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), now on Showmax and 1Magic every Wednesday night.
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.