How Michaela Coel Tells Awkward Truths
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because she turned down upfront money for control.
By Eromo Egbejule
- The British actress and creator has captivated both sides of the pond with the searing I May Destroy You.
- Her power move to turn down a $1 million offer from Netflix to retain a piece of the royalties is paying off.
Michaela Coel’s journey to stardom on both sides of the Atlantic started with 2015’s Chewing Gum, a coming-of-age story about a young Black woman’s journey from her religious roots to finding her sexuality and voice in Great Britain. The 12-episode comedy exposed uncomfortable truths and Coel delivered a masterful performance that the Guardian described as “hilariously filthy” but “also human, tender, maybe even wise.”
It was a fresh perspective, one rarely seen on British TV, about Black women’s experiences, says Victoria Thomas, a Black British filmmaker and director of the international film business program at the London Film School. “The best of creatives create from what they know, and I think when you do that, you unearth a level of authenticity that puts forward a unique voice which can and will intrigue people.”
Coel, now 32, has repeated that trick but to greater effect, with I May Destroy You, a 12-episode show on BBC and HBO that is making a solid claim for the title of TV show of the year. Since June, when it premiered on HBO, I May Destroy You has been a hit, resonating particularly in the U.S., where the #MeToo movement took off three years ago.
I felt incredibly empowered to keep asking questions and watch people stutter.
Coel writes, co-directs and stars as Arabella, a millennial who uses her Twitter following as a springboard to propel her writing career. The show follows the shared trauma of three best friends who have all experienced assorted forms of assault and sexual fraudulence, including stealthing (slang for nonconsensual condom removal during sex). Racial and gender issues are also key topics on I May Destroy You.
Born in East London to Ghanaian immigrant parents who separated before her birth, Coel grew up on a council flat estate, the U.K. version of “the projects,” with her mother and older sister. Her route to the screen was a circuitous one: She quit college to embrace Pentecostalism, a faith which she gained and then lost while moving from dance to theater and, eventually, to TV.
Coel’s acting education came in the form of weekly performances at London cafés until the playwright Ché Walker encouraged her to sign up for drama school. In 2009, Coel enrolled in Guildhall School of Music & Drama, a prestigious century-old performing arts school.
While a student, Coel wrote Chewing Gum Dreams, a one-woman play whose title she borrowed from one of her own poems. It became the skeleton for Chewing Gum, which won two British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards. Following Coel’s triumph, the BBC gave her full creative license on her next project. Then Netflix came calling. But doing things on her own terms is a Coel character trait, both on-screen and off.
So, in 2017, Coel walked away from a $1 million offer by Netflix to buy the rights to I May Destroy You after the streaming giant refused to include copyright royalties in the deal. She also fired her agent when she discovered that Netflix was paying a substantial amount of money behind her back to push the deal through.
“Daring to ask questions, that wasn’t easy, but then the moment you begin to ask and you realize that the answers aren’t clear, for me, then it was very easy [to say no],” Coel told the BBC in July. “I felt incredibly empowered to keep asking questions and watch people stutter.”
Netflix rival HBO did better by her and cemented what is seen in some quarters as the crossover of another Black British actor into Hollywood, following in the footsteps of Idris Elba, David Oyelowo, Naomie Harris and, more recently, Cynthia Erivo and Daniel Kaluuya. It was a metaphorical statement of giving and withdrawing consent for a show rooted in a literal representation of Coel being assaulted.
In between, she has starred in Been So Long, Black Earth Rising and the Drake-executive-produced series Top Boy. While she has turned in strong performances in those efforts, it’s in her own shows that Coel makes magic happen.
Thomas believes that the success of I May Destroy You and Chewing Gum lies in their relatability and in filling a visible gap with a layered personal experience. “It is yet another example of what we already know — authentic stories well-executed sell across borders,” she says. “And I think Michaela will inspire many more creatives to stay true to themselves and keep persevering, albeit strategically, with developing work that you really understand and know, instead of pandering to what you might think may sell.”
With the lid lifted on Coel’s talents and ambitions, there’s no telling what she’ll come up with next. Except that it’ll be rooted in awkward, funny and compelling reality.
- Eromo Egbejule