Michaela Coel is one of the most surprising, uncompromising and powerful filmmakers that I have seen in the past few years.
Her new series, I May Destroy You, truly feels like a kind of revolutionary, watershed moment for television, and more broadly, filmmaking.
It follows the life of Arabella Essiedu, a Rupi Kaur-type Twitter writer (but less hackneyed) who lands a book deal with a publishing house. It doesn’t really matter if you’re not interested by the premise of the show, the weight of experience, fragility and truth propel this show into the stratosphere of great filmmaking. The premise is not what the show is actually about, it’s a basic line from which to hang the powerful experiences and stories that Coel needs to tell. I don’t want to give too much of the plotting away, because experiencing the twists and turns of this series is a real pleasure.
This is a show that is so uncompromising, and so original, that it's quite strange to compare it to the normal, sanitised television we are so accustomed to. Mainstream television (yes, I’m looking at you: The Office, Stranger Things, Suits etc.) never even touches the surface of these everyday things that are taboo in the realm of filmmaking. HBO’s Euphoria and Netflix’s Sex Education seem to give an inkling of real issues in the lives of young people in the modern world, but they never quite rise above staple comedy or teen drama. I May Destroy You just goes all-out and never even looks back. There are scenes of sex with period blood clots, rapes, pegging, and faked sexual assaults. But they aren’t there for shock-value, they’re intelligently explored, bringing balanced perspectives with fascinating character dynamics.
There isn’t a great deal to fault in this 12-episode series, however I did find that the pilot and the finale weren’t quite as tight as they needed to be. I never judge a series by its pilot episode, but this does buckle under the weight of needing to set up each of the plotlines, characters and relationships, and isn’t quite as engaging an episode as I would have liked. Don’t let it deter you, the second episode naturally fleshes everything out that happened in the pilot, and it only gets better from there. Episode 6 is my personal favourite, it’s a complex exploration of false accusations of sexual assault, Coel instead of indicting or playing partisan, always cleverly shows us (never telling us) how these characters think, their motivations, their demons and their failures.
I tend to value films that have a timeless quality over timely: political issue-films often become dated just a few years after they’re released, but Coel in this series manages to tap into both timelessness and timeliness. There are characters who feel the weight of isolation in the modern world, who feed off the toxic para-social relationships built from social media influence, and then there are explorations of femininity, sex, gender, class and race. What does it mean to be a woman? What does it mean to be black? Coel weaves so many ideas, themes and experiences into the slim 12-episode show, its more than most shows can do in 5 seasons.
I’ll readily acknowledge, I don’t feel like I’m particularly the target demographic for the show, but the thing about it is this: the show isn’t made for a demographic, Coel is driven to tell this story as a means of creative expression rather than to please people or to make some money. The pandering of mainstream TV sure, makes for a nice blanket of familiarity, but it tends to pervade the entirety of the medium, becoming an echo chamber of the same old ideas, just told in slightly novel ways. Michaela Coel instead, presents a lucid, balanced vision of contemporary life and the black, female experience; new and fascinating stories that put forward intelligent discourses on somewhat controversial topics. This is enough to allow anyone to appreciate the work.
Above all, I May Destroy You exemplifies the need for diversity in the medium of filmmaking. A majority of films I watch are essentially the same formula with little twists in how they’re told. In having seen Coel’s series, I now see how varied the human experience is, and how important it is to have a diversity in storytelling, not only as a means for equality, but also to better the medium as a whole. Michaela Coel is definitely a filmmaker to look out for.
‘I May Destroy You’ will stream in Australia later this year. Keep an eye out for it!