By Ernest Owens
"I come from growers. I come from dirt. I come from water. I come from laughter. I come from runners."
These lines vividly depict the nuanced deliberation of growing up Black in America. They could have been spoken by a number of marginalized youths, but they’re recited by the fictional David, a 14-year-old from the projects of South Florida struggling to evolve in the aftermath of the death of his mentor. Such lyrical expressions shed a light of hope through the trauma in David Makes Man, OWN's new series from Moonlight screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney and executive producers Oprah Winfrey and Michael B. Jordan.
“Black life along the margins is complicated and complex,” McCraney tells MTV News and other journalists at a press day for the new series. “We didn’t want to shy away from the complexity … We didn’t want to delve so far into one side of explaining the complexity that you didn’t see the joy, the music, the longing, the everyday — that was really important to me.”
With its delicate balance of growth and obstruction, David Makes Man is a snapshot of a reality many Black youths continue to wrestle with today, and David’s self-determination, resilience, and imagination are a revelation on the screen, presented with a level of authenticity that can only result from actual lived experiences.
For his television debut, the Oscar winner pulled from his own childhood to create David's coming-of-age journey, in which he learns to navigate the different worlds he inhabits while balancing daily socioeconomic hardship and anxiety with grief and adolescent longing. “When I was six years old, I came home and my mom told me that Blue, a man who basically had helped raised me, was shot, killed, and I’d never see him again,” McCraney says. “From that day forth, I have been recollecting, restructuring every tidbit that he’s ever said to me. I’m 39 now, almost 40. To be constantly using that as a metric for manhood, it’s what trauma does to us, right? It’s what the gulf of death will do. That’s what grief will do. You designing or holding folks in your mind for the rest of your life.”
On the show, David, played by Akili McDowell, employs a similar metric using the spiritual guidance of his slain father-figure named Sky (Isaiah Johnson). Even after his death, Sky’s phantom counsel continues to instruct David on how to move through the conflicting cultural norms of his elite, mostly white magnet school and his less privileged life at home. On the one hand, David must exceed the expectations of his tough, but nurturing teacher Dr. Woods-Trap (Phylicia Rashad) and be there for classmates such as Seren (Nathaniel McIntyre), who proves that the grass isn’t always greener. On the other, he must strive to avoid the influence of drug dealers in his impoverished community and make life easier for his single mother Gloria (Alana Arenas), herself a former user working overtime to provide for David and his younger brother. What audiences witness on screen is a Black boy figuring out his identity and values while overcoming the adversity presented in both worlds.
And yet, what could devolve into a bleak tale illuminates when viewers get a front-row seat inside the imagination of David as elements of magical realism bring his subconscious to life. During school-mandated counseling sessions, we see his dueling personalities sitting side-by-side as he begins to explore his insecurities. “I’m a little tired,” the real David says aloud when his counselor inquires about life at home, while his subconscious pours out emotionally. In coming to terms with his conflicting reality and his dreams, David envisions walking through a new world for himself — one that keeps the compassion of the home he knows, but that doesn’t have the trappings of increased police surveillance and drug dealers intimidating him. And of course, we get to see how the omnipresent Sky mentors David through his toughest times and keeps a smile on his face. (A scene in which the two recreate a New Edition dance number is uplifting television at its finest.) We are literally and figuratively inside David’s head through all of the ups and downs, allowing us to witness every single detail as this inspiring protagonist gains the confidence to be fully vulnerable. These storytelling techniques remind us that a Black coming-of-age story can be every bit as spectacular as a white one can be.
“What I’m always trying to do is get the community to see themselves in ways that are inspiring, that are aspirational, that are hopeful, that says it doesn’t matter what has happened to you,” Winfrey tells MTV News and other journalists. “What matters is what you are able to do with what has happened with you. This series illuminates that in a way that we haven’t before. That’s why I’m really excited about it. I think it’s more than television. It’s deeper than television.”
David Makes Man allows for a Black child to envision purpose, healing, and possibility — necessities that are often denied to our most marginalized members of society. David is the hero many Black teens haven’t seen on television, one that looks like them and can inspire them to reconcile with trauma. His astounding journey through adolescence parallels that of many Black youth in America who are expected to get an education and surpass their elders, survive in the projects and avoid the temptations of drug culture, deal with cultural and socioeconomic trauma, and protect their siblings and friends when parental guidance isn’t readily available. And while many shows center on characters that rely on outside devices to liberate them, like super powers, a dope squad, or immense wealth and clout, David’s ability to find within his own subconscious the magic to thrive is something we haven’t seen before on television: This is #BlackBoyJoy personified.