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Sunday, September 27, 2020

Race and gender form a potent combination in ‘I May Destroy You’

Michaela Coel’s new show opens a Pandora’s box of difficult questions around responsibility and blame

Written by Shubhra Gupta | Updated: September 6, 2020 9:23:24 am
Coel in a still from I May Destroy You

From all accounts, Chadwick Boseman, who lost his young life to cancer, was a wonderfully empathetic, fantastically brave human. With his passing, the world has lost not only a good performer but also someone who helped raise the quantum and quality of Black representation in mainstream cinema.

It looks as if I May Destroy You, a 12-part BBC-HBO series, streaming on Disney+ Hotstar, is set to raise that bar. Creator, writer, co-director and lead actor Michaela Coel has pulled off an astonishing feat in the way she infuses pulsating intimacy into her messy, loopy, immensely relatable universe, unapologetically almost all-Black, tossed with a bit of Brown and White.

Arabella Essiedu (Coel) and her besties, Terry Pratchard (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), live in London. But they could be characters in any other big city, adulting, searching for meaningful work and relationships while figuring the thorny connection between voluntary use of substance, hook-ups, rape and consent. This Pandora’s box compels both the characters and viewers to ask difficult questions around responsibility and blame.

If someone you met on a dating app with the intent of having sex forces you into doing something you didn’t want to, is that rape or just “rape-y”? In a pub, if you’re busy doing lines of coke, would you blame a stranger for taking advantage of you? It’s a thin line, and I May Destroy You goes full tilt at it. As the characters struggle with fragmented memories of drug-induced assault, step back to examine the degree of discomfort in a consensual sexual encounter, flash back to childhood memories to see how certain events have shaped them, you could end up asking these questions of yourself.

I May Destroy You doesn’t need a trigger warning. The whole series is a deliberate trigger. It wants you to see how race, gender, class and sexual orientation, even personality, can be key to how you are treated: if you are a gentle gay Black man at a cop station complaining about a date gone bad, chances are, you will not be heard, even if the policeman sitting across from you is Black. Coel, interestingly, creates un-simpatico Black characters: an expensively-dressed head of a publishing house diminishes Arabella in their dealings. The desi character, hallelujah, is not a token Brown: the Cambridge-graduate and smarmy-gaslighting Zain (Karan Gill) is given screen time and a redemptive arc.

Coel has a fascinating face and her Arabella is a great character, full of plausible impulses. She’s on a tight deadline, aware that not delivering on time can be a near-calamity, and yet the lure of a late-night drink with friends is hard to resist. She is a writer with a block; she is also a creature of the internet, having found online fame. How we can unravel, even when we seemingly have it all, is a cautionary thread that runs through the series: But it also leaves us on a note of optimism, as Arabella journeys from confusion to clarity. What destroys us can also heal us.

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