Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You is “the drama of the year so far”
The Guardian has dubbed it “the drama of the year so far”. Vanity Fair calls it “the undisputed show of the summer.” The Hollywood Reporter calls it “the most ‘2020’ show of 2020”.
They’re all talking about I May Destroy You, the hit HBO drama executive produced, written and co-directed by its star, two-time BAFTA winner and Black Reel nominee Michaela Coel (Chewing Gum, Black Earth Rising), streaming on Showmax.
Michaela plays Arabella, a carefree, self-assured Londoner with a burgeoning writing career, a group of great friends, and a boyfriend in Italy. But when her drink is spiked with a date-rape drug, she must question and rebuild every element of her life.
I May Destroy You was sparked by its creator’s own experience with sexual assault. In 2016, while hammering out a deadline on the script for Season 2 of Chewing Gum, Michaela took a break and met up with a friend for a drink. Her next clear memory is of “coming to” at her desk, writing in a fugue state. It wasn’t until she discovered her phone was smashed and she began having flashbacks that she started piecing together the events of the night and learned that her drink had been spiked with a date-rape drug.
“Through my personal story, I realised how common consent being stolen from you was,” she says. “From pretty early on, I instinctively wanted to document it so one day I’ll be able to look back and try to forge some meaning, so it isn’t just a scary blob of senseless crime.”
I May Destroy You is the result of that documenting process. Creating the show has been a healing experience, she says. “I had therapy and I still check in with my therapist now, but writing this was incredibly cathartic. What began as my trauma became a show that is largely fictional and largely inspired by real people’s stories. Mastering it, and trying to develop a sense of understanding of how to evolve and grow and move forward – it’s directly taught me and woken me up. It’s been remarkable.”
Michaela was struck by how often “it is so un-dealt with. We leave it inside of us and we allow it to manifest and flare up in ways that we aren’t able to predict because we ignore it. It just felt like there was a lot of unresolved pain,” she says. “There’s something that goes on in our brains when we begin to become aware that we’ve been taken advantage of, and that point is one I’m constantly exploring through the series.”
As part of her research, Michaela spoke to scientists about memory, drug-facilitated sexual assault and post traumatic stress disorder. She also consulted her own step mom, who works at a sexual assault referral unit in London. Most importantly, she spoke to others who’d been through similar trauma.
“When you are a survivor or a victim or whatever you want to call it, you can hold onto the anger – really understandable anger, that you have a right to feel – but it’s just about whether it’s serving you and whether you can sleep at night and have a peaceful life,” Michaela says. “It’s not about rapists, it’s about the people who have had these experiences, and how do you go towards sleeping better at night?”
“Arabella is more powerful than her trauma, but everybody has that power in them,” Michaela believes. “If I could convey to people watching that they’re not alone, and they should be kind to themselves, that’d be a dream come true.”
I May Destroy You, which also stars Nigerian actress Weruche Opia (Top Boy, When Love Happens) and Paapa Essiedu (Press, Gangs of London), is fearless, frank and authentic in its exploration of the question of sexual consent in contemporary life and how, in our modern landscape of dating and relationships, we make the distinction between liberation and exploitation.
Thanks to Michaela’s own secret weapon – humour – it’s also unexpectedly funny. “I use laughter to disassociate from something harrowing, or to get closer to it,” the star explains.
The series premiered on 7 June 2020, missing the cut-off for eligibility for this year’s Emmys by a week, but has already won the love of both critics, who’ve given it a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and fans, who took to Twitter in droves following the BBC finale.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever watched something more real, vulnerable or beautiful,” @maria_b_robles tweeted. “Thank you @MichaelaCoel, this has helped me with my own healing in more ways than I’ll probably ever realize. You’re incredible.”
@umithebee wrote, “Michaela Coel’s writing leaves you breathless and there’s nothing on television like it. She has given me closure and hope and so much more. She deserves ALL the awards!”
That she does, not least for taking I May Destroy You through 191 drafts before she was happy with the script, then turning down Netflix’s $1million offer for I May Destroy You because she refused to surrender her copyright, waiting until BBC’s Channel 4 and HBO offered her the full package, rights included, to get her show to air.
Michaela has just been named one of Vogue’s 25 Women Shaping 2020, with the publication calling I May Destroy You a “TV revelation” and Michaela herself “that rarest of things: a truly original creative force.”
“I May Destroy You is at once brave and delicate, untangling the trauma of sexual assault with dark humour and moments of deep discomfort, all held together on the strength of Michaela Coel’s undeniable talent,” says Rotten Tomatoes’ critics consensus.
And The Hollywood Reporter included I May Destroy You in their roundup of the 10 Best TV Shows of 2020 So Far, saying, “I doubt many shows will be as representative of the mood of the moment — the combination of anger, confusion, uncertainty and unexpected humor; the exploration of intersections of gender and race, sexuality and violence, youth and hard-earned experience… If you don’t yet know Michaela Coel… get on that.”