An Urgent Message

How Michaela Coel’s charged drama series speaks to audiences everywhere

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In a year as turbulent and troubled as 2020, Michaela Coel’s acclaimed series I May Destroy You stands out for more than one reason, and the clue is in the title. Conceived, written by and starring London-born actress, Coel’s show is about a spectrum of possibilities facing a young woman in the aftermath of an unprovoked sexual assault.

And though things sound ominous, destruction, as it turns out, is only one of the many paths open to 30-something writer Arabella Essiedu as she reflects on that chance encounter with an opportunist rapist in a busy London bar. Over the course of 12 shocking, darkly funny and poignant episodes Arabella weighs up all her options, and while the show has been labelled—among many other things— a “modern Jacobean revenge tragedy”, it is actually much more sensitive and complex than that: an intoxicating run through the whole gamut of human emotions and an affecting exploration of human fragility.

For one thing, it comes along in the wake of two iconic social movements, #MeToo and Black Lives Matter. I May Destroy You accommodates both but is a beholden to neither; at just 33, Coel has already absorbed those points and those points of justice are taken for granted. What makes Coel so vital and important as an artist today is the avenues she opens not just for women of color but for everybody. For a start, deep down, though she’s funny, cool and self-aware (her debut novel is called Chronicles of a Fed-Up Millennial), Arabella is somewhat lacking in street smarts, like a charming sitcom character (or even a romcom character, given her entanglement with an arrogant Italian) cut adrift in the gritty real world, and Coel uses this sometimes-abrasive contrast to incredible effect.

And then there are the characters. Arabella doesn’t go through this alone, she has her friends Terry and Kwame and flatmate Ben, and, though there are liberties taken with I May Destroy You’s sense of geography, this is the multicultural London of Coel’s youth (she was, she recalls with relish, the first black girl in the school’s history to join the Irish dance team). It’s significant, then, that Arabella’s assailant is white, seemingly quite unassuming and even somewhat nondescript. And as the series progresses, his power diminishes—we see him fiery and aggressive, then pathetic and apologetic, and even naked, as Coel remorselessly strips back the layers of lies he wraps himself in.

Integral, too, is the sense of performance, and Coel starring in her own drama and speaking her own lines is not the only thing that’s progressive about the show. As Arabella interrogates her own mind—questions her true feelings, questions how far she’s prepared to go in her need for closure—she starts to explore her capabilities. Could she hurt him? Could she kill him? Could she even forgive him? I May Destroy You is unexpectedly playful in that respect: Arabella flirts with new personalities, changing her looks and even her mind in a way that sometimes recalls the twisted, surreal world of Charlie Kaufman or David Lynch, a far cry from the normal urban drama.

But Coel is not afraid to get down and dirty when she needs to, and the show is keen to portray the reality of modern life, with frank sex and explicit drug use presented mostly without comment and often in good humour. Like fellow Briton Steve McQueen, Coel wants to show a world that’s imperfect but knowable and immersive, steeped in the contradictions of the London she grew up in: a housing project in the center of the city’s banking district. “Where I grew up,” she has said, “I saw lots that was real—the bankers with their briefcases, the man next door with five wives, the illegal immigrants in Flat 5. I’m from a world you rarely see on screen, and I want to show it off.”

And not only show it off, Coel wants to invite you in; though she comes from a Black-British female perspective, her writing is inclusive, which is why, in this year of all years, it matters so much. I May Destroy You might seem, on the surface, like a one-woman show, but, in truth, it is so much more layered and generous—even the police are treated somewhat fairly—and it’s no coincidence that, in real life, Coel is not a fan of the toxic consequences of social media. I May Destroy You shows a world in which connectivity and communication matter, which might explain that, for a series supposedly about trauma, it has been described as “a hangout vehicle”. It’s entirely fitting; indeed, as Arabella would say, “The alliance is spicy, blud.”

“I saw lots that was real—the bankers with their briefcases, the man next door with five wives, the illegal immigrants in Flat 5...”