*Trigger Warning Sexual Assault*
In the 73 years that the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences has been recognizing achievements in acting and production, the list of Black women who have been awarded for the talents is shockingly short. Only 35 Black women have taken home Emmy awards, most of them being awarded for their “supporting” roles. Only 2 Black women have taken home Best Lead Actress in a drama series, one being Zendaya at last year's ceremony for her performance in HBO Max’s “Euphoria.” Black women are seldom shown appreciation for their creativity and writing in Hollywood. But recently, the award drought for Black female writers in this industry has ended. Michaela Coel made history at the 73rd Primetime Emmys Ceremony on September 19th, 2021, as the first Black woman to win an Emmy for limited-series writing in HBO Max’s “I May Destroy You.”
After being controversially snubbed by the Golden Globes and Hollywood Foreign Press this year, the show fulfilled its redemption arc by receiving nine Primetime Emmy nominations, including best limited series, best writing for a limited series, and best directing for a limited series, among others. Coel secured the award for writing, beating out its fierce competitors and highly rated series like “The Queen’s Gambit” and “WandaVision.”
Coel, 33, is a Ghanaian-British actress, screenwriter, director, producer, and singer. She came to fame in 2015 with her hit show “Chewing Gum,” a show she wrote premiered on the UK’s E4. The series tells the story of Tracey Gordon in her semi-autobiographical monologue, `Chewing Gum Dreams,’ which follows a young lady as she leaves behind adolescence and enters womanhood. The show was fresh and bold as it quickly gained a large viewership. Many Black women and girls, like myself, resonated with the series because we finally gained the on-screen representation that we rarely receive and has been long overdue. I was first introduced to this show by my former English teacher. She reached out to me as soon as the show premiered and urged me to drop everything I was doing and go watch this show claiming that I would love it. And to no surprise, she was right. I ended up binge-watching it in what felt like one sitting. In the likes of most viewers I was immediately captivated by the plot and was left in tears by the last episode.
The show boosted Coel into the limelight, and she’s not going anywhere. In June 2020, her most recent series, “I May Destroy You,” debuted and has received endless praise since. The British series follows a young writer coping with the trauma of sexual assault, drawing from the personal experiences of Coel herself.
The show’s premise, based in London, centers around Arabella Essiedu (Michaela Coel), a self-assured Londoner who seemingly has her life together. Yet, she struggles to move forward after being drugged and sexually assaulted in a nightclub, prompting her to contemplate all areas of her life. Like “Chewing Gum,” her most recent endeavor received a similar reception as many women could connect with the show’s topic. Thus, it serves as a representation for Black women to see themselves on screen and women who have been affected by sexual assault.
The series is adored by so many because it takes the complexity of sexual assault and rape and still infuses it with humor and heart. The Emmy-winning actress constructed a beautifully written story that allowed many women and sexual assault victims to connect with it. In just 12 episodes, Coel manages to articulate the psychological trauma of varying degrees of assault. The progression of the series is non-linear, and Arabella’s discovery of being raped is fragmented. After Arabella’s assault, when her trauma has been portrayed, the structure of Arabella’s reality is distorted, and we visually see this through the segmented structure of the plot. Processing any form of trauma is never a linear process. It comes in waves, so the show’s progression visually reflects how humans cope with trauma. Arabella’s repeated flashbacks of her assault and inability to get her book in on its deadline demonstrate how her daily experience’s trauma manifests. Coel’s audience can empathize with the character’s experiences on screen and the many women who have shared experiences and can connect with the show more than the average viewer.
Arguably “I May Destroy You” may be one of the best shows that I have seen so far. With the theme of the show being centered around the thorny topic of sexual assault, the last thing you would expect there to be is humor. Yet, Coel managed to seamlessly integrate comedy into such a traumatic experience which is how many of us, myself included, cope with our trauma. I found myself going through a full range of emotions while watching, from anger to sadness to amusement to discomfort to empathy. Not only did I appreciate the perspective of the sexual assault victim as a Black woman, but I also admired the writer’s decision to show the journey of sexual assault from a man’s perspective and a black man nonetheless through Kwame’s experience. Truly highlighting the juxtaposition of how women are generally accepted as victims in society whereas men have to adhere to toxic masculinity and deal with it rather than receiving support. Arabella and her group of friends exist in this web connection where they are hurt and sometimes hurt each other, and as much as the show’s theme is centered around rape, it is also focused on friendships. By the end of the series, I was invested in each character and I loved the complexity of their experiences. So much so that It prompted me to analyze my own experiences and the relationships in my own life.
I May Destroy You opens up the conversation about the violations of consensual sex, genuinely depicts the complexity of rape culture, and highlights that there is not just one form of rape infrequently acknowledged. Topics like consent, sexual assault, and rape are already so convoluted and uncomfortable talking about publicly, which is why it is so imperative that they are brought up by discussing these issues on the platform that I May Destroy has destigmatized these concerns surrounding sexual assault. Many women who have been sexually assaulted do not even acknowledge what happened to them or choose not to report it out of fear that no one will believe them or because they blame themselves. The show highlights the meticulous manipulations and gaslighting of being a survivor of sexual assault and dismisses the “gray area” associated with consent which gives a voice to survivors who may have felt silenced. Many people, myself included, have limited knowledge about the intricacies of rape culture. It is so important, especially as a woman and a woman of color, to be aware of them. With this series, Coel urges viewers to acknowledge these issues within our communities and where changes desperately need to be made, and we’re reminded that coping looks different for every survivor.
Her win was historic, the first Black woman to win an Emmy for Best Limited Series/TV Writing. It was a refreshing turnaround following a night of white winners despite the nominations being more diverse than previous years. Coel accepted her statuette with composure and delivered a formidable speech. Instead of going through the typical thank yous and acknowledgments, she spoke directly to the writers and storytellers, saying that “[she] just wrote a little something, for writers, really,” and encouraged writers to write things that make them feel uncertain and uncomfortable.
Emmy Award-winning writer gave one of the shortest speeches of the night and possibly the most impactful. Ending her remarks on a powerful note, “dedicating her win to “every single survivor of sexual assault.” This made her win all the more remarkable for Black girls to see themselves represented in ways they rarely see and for survivors of sexual assault who resonate with the series and a topic that is seldom represented nor discussed accurately in our society.
Coel’s execution of her written character arcs and unforgettable moments of comedic relief accurately capture the healing journey. She leaves the audience with the reminder that what happens to you does not define who you are and to turn your pain into power. Neither “I May Destroy You,” nor Coel’s value can be measured by the awards they attain. She has continually proved that her artistry transcends cultural boundaries on screen, and the entertainment industry needs more visionaries like her.