The sublime intervention of ‘I May Destroy You’

Trigger Warning: this article contains themes of sexual assault, sexual violence and consent. Please do not read any further if any of these discussions trigger you. This article also contains spoilers.

Michaela Coel had me from the moment she brought Chewing Gum into my life, and she’s outdone herself this time. ‘I May Destroy You’ is a critically acclaimed TV drama on sexual assault, that nobody knew they needed, to fill the unavoidable gap in the conversation surrounding rape.  

When I saw Michaela Coel was back with a new drama, I didn’t hesitate to add it to my ever-growing list of things to watch. The trailer was underwhelming and looked somewhat predictable. A women is raped, no justice is served, and she has to take it upon herself to heal. The skeleton of the story is essentially that, but I should have known that Coel doesn’t do cliché. Chewing Gum, something that I thought was going to be a light-hearted, dorky sitcom with the addition of a Black women as the lead, turned into one of the most emotional TV journeys I had had in a long time regarding that finale, so I should have known better.

Michaela Coel as Arabella Essiedu in I May Destroy You.

I May Destroy You tells the story of Arabella; a writer who is struggling to make good on her second book, which proves difficult when concentration is not something that comes easy. On a night out with friends, Arabella becomes the victim of a date rape she’s not even sure took place, and with everyone around her keeping secrets and acting shady, the road to the truth is as twisted as Lombard Street. This is the story of a woman whose life was turned upside and the tumultuous struggle she went through to build it back up. I May Destroy You is a long-overdue insight into sexual assault, consent and how the obscure road to recovery is not one size fits all.

I May Destroy You is authentically raw and honest in its delivery. It doesn’t cross the line into being tacky or crass, as its goal isn’t to incite ingenuine shock and awe in the audience. Too many shows are written with the intent to shock, risking the integrity of the storyline. This paralysing drama makes no such mistakes; it shocks, it excites but with an effortless finesse that turns it from a good show to one that you’re going to remember. It is the kind of show that cuts through all the Hollywood panache and hits you where it hurts.

Coel’s portrayal of a powerful Black female is unparalleled. Coel articulated the nuances of the Black female personality; she showed our fragility and our power, our strengths, weaknesses and fears in ways that a lot of shows overlook or abandon altogether. Having started the #metoo movement, and then seemingly being left out of the narrative as time went on, Coel restored some of the balance to Black females everywhere.

The narrative arc is filled with surprises, but plot twists are nothing if they aren’t executed well. Luckily for Coel, she directed a remarkably relatable and compelling cast ensemble that complemented each other in every scene. If I didn’t know I was watching a TV show, I could easily be eavesdropping on a room of people and their unrehearsed, authentic conversation.

From left to right: Paapa Essiedu, Michaela Coel, Weruche Opia. Image credit, Harper’s Bazaar.

Like with all things good, there is a catch; luckily, it’s an indirect gripe that it has taken a show to illuminate such a vast and vital subject matter. The narrative surrounding sexual assault in our society is still heavily focussed on victim-blaming, applies mainly to women, and continuously fails to educate people properly on the subject matter. There’s a scene where Arabella’s having “sex” with Zain – who’s been assigned to help with her book – where he removes the condom without telling her. Zain then proceeds to blame Arabella by saying “you should’ve felt the difference.” When Arabella finds out that this is, in fact, a form of rape, making this her second assault, her reaction was devastating.

It was like a giant penny had dropped, and I could hear the cries of men and women all over the world. Consent is not a new topic, but it is mostly unexplored and doesn’t appear to have taken off as much as you would expect. There have been a few campaigns here and there over the years, but many have not grasped what is meant by consent in its entirety. This was the moment where I realised that I May Destroy You was going to be the sex education lesson so many had missed out on growing up. I can’t say I do not know a person who has not got a similar story to tell. The number of girls, women, men, trans people, who have suffered from some form of sexual assault is astounding, and for many, Coel just shed light on a very dark corner of it.

Coel incorporated so many levels to this narrative. The depth of each storyline from Terry to Theo is what gave I May Destroy You the edge. Kwame was a very complex character. In the early stages of the series, I was ready to write him off when I saw another gay character being portrayed as if Grindr defines his whole personality; something series makers have not yet evolved past. “No Coel”, I thought, you can do better – and she did.
Kwame is a character with many layers. Going from being Arabella’s true north of sorts, her feeling of home and safety, to the object of her anger and all she detests about men’s behaviour towards sex and women; his presence was felt, and he took the story to new heights.

Kwame (left), Arabella (right). Image credit, The Workprint.

Making Kwame a victim of sexual assault provided a juxtaposition between how the authorities handle rape. Arabella was treated delicately and with respect – although, her case was closed in the end and as far as she wrote, the perpetrator never got his comeuppance. Kwame, on the other hand, was treated like roadkill you find on the side of the road, poke, and jeer at in disgust. It spoke volumes and highlighted the much need addressing of sexual assault in the LGBTQIA community that often goes unspoken. Kwame wasn’t leaving that police station with hope or justice, and that held a mirror up to our society and pointed out the miseducation of rape, sexual assault and sexual trauma.

When the ending came, I didn’t know what to expect. There was an overwhelming feeling of catharsis that I even felt healed by through the screen. I watched I May Destroy You with a survivor of sexual assault, and I was worried about how they were going to interpret it, but they felt seen. There are hundreds of films, series that have tried to create the same emotional response, and I have not seen one do it better than Coel.

It was unexpectedly uplifting, and Coel achieved the “it’s all up to you” message with sensitivity and not a hint of patronisation. In this brief 12-episode series drama, Coel has redefined what it means to be a victim and provided a timeless education on consent, that we can only hope will open the eyes of the people of who need it the most.

Michaela Coel is a force to be reckoned with.

I May Destroy You is available on BBC iplayer.

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