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Photo: ‘I May Destroy You’/HBO Max
Michaela Coel has been unstoppable up until this point. Small roles in Black Mirror and Star Wars: The Last Jedi have given her the financial stability to embark on risky and distinct creative endeavors, allowing her to share her incredibly specific artistic perspective as a queer, Black-English woman masterfully through her work. Chewing Gum was just the introduction into her funky, off-center, and often playfully hilarious world, but I don’t think anything could have prepared me or anyone else for what was coming with her follow-up I May Destroy You.
What is ‘I May Destroy You’?
The show is a semi-autobiographical look at Coel’s own personal experiences as a young, upcoming writer trying to make it in an industry that typically undervalues people of her background. She seems lost throughout most of the first episode, full of blissful ignorance as she tries to navigate the high-stress environment of her career. She struggles with her friendships, sexual relationships, writer’s block, and drug use as we are placed in invariably close proximity to her and those in her circle. It’s a start that feels so unique from anything else I’ve seen of its type, unwilling to confine itself to any particular style or genre as it weaves the exploits of the supporting cast into Coel’s lovable, if somewhat aloof, orbit.
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But then the show hits you like a truck out of nowhere. What initially appeared to be a fun, if somewhat sardonic take on the struggles of working in art turns into something else entirely as Coel’s Arabella wakes up with a searing headache and numerous injuries after a night at a bar. The details are initially very fuzzy, but something feels noticeably off as Arabella tries to piece together what exactly happened that night, and why she can’t get a particularly disturbing image out of her brain. She contacts and confronts everyone she saw over the previous day until it occurs to her that the reason why she was unable to remember anything about the night was that she had been drugged and subsequently raped by another patron at the bar.
The show then fractures from here, moving from the linear investigation, to the recontextualization of Arabella and her friends’ past and present traumas, to a story about trying to find romance in the wake of such a horrific event, to situational comedy involving drunken party escapades, to criticism of media pornographizing trauma as her and her friends try to capitalize on her newfound publicity and position as an SA-survivor, and finally to surrealist fantasies about how Arabella would exact revenge on her attacker in a deeply disturbing and absolutely jaw-dropping finale. The film packs its 12 episodes full of rich thematic content and actively encourages the viewer to examine themselves and their own behavior as we see Arabella unravel mentally as she attempts to reset her life.
Why Is It So Significant?
The conversations, talking points, and uncomfortable truths that I May Destroy You raises do not always make for easy, casual viewing, but the show itself is so deft at navigating the complicated realities of such a terrible circumstance (ie, the show never shies away from depicting Arabella as an angel, always showing her as a complex character herself, complete with various flaws and difficulties stemming from outside her relationship with her trauma) that it remains enveloping to watch throughout. Arabella is easily one of the most fascinating characters I’ve ever encountered on television, and Coel’s writing and performance on I May Destroy You are more than deserving of all the praise she’s received online.
Why ‘I May Destroy You’ Was Snubbed
But it seems that Hollywood hasn’t noticed. When the Golden Globe nominees were announced last month, Coel and I May Destroy You were absent from every single category, as the show was outright snubbed from any competition in this year’s awards. It remains to be seen if the Emmys follow suit, but The Hollywood Foreign Press’ complete lack of recognition reads as an apparent condemnation of everything the show represents, i.e. raising difficult questions about the entertainment industry and the culture around sexual assault itself in this post-Me-Too era. It apparently doesn’t matter that the show has been universally acclaimed by audiences and critics alike for its writing, direction, acting, etc., as the show itself appears to be objectionable in some way to the Golden Globes.
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So why is that? Well, the simple answer is that Hollywood is just not ready to contend with its own history. The Me-Too movement was particularly critical of Hollywood as an institution, and how men like Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Kevin Spacey, and especially Harvey Weinstein were able to commit such horrific acts for decades without anyone speaking up. The Hollywood elite probably feels targeted by such a nationwide condemnation of that behavior, as they’re now forced to confront the repercussions that have come from Hollywood’s collective decision to keep those instances as “open secrets.” Many people in the industry clearly knew what these monsters were capable of (there have been plenty of jokes made at the expense of “pervy Hollywood types” in films like Scream 3, among others, in years preceding the Me-Too movement), they just kept tight lips about it so they could preserve their own positions among the entertainment elites. Now, a show has come around that directly calls out predatory behavior, in entertainment and in the greater world at large, and Hollywood’s response has been to pretend it doesn’t exist. Strange…
I May Destroy You was easily the greatest and most important piece of content I watched all throughout 2020. It was a ground-breaking, triumphant moment for Coel, someone I had always admired in passing, and spoke truth to power in such unflinching terms that I can’t help but praise it endlessly. It’s certainly a beautiful show, and a landmark achievement for telling these types of stories, but perhaps the reasons why it works so well are exactly the reasons why institutions like the HFP have swept I May Destroy You under the rug. Well, we’ve noticed, Hollywood Foreign Press. And we know why you’re ignoring it.
By Patrick Nash
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