the show is actually about without doing a disservice the brilliance of Coel and her writing. 

We see the protagonist Arabella and her best friends Terry (Weruche Opia), an aspiring actress, and Kwame (Paapa Esssideu), a fitness instructor, deal with topics ranging from consent to relationships to sexuality to ambition and success. 

Themes, like that of consent, for instance, are often turned on their head, and observed through a kaleidoscope; the viewer is left to interpret all perspectives, all experiences and all emotions. The show is messy; messy in the sense that the viewer faces a moral dilemma, requiring serious introspection. 

Arabella isn’t perfect; she reads situations wrong, she is a bad friend at times, she causes the viewer to shake their head and want to scream at the screen. 

This is the genius of Coel: as a writer, a director and an actress. The audience is left rooting for Arabella, hoping that she finds happiness and closure after a horrific, traumatic assault; but there are moments where you don’t like the character. This is the complexity of humans and the human experience, presented beautifully through the life and decisions of Arabella.

Dancing around the intricate dialogue and the phenomenal writing and acting, is the music. 

Without a set soundtrack, music used throughout the series ranges from British hip-hop to Gospel to Garage to EDM to Indie Pop. Every song, carefully selected to reflect the conversations, the moments of silence, the inner-thoughts of characters, is powerful in its words, its sounds and meanings.

Arabella dancing, Arabella stumbling, Arabella reaching for the door to leave Ego Death Bar — Reverend Milton Brunson & The Thompson Community Singers’ “It’s Gonna Rain (Come On in the House)” plays. 

"Can’t you see the clouds gathering?/Don’t let it be, said too late/There’s a brand new feeling in the air/Better run, in the ark, before the rain starts." 

What happened? Is Arabella okay?

The music stops abruptly. Arabella typing vigorously, showering, using the restroom, brushing her teeth — a sensory overload; it’s hard to listen.

Arabella walking the streets of London, disoriented, the buses, the cars, ringing — blood dripping from her forehead.

What happened? Is Arabella okay? 

Now in the comfort of her flat, she grabs the door knob to enter her bedroom; a violent image blankets her mind. 

What happened? Is Arabella okay? 

"I May Destroy You" aired this summer and is available to watch here

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