Culture

Michaela Coel's Next Act

The Chewing Gum writer and star is back with a fearless BBC drama about sexual consent, cementing her status as one of the most exciting voices of our generation

09.06.2020

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Michaela Coel was sitting in a police station about to give a statement on her own sexual assault when she suddenly had the urge to write. It was a surreal situation, made all the more bizarre by the fact that the friend who had accompanied her was playing Pokémon Go while they waited for the detective. "I remember thinking, 'This is really weird. What the f**k is going on? This is like nothing I've seen or felt before'," she recalls with widening eyes. “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."

It will come as a surprise to precisely no one familiar with Coel's work - as an actor, screenwriter, playwright and poet - that she had the foresight, talent and ultimately, courage, to transform notes scrawled on her iPhone on January 2016 into this year's most fearless new drama.

I May Destroy You - a 12-part BBC series - is Coel's first writing project since Chewing Gum, the semi-autobiographical E4 comedy with which she burst onto screens in 2015. If the Bafta-winning show – which was inspired by her upbringing in Hackney by a single Ghanaian mother, and led to coveted roles in Black Mirror and the BBC war crime series Black Earth Rising - singled out Coel as one to watch, then I May Destroy You should cement the 32-year-old's status as one of our generation's most exciting female storytellers.

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I wonder whether in 100 years' time, sociologists, scientists and psychologists will look back on this generation and have a better idea of what we're doing.

"I have not yet found another way of writing that doesn't begin from something real, whether it's outside of me, or happening to me,” she muses. “I wonder whether in 100 years' time, sociologists, scientists and psychologists will look back on this generation and have a better idea of what we're doing and why we're doing it than we do right now."

Owing to the nature of a millennial female performer using her own experience to tell stories that challenge and resonate (sometimes painfully so) with audiences, I May Destroy You may invite comparisons to the likes of Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Fleabag or Mae Martin's Feel Good. But such comparisons are futile - each voice is so unique and so vital to the broader conversation. Coel uses one incident of sexual assault as a springboard for an unflinching examination of sexual consent, and serves as a reminder that when it comes to nuanced female voices, we quite literally can't get enough.

What began as my trauma became a show that is largely fictional and largely inspired by stories.

Coel plays Arabella, a zeitgeist writer whose found fame on social media and is under pressure to deliver her second novel. One night, she meets a friend for a quick drink to escape the all-nighter she's pulling at her publisher's office to meet her deadline. Later, she's back at her desk feeling disoriented. Eventually, she pieces together fragments of memory and realises she's been sexually assaulted. While Coel had a similar experience - she popped out for a drink while working through the night to write season two of Chewing Gum and was attacked - which prompted the idea, and spoke to other survivors as part of her research, she is keen to point out that, "what began as my trauma became a show that is largely fictional and largely inspired by stories."

Through Arabella's experience and that of her best friends - Terry (Weruche Opia), an actress struggling to get her big break and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), a gay gym instructor battling with his self-esteem - the series explores the fine line between exploitation and liberation. It challenges our understanding of what consent really means. Ever precarious grey areas - from accidental threesomes to removing a condom during sex - are put firmly under the microscope and finely dissected. "There's something that goes on in our brains when we begin to become aware that we've been taken advantage of," explains Coel. "And that point is one I'm constantly exploring through the series."

I have not yet found another way of writing that doesn't begin from something real

What did she learn from speaking to other people about their experiences of sexual assault? "Probably how common it is that it is so undealt with," she says. "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.”

As if the "cathartic" writing process wasn't gruelling enough ("for over two years, it's been my only job") it was on set, as the show's star, director and executive producer, that Coel's hard work really began. "The multitasking was hard and remaining poised through the multitasking was the challenge I set myself everyday like, 'Michaela, you can't crack! Always remember that what you're doing right now is insane. It's insane that this has come from what happened'."

And when things get a bit much? "I'm like a marathon sprinter, you know towards the end they look crazy, they're sh*tting and they're running; it's bonkers and they're just going for it. That was me!"

When it comes to nuanced female voices, we quite literally can't get enough

Coel is excited about the show's release, not merely because it's been such a long time coming, but because of the conversations that will inevitably arise from it. "People may be talking about things that they've never spoken about before, or thinking about things they've not thought about before. That would be the dream," she says.

And true to form, there's something even more personal, more poignant and more powerful she hopes viewers take away from it. "I hope [it] inspires people to pursue sleeping well at night," she ponders. "I think 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 have a peaceful life."

I May Destroy You airs Monday nights at 10.45pm on BBC1, the first two episodes are available to stream on BBC iPlayer

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