London-born Michaela Coel has been on the rise in the television industry since 2014, and with her latest comedy-drama series, I May Destroy You – a much-needed exploration of modern-day rape culture which Coel wrote, executive produced, co-directed and starred in – garnering immense critical acclaim immediately upon its release, it isn’t hard to see why.
The series depicts the breathtakingly raw account of twentysomething young novelist and internet star, Arabella Essiedu (Coel), who, throughout, is attempting to cope with the aftermath of being sexually assaulted in a nightclub after her drink was spiked. Arabella’s journey is presented throughout highs and lows as she seeks to move on with her life while also attempting to piece together what blurry memories she has, to work out exactly how the night unfolded.
Coel often draws from personal experiences in her work. With I May Destroy You, her unembellished and candid portrayal of sexual assault is based on her own trauma as a sexual assault survivor. Consent and its boundaries are examined at length throughout the twelve episodes, with Coel diving into how the blurring lines of consent can often make it difficult for victims to come forward, or even recognise that what has happened to them is assault.
These blurred lines are apparent when in one episode, a man removes a condom during sex with Arabella, unbeknownst to her, brushing the revelation off afterwards that he “thought she knew” – a gaslighting tactic she later finds out is common practice for this man with other women. This scene alone emphasises one of the most powerful exhibitions by Coel in I May Destroy You – the exposure of how commonplace sexual assault incidences truly are, and how easily situations can be manipulated for victims to feel undermined, or that it’s “not a big deal”.
Coel showcases this in other scenarios in the series, with Arabella’s close friend Kwame (Paapa Essiedu) attempting to report a sexual assault, only to be almost pushed out of the police station, encountering a male police officer who is unequivocally uncomfortable having to hear about Kwame’s experience of being assaulted by a man. In this sense, the series deals with the multifaceted issues that come with sexual assault, and how different groups are affected and treated differently – Kwame, a Black gay man struggles to be taken seriously by authorities at the hands of miseducation and systematic prejudice.
Coel also brings to light the complex layers to sexual assault and shows the effects not often depicted on screen; denial by victims of incidences of assault is often commonplace in the immediate aftermath, and is demonstrated by Arabella in the first episode, with Coel commenting to BBC’s Radio One, “sometimes we’re in deep denial and it’s not that we’re begging people to believe us, but actually people are pleading for us to believe them about what’s happened to us”.
One of the most refreshing elements of I May Destroy You is that it is unapologetically itself, displaying an authentic experience of young adults grappling with modern issues that are often misrepresented or glossed over in film and television. Main characters Arabella and her two closest friends, Kwame and Terry (Weruche Opia), are a breath of fresh air, and their witty one-liners and carefree attitudes make for a hilarious trio and an unexpected bout of comic relief against a harrowing backdrop of trauma.
These characters are refreshing in that they are free-spirited and confident, but also in that they are flawed. Coel does not try to paint an image that these characters are of utmost moral integrity, because really, who is? Their personalities are incredibly nuanced; they make mistakes, they make decisions that will undoubtedly divide viewers, at times raising questions of “who am I meant to be rooting for again?” Coel’s intricate humanisation of these characters helped formulate a series that appeals to everyone, if not just for its fundamental subject matter, but what’s more, for its relatable and authentic storytelling.
A recent major Golden Globes snub for I May Destroy You garnered widespread outrage on Coel’s behalf, along with immense criticism regarding the decision to nominate Netflix’s certainly less diverse Emily in Paris. The snub demonstrates a wider problem in Hollywood in terms of representation – while research from the CDC shows 1 in 5 women in the U.S. have experienced completed or attempted rape during her lifetime, a story showcasing their experiences is deemed unworthy of award status.
However, despite a lack of recognition from the powers that be in Hollywood, Coel’s immaculate talent and the conversation sparked around rape culture with the release of the groundbreaking I May Destroy You will undeniably continue to be a force to be reckoned with for many years to come, both on and off screen.