How do you do pick up the pieces of your world when it has been shattered? In the pilot episode of Michaela Coel’s twelve-episode dramedy series ‘I May Destroy You’ which was written, produced, directed and starred in by Coel. We follow Arabella (Coel) a strong-willed millennial icon and Writer based in London, who is suffering from writer’s block. Arabella is struggling to meet her deadline and is unable to finish her novel. She decides to take a short break by enjoying a night out with a friend at a bar. After downing a round of shots, trauma hits. Arabella’s vision becomes hazy as she stumbles out the bar. At her agent’s meeting the next day, the aftermath of the ordeal still lingers on her mind and her body, she leaves an open wound bleeding down her face. You know that feeling, When you go into autopilot to function, no time to process – just to act. As the visions become clearer Arabella realises a stranger spiked her drink and raped her. A traumatic experience Coel had when marathon writing season two of ‘Chewing Gum’. Arabella must now piece together the events of the night from a fragmented memory to find out the truth and gain closure without losing herself in the process.
Through a series of flashbacks, Arabella connects the missing dots of her assault. Childhood best friends, Terry (Weruche Opia) an aspiring actor and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu) a personal trainer help Arabella navigate through the healing process. This in turn makes Terry question the lines of consent in her own life. While Kwame silently comes to terms with his sexual assault in isolation, the same level of resources and support are not freely given to gay men. Society’s representation of women and gender responsibility are put under the microscope throughout the narrative arc. Where the fine line of consent becomes blurred. A vital component of the series is that knowledge is key before, during and after the assault process. This is illustrated visually through Coel and co-director Sam Miller’s aesthetic choices, who is best known for his work on award-winning series ‘Luther’. Coel stated before she sent a script over to BBC for ’I May Destroy you’ she sent over a mood board to emphasise the themes of the show and what could be expected.
Stylistic choices of cinematography are evident, Coel uses point of view shots to further engrain the memory of her attacker and low angles to highlight to the vulnerability of sexual assault. The Series drew on influences from ‘Black Earth Rising’ a Netflix drama series Coel starred in which explores identity, introspection and status in the world. Calvin Klein’s Euphoria advert was recreated as a romantic love scene with love interest Biagio (Marouane Zotti) a fantasy she experiences after having sex for the first time since the assault. This connotes the duality Coel weaves into her characters and narratives. Sex can be romantic, pleasurable and euphoric but also violent, dark and traumatic. Duality is explored in her own identity and relationships with others. This is why I loved the series, this focus on the fine details and subtle elements within the script is what makes characters believable and come to life as real people.
The acting in the series is seamless, Coel can embody her character and the world she inhabits. Provoking a range of emotions in a single scene, when Arabella is locked out of Biagio’s apartment we see Coel project a vast emotional palette from playful to denial to remorse to anger to fear then sadness. Symbolic to the emotional rollercoaster a sexual assault survivor would go through. Giving the feeling of being overwhelmed with emotion and unable to control how it is being processed, a common experience an audience can resonate with. Similar to Essiedu’s portrayal of Kwame internalizing all of his emotions in a mental battle against being a strong man in the eyes of himself and his representation of masculinity as a black gay man. Both Coel and Essiedu play on the dichotomy of gender roles in sexual assault. Kwame is made to feel as though his ordeal is not traumatic or important because he is male and gay. Arabella criminalises Kwame for withholding details of his sexual orientation to have sex with a woman, shifting Kwame’s role from a victim to a predator. This dynamic between Coel and Essiedu conveys how society refuses to see men as victims of trauma and keeps women in the role of a victim. By having both actors of similar cultural background, the main contrasting element would be the difference in gender and sex giving polar opposite experiences.
The closure you would expect to find after experiencing trauma can take shape in many forms which are awakening within the self. The series is a true masterclass in destruction and self-sabotage. It is clear to say ‘I May Destroy You’ takes on sexual assault at a time where women are reclaiming their bodies back and becoming more body positive\confident than ever before. In the age of the #Metoo era speaking out about rape and sexual mistreatment is more of a commonplace. Coel’s raw and honest depiction of how sexual assault can change your whole perception of life through changes within yourself is the unapologetic realism that we all need in our lives.
Michaela Coel has now been nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Female Actor for her performance in ‘I May Destroy You’. ‘I May Destroy You’ is available to stream on BBC iplayer and Amazon Prime.