Keagan Carr Fransch reviews I May Destroy You, the acclaimed new show from British writer-director-actress Michaela Coel.
The following includes discussion of rape, sexual assault, sexual violence, drug-facilitated sexual assault, and PTSD.
Since the release of her comedy Chewing Gum in 2015, Michaela Coel has been a recurrent name on the list of writers to watch. Her new half-hour series, I May Destroy You, is set to see her rise to the top of that list, with 12 episodes packed with quick wit and sharp observations. But this time around, Coel has swapped laughs for hard-hitting, necessary truths.
I May Destroy You follows the story of Arabella (played by Coel herself), an emerging writer whose debut book has enjoyed some success. We first meet her in Italy, where her agents have sent her to work on her second novel, but where she has instead been spending time with her rugged Italian lover. On her return to London she’s forced to pull an all-nighter to get something on the page before a looming deadline, and things take a dark turn when she takes a break from writing to meet friends for a quick drink. She wakes the next morning with a cut on her head, a smashed phone, and no idea how she got back to her desk. Piecing together information from disturbing flashbacks, she realises that her drink was spiked and that she was raped the night before.
What transpires in the episodes that follow – revelations, further assault, the ebbs and flows of PTSD – is not comfortable viewing. Nor should it be. Although the series was created and produced before the murder of George Floyd and the current global protests demanding respect for Black lives, it cannot be viewed outside of that context. While it doesn’t deal with police brutality specifically, it does put the mistreatment of Black bodies under a microscope, specifically the tired, forced dichotomy of hypersexualisation and disregard of the Black female body.
One can’t help but think of the murder by police of Breonna Taylor, wrongfully suspected of drug-related activities, or of Oluwatoyin Salau, the Black Lives Matter activist who was found murdered after tweeting about her sexual assault. The prevalence of such images means Blackness is often reduced to being only those things. But here, creator, writer, director and performer Michaela Coel uses her voice with blunt-force clarity to take control of the narrative, showing not just the ubiquitous violence towards Blackness, but also its oft-ignored complexity; showing us some of the pain, but also sharing some of the joy.
Never before have I felt so visible as during the weeks following the horrific murder of George Floyd, when well-meaning white people around the world finally discovered racism and took to the streets in outrage, before returning to their normal lives two weeks later, having largely swapped social integrity and solidarity for maintaining the integrity of their Instagram grid aesthetic. Non-Black viewers may in turn select which lens to view I May Destroy You through: assault, public access to mental health, problematic standards of care in police interviews – Michaela Coel offers myriad thematic bones to chew on.
As a Black woman, however, I can’t help but see all those themes in I May Destroy You, but through the additional lens of my own identity. I can’t help but feel the crushing weight of my Blackness, the conspicuous concentration of my melanin burning as I watch Arabella and her friends navigate the world. Coel hones in on the uncomfortable truth that seeing Blackness, and Black womanhood, means seeing all of it; that the skin comes with trauma and mistreatment written in the contract; it isn’t an accessory that can be discarded or a black square that can be deleted.
Coel deftly sets up the two insidious and inflexible states of “allowed” Blackness – hypervisibility (stereotypes and hypersexuality) and invisibility (disregard and denial of basic rights) – and then fiercely smashes them to pieces. She does this by exploring the multiple facets and varied experiences of the in-between, of ordinary, everyday Black life: a writer trying to build a career in a predominantly White field; an actress dealing with microaggressions in the audition room; a gay man having to diminish the fullness of his identity in order to preserve familial ties.
What’s more, Coel uses the series as a platform to put Black female bodies front and centre, to force us to more than look at them; to really see them, to acknowledge their existence and their right to that existence. Honest inclusion isn’t simply putting Black people in your show, it’s allowing space for different shades of Black, different Black hair textures, different Black body types. Michaela Coel has put Black women everywhere – some in positions of power, some as stans of Arabella’s work, some as lifelines in her trauma, and some as antagonists to her progress.
And it is such a relief. Thank goodness for the voice of this Black female writer, demanding the right to range; to visible, authentic friendships and sisterhood that are fundamental to the story and not just a sprinkling of flavour. Thank goodness for the refusal to pander to the white gaze – each of these women have access to respect, love and desire, and are allowed intimacy, complexity and the space to make mistakes. Crucially, if we’re really listening, this refusal calls us to examine the fetishisation of Blackness for sex, the commodification of Blackness for aesthetics, and the exploitation of Blackness for diversity points.
While one or two story threads do feel a bit unresolved, the emotional journey – distressing as it is – more than compensates for these few creases. And yet we’re so used to the neatness of stories, the captivating beginning and nail-biting end. We want the heroic celebration or the tragic fall, not the unsettling, eternal middle. But after such trauma, the middle is what we’re left with: messy, unresolved and complex. The final episode leaves us reeling, with much to wrestle with. Notably, Coel doesn’t paint sexual assault with broad strokes or in one colour, but rather places the monster in plain view and shines a blinding light on it from different angles, allowing us a good, hard look at as much of it as possible. Incredibly, she manages this without mincing words, without patronising, and without sacrificing the integrity of the main storyline.
But aside from its immediacy, the series is visually stunning. Beautifully shot by Adam Gillham, it looks, for lack of a more appropriate word, real. Among other things, it makes me think, “yes, that is what it looks like when people of different shades are in the same room together” – everyone is lit and visible, not just the lighter-skinned people. Together, the filmmaking and storytelling is a perfect partnership, capturing what the world really looks like whilst exposing what it really feels like. Coel has that wonderful gift of being able to deliver a gripping half-hour while intricately layering together each episode to build towards something truly confronting. She also knows when to make you laugh – just after she’s punched you in the gut. It’s surprising and devastating, humorous and unbearable, unrelenting and breathtaking.
Coel’s sensitivity, and her generosity, is in her specificity: not just in performance and directorial choices, but in the contract she makes with the viewer that she will be as clear as possible about the types and effects of sexual violence, assault and trauma, so that you will have no doubt that it is wrong to be treated that way. As such, this series does so much more than just stand with victims of racism and sexual assault, and with those who are victims of both at the same time.
But does this clarity – and the boldness in not shying away from the realistic – qualify as trauma porn? As just another instance of displaying the destruction of the Black body? Honestly, I don’t know. I would never presume to be a voice for victims of sexual assault, but I must caution viewers that the violent and disturbing acts are not implied, they are depicted, and often without warning, so could therefore be triggering for some survivors. Creating this series is perhaps one method that Michaela Coel has found useful in recovering from her own documented experience of assault (which she shared in her lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival 2018), but it may not be for everyone.
I May Destroy You asks many urgent questions – about consent, care, and the complexities of Blackness. But what stays with me are these: What happens when we are torn apart? How do we put ourselves back together? And what do we need around us to safely begin again? The series screams these questions at the top of its lungs, and the efficacy and clarity of Michaela Coel’s unapologetic voice is something wonderful to behold.
I May Destroy You is streaming on Neon now. New episodes drop weekly.
If you are affected by sexual abuse in any way, please consider contacting any of the following organisations: