The first time I noticed it was when Terry was walking home from the club. In the third episode of I May Destroy You, Michaela Coel’s character, Arabella, is high on drugs, and Terry – unable to get any sense out of her – decides to go home alone. She walks down the backstreets of Ostia in Italy. It’s dark, she’s stumbling while following Google Maps on her phone. The camera follows her from behind. Two men walk around a corner and do a double take. At that moment, I realised I’d started to grip the arms of my chair.
Outside a bar, an Italian man begins to chat her up, and they end up dancing inside where another man notices her. My mind started to race. I remembered a New Yorker piece about girls from Nigeria being sex trafficked to Italy, and the stories black women have told me about the times men in southern Europe have approached them assuming they were prostitutes. The three dance together. There are what look like conspiratorial looks between the two men. Do they know each other? What’s going to happen to Terry? What comes next?
Then the trio have a threesome, and – to my genuine surprise – no one dies. Life goes on. There’s a slightly embarrassing mid-intercourse interruption, and the fact the two men pretended to not know each other is yet another example of the complex boundaries of consent the show examines, but the crescendo of violence I had expected never erupts.
There are so many stand-out moments from I May Destroy You, which finished on Monday in the UK, but that one stuck with me more than most – that feeling of utter dread. I more commonly feel like that with horror films. But watching The Shining or Get Out is different: the tension and fear are as advertised. I May Destroy You is billed as a consent drama. There was little chance someone was going to be murdered – not in the third episode, and certainly not in a flashback. It was an irrational fear. But this wasn’t the first time horror had creept into black drama. I’d had similar experiences watching Issa Rae’s Insecure and Donald Glover’s Atlanta – shows with majority black casts that focus on the mundanity of black life. So why was that sense of doom attached to these shows?
Angelica Jade Bastién wrote on the website Vulture about how Atlanta used horror tropes throughout its second season, from the urban legend of the Alligator Man to the creeped-out weirdness of Teddy Perkins. She put it in a social context, saying that blackness in America carries “an undercurrent of dread, in which the prosaic points of everyday life – wearing a hoodie to run an errand, attending church, passing a huddle of cops while walking through your own neighborhood – are fraught with meaning and reminders of the potential for violence”. The New York Times critic Wesley Morris said that Donald Trump has often indulged in “a fondness for the equation of black life and hell … That’s a certain white man’s view of black life, as seen on his TV set – in 1989, when the Huxtables were the only prominent African Americans visible amid proliferating news images of ‘dangerous’ black people,” he wrote, before adding that modern television “rebukes and complicates that dehumanising assessment”.
I interviewed the writers of Atlanta after the end of their first season and told them I couldn’t help expecting the show to build to a crescendo where someone was killed. After growing up on a diet of John Singleton and Spike Lee films, that’s what I expected. The tragedy at the heart of Do the Right Thing has proved to be chillingly prophetic, as black men continue to be asphyxiated by white police officers. But that absolute rule, that black characters are often doomed because of the violent society that surrounds them, persists 30 years later.
The characters in Atlanta were so frequently adjacent to violence or obvious – if petty – crimes that it seemed it couldn’t go unpunished. But no one was murdered or gunned down in a hail of bullets. The characters’ mostly dull lives went on. “You are conditioned to see black people get shot or hooked on something,” Stefani Robinson, one of the writers, told me. “It’s really fun to write a show where you get to see black people living life every day. We all live life every day, and, knock on wood, I’ve never been shot.”
Rae put it in similarly blunt terms while discussing Insecure. “You watch this and you realise that black people are human,” she told reporters at a Television Critics Association panel. “Black people go through the same experiences as everybody else. There’s a tendency in certain cases like media portrayals [that] we are bringing it on ourselves because we tend to be violent by nature … there’s always a narrative that’s against us in a way.”
In I May Destroy You, that narrative and conditioning are confronted head on. Black women do class-A drugs, black women and gay black men have casual sex, black women date drug dealers and are not murdered for doing so. Yes, there are consequences – some incredibly severe ones – but there isn’t the instant, black and white, guillotine of justice that cuts them down for daring to make a reckless decision. Those decisions are examined and unpicked. As Alex E Jung wrote in Vulture, I May Destroy You is much more expansive than the “consent drama” elevator pitch (in fact that simplification is played with and pulled at so hard in the final two episodes that it begins to seem utterly ridiculous). It is trying to answer the question: “How do you become whole again after trauma breaks you open?” Coel, Rae and Glover have all been described as operating in the “grey areas” of life, where simple conclusions are hard to draw. If that and examining trauma are the ultimate goals then how could it not be scary? The unknown always is.
I was at the Edinburgh TV festival when Coel delivered her MacTaggart lecture in 2018. There was a fear then, too. The MacTaggart was supposed to be where you make a haughty prediction about the future of television, not where you discuss sexual assaults and how casual, persistent racism is embedded in British TV. You don’t do that in Britain. You don’t make people squirm, you don’t make them reflect on their own behaviour. That’s not the done thing. It’s seen as exhibiting that most criminal of indiscretions: impoliteness. I couldn’t help thinking: does she really think this incredibly white and privileged industry, with its tiered lanyards system and panels about the influence of Nordic noir, is going to allow that amount of truth telling? But she did it and it provided the basis for I May Destroy You. Again, eventually, the fear subsided.
As part of a research project into depictions of “millennial” black women, the activist scholar Francesca Sobande interviewed people who watched Coel’s first show, Chewing Gum. One interviewee’s response stood out. “I like her lack of ... apparent lack of fear,” she said. “I like that. I like that she has taken those chances at this point, because I remember being her age and wanting to take chances and the fear and all the shit that’s wrapped up in it.” Perhaps that is where the fear really comes from? From seeing someone who is like you stick their neck out so far it feels as if they are almost asking for it to be cut off.
The American academic Kristen J Warner coined the term “plastic representation” in TV, referring to the idea that “any representation that includes a person of colour is automatically a sign of success and progress”. She argues that, for diverse storytelling to work, it needs “to resonate and connect with the histories and experiences of the culture that the character’s body inhabits”. The creation of a TV show about black British people and their lives that moves beyond the superficial idea of “representation”, might be Coel’s biggest achievement with I May Destroy You.