Michaela Coel Knows Her Voice Is Rare
The 'I May Destroy You' creator on making semi-autobiographical work, taking control of her artistry as a Black woman, and why she's vowed to run her own race.
I May Destroy You can only be described as beguiling. In its pursuit to tell the story of writer’s block-addled author Arabella Essiedu and her efforts to process the trauma of a rape she barely remembers, the freshman HBO series — a meta examination of creator, writer and star Michaela Coel’s own experience with sexual assault — has consistently upended expectations.
But in its closing half-hour, the show warps into something even more spellbinding. In the finale, Arabella finally recognizes the man who drugged and raped her in the pilot. Immediately, the once-foggy memory of what, exactly, befell her that fateful night crystallizes into clear focus. She suddenly remembers everything. From there, the episode then distorts into a series of dreamlike sequences, tracing Arabella as she imagines confronting her assailant in a number of different ways.
It takes a while to register that these are merely mental renderings of fictional scenarios. I May Destroy You’s first eleven episodes were also dizzyingly hypnotic, but the finale, in particular, played out like a Lynchian fever-dream — it stopped and restarted with no warning, morphing from one imagined reality to another while forgoing any delineation between them, trusting that the audience would eventually pick it up. Utterly transfixing in its execution, it was one of the most thoughtful conclusions for a TV show that always seemed impossible to close out. Each imagined scenario, it turned out, was a cognitive projection of a possible denouement to the novel Arabella had spent the entire season struggling to finish.
But it also felt cathartic, a clear testament to the power of art and its ability to offer us all the opportunity to rewrite our own histories. Coel may not ever get the justice she wants from the man who assaulted her, but Arabella can. A precisely-crafted protagonist created to serve as a cipher for reliving Coel’s trauma, Arabella can confront her rapist in person and on the page.
It’s no wonder, then, that Coel, speaking to me from London over Zoom last month, referred to her experience writing the show as “incredibly therapeutic.” “The show definitely made me think very deeply about my perspective of the world and of myself,” she said. “As it began to do that, it began to hold a mirror up to me, which is where it does become quite meta, in that it becomes very hard to know where Arabella is beginning and where I'm ending. It's this beautiful mesh and it's so hard to articulate and dissect.”
Coel initially broke out with Chewing Gum, an irreverent mid-2010s comedy about Tracey Gordon, a 24-year-old woman determined to lose her virginity. Like I May Destroy You, Coel also created, wrote, and starred in the Channel 4 sitcom. Cringe comedy in the truest sense, Chewing Gum was as deliberately unsettling as it was uproariously funny. Much of this was directly owed to Coel’s very physical performance, which constantly found her pushing against the walls of respectability, whether she was sucking someone’s nose as foreplay or seductively sticking chopsticks down her cleavage. The show was a hit in its native Britain, and in 2016, Coel was awarded with a BAFTA for Best Female Performance in a Comedy Programme. She accepted the award dressed in a traditional Ghanian kente-cloth gown designed by her mom.
For what it’s worth, Coel doesn’t put too much stock into the BAFTA recognition. “I was told to be really excited about it,” she stresses, though she does admit that the win gave her access to swanky events (“I love the parties,” she says) and, more importantly, boosted her profile as a creator. “Basically, what I was actually told was that more money would be put into your productions if you've got BAFTAs attached to your name. That was always the appeal for me, that it would give us more money to pay for more things to do in a better way.”
It’s immediately obvious how that success translates to I May Destroy You. Coming three-and-a-half years after the conclusion of Chewing Gum — during which Coel took some time to act in other people's projects, including Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror and Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi — I May Destroy You feels considerably larger than its predecessor. And not just because it’s airing on a prestige network like HBO with a visibly expanded budget, nor because its sole season has the same number of episodes as Chewing Gum’s two seasons combined. Rather, the show feels larger in scope: it considers, broadly, the human psyche, and more specifically, how we react to and process (or don’t process) trauma, how certain events can either inspire or hinder our work, how we support (or fail to support) those people closest to us, depending on our own mental states. Where the brilliant Chewing Gum universe felt small and individual, a coming-of-age tale about one woman’s journey to become a woman (so to speak), I May Destroy You feels epic. Given that the story is directly inspired by something that actually happened to the show’s creator, it’s undoubtedly very personal. But it seems determined to resonate beyond that.
Still, it’s more interesting to look at these two shows in tandem. After all, both focus on Black women who are struggling to work through the intricacies of their sexuality — albeit on opposite ends of the spectrum. On one end, there’s Chewing Gum, where Coel’s protagonist goes to great lengths to step into her sexual agency, fighting against the dogma of her religious upbringing to take control of her own carnal desires. In the other corner is I May Destroy You, which inverts that lens to examine how a different woman would respond to losing the sexual agency she once fully possessed. One character discovers it; the other tries to reclaim it after a tragic loss.
“I think it has to do with discovery, with discovering myself beyond being Black and working class,” Coel tells me when asked whether this recurring motif of sexual agency is deliberate. “Encountering what it means to be a woman was and still is a process for me. I write about what I'm processing. That's why race, class, and gender seem to be a theme throughout everything that I'm doing, because, in a way, I’m trying to process my role in the world, and how I’m seen and how I see myself. We see things through these lenses so much. It often becomes the basis in the things I've created.”
Luckily, I May Destroy You offered Coel the opportunity to create something that dealt with these “things” in exactly the way she wanted to. She’s in a much different place than she was half a decade ago, when she was denied an executive producer credit on Chewing Gum, a show she wrote based on a one-woman play she had also written. With I May Destroy You, Coel was able to take full control, get proper credit, and even step into the role of director for some of the show’s strongest episodes — including that mesmerizing finale.
In all ways, this is her vision, down to the most minute detail.
But commanding this authority wasn’t always easy, a symptom Coel attributes to “living life as a Black woman.” “I was so used to it. I was so used to it that it wasn't even a problem,” she recalls of the initial dehumanizing conversations with the executives behind Chewing Gum. To be a Black woman, she explains, is to normalize mistreatment, to contentedly accept the bare minimum, so long as you’re getting an opportunity — any opportunity. She had internalized this frame-of-mind so much, in fact, that by the time she was offered something different for I May Destroy You, she didn’t even know how to wield her newfound power. “It had to be explained to me that I wouldn't have to fight. I was arriving and getting ready to do it the way we normally do it,” she says of her first days on the I May Destroy You set. She expected pushback on her decisions, but instead, she was met with a chorus of people saying, Michaela, we're here to listen to you. “It was a process I had to undo,” she says.
Still, part of the appeal of Coel’s latest project is the way it refuses to be just a story about Arabella — and by proxy, just about Coel herself. While Arabella’s reckoning with assault dominates the main narrative, the series shines just as much when it detours to explore the equally challenging worlds of her best friends. A storyline about a threesome between aspiring actress Terry (Weruche Opia) and two men she assumes are strangers, but are actually friends, provides an incredibly nuanced inspection of sexual deception. Another, about the sexual assault of gay fitness instructor Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), is harrowing in its consideration of the dangers of anonymous sex, the shortcomings of the criminal justice system, and the burden of Black masculinity. Stories like these pulse with the specificity of firsthand accounts, a detail Coel, who forwent a writers’ room, credits to the fact that in many cases, they are. “My friends all knew I was writing a show about consent, and so they shared stories with me,” she says.
It should come as no surprise that I May Destroy You thrust Coel into the spotlight more than ever before — an outcome that, it could be said, was predicted in the scripts. From the show’s very beginning, Arabella was a mild celebrity. As an author known for her shrewd observations of millennial life, she had become a voice for many; as a Black, female author, she had become a guiding light — so much so that fans constantly prodded and bombarded her in public, zealously thanking her for her work. It’s true that Chewing Gum had propelled Coel into similar fame, but with I May Destroy You, she’s reached superstardom. “Sometimes, actually, when I go to the supermarket and people stop me, they suddenly find themselves saying, ‘Oh, God, now I'm like somebody in the show who's stopping Arabella,’” she says. “I'm just super mindful to not drink the Kool-Aid.” (At this, she pauses to make sure I understand the reference. “Do you know that phrase? I'm pretty sure I got it from America, because we don't have Kool-Aid in the U.K.,” she quips.)
But as with all things in life, Coel’s response to the perils of fame is also unique for someone in her position. She is not on Instagram and uses Twitter incredibly sparingly, which also prevents her from comparing her success to others’, as Arabella does in the show’s penultimate episode. “You're really running your own race and you’re on your own path, aren't you?” Coel asks rhetorically. “I don't have desires for fame or recognition or the mansion. I'm always just engaging with whatever is in my hand and working on that thing until it's done.”
“It's in the Bible, isn't it? I'm not a Christian, but I'm always drawing reference to the Bible,” she continues. “Something about Don't look to either side. Don't look left to right, but look straight ahead? This is something that I was aware of, to not look too much over there. Also, to never be afraid to disappear and not be relevant. That's where you grow. That's where you hibernate and make your work. It doesn't matter who's looking and who can see it. Just do your thing.”
“For now, I'm just grateful that I've been able to have my voice out there and added to the tapestry of television. I understand that my voice is rare. What I really hope is that soon my voice will not be so rare,” she finishes.
I can’t help but echo that hope. In terms of being one of the few Black women currently creating art on her own terms, more representation, access, and equality is badly needed. But I hesitate to think that Coel’s voice, with its singularity and commitment to novel reinvention, will ever be anything less than rare.
Even I May Destroy You, admittedly one of many recent shows to take on sexual assault, feels particularly innovative in its approach to the subject. I’m frequently reminded of a scene in the show’s penultimate episode, when Arabella unknowingly finds herself face-to-face with a man she previously exposed as a rapist. At a complete standstill with her work and desperate for intervention, she invites him to her house, where she walks him through her ideas for her book. He looks on puzzlingly before commenting, “I thought you were writing about consent.”
“I am,” she responds. “I don’t understand it,” he says.
“Well...I do,” she declares, matter-of-factly.
I thought about this scene while watching the finale, which refused to bend to audience expectation. I thought about it in conversations with friends about the show’s brilliance and while rewatching it for this story. Throughout, I kept wondering: What does a story about consent look like?
The answer to that question is, exactly like this.
Resolute yet bending, determinate but also open to interpretation, I May Destroy You doesn’t feel like a typical story about consent and assault, and that’s exactly where its strength lies. It’s what has always made Coel so special. She’s a one-of-a-kind talent whose imagination pushes past established understandings of the world, forcing viewers to think beyond their myopia.
With Michaela Coel, we will never know what to expect. Her work may even destroy you.