27th August 2020

Culture / Featured / Lia Gomez-Lang

Michaela Coel and the Importance of Diversifying British Television

25 6 mins 1

AAfter watching Michaela Coel’s television series, I May Destroy You, Lia Gomez-Lang felt impelled to write something about it. Inspired by the narrative, not only explored on-screen by screenwriter, director and actress, Michaele Coel, but also in the control and authority Michaela upheld off-screen. Lia believes that this series sets an example for future creatives to acknowledge and sustain their power and creativity. The series has opened important conversations of representation and diversity, as we must question more regularly, "whose stories are being told" and "who is telling them?".

I May Destroy You’s unbounded success has marked what feels like a crucial moment in time for diversity in British television. Michaela Coel’s breakthrough series has been praised for stirring and provoking important conversations surrounding identity, sexuality and consent, but beyond its narratives, it sets an example of the necessary work towards a more progressive television landscape. I May Destroy You teaches us about creative ownership, and why we must consider whose stories are being told and how.

The social climate surrounding the series’ release has spurred a re-evaluation of the media we are consuming, and creative industries’ necessity to prioritise inclusion both on and off-screen. The first episode was aired during the Black Lives Matter protests this June 2020, heightening its significance within this movement of combating racial inequality by bringing a Black voice to the forefront of both British and US television. Michaela Coel is from London, of Ghanaian heritage, and grew up in the East-London housing estate Tower Hamlets. When asked by Sight & Sound magazine about her relationship to her power as a voice during the resurgence of Black Lives Matter, she stated ‘I’m aware that I am a minority within this industry and so putting [the work] into the hands of people who will take it whilst really not understanding it, is frightening for me. I want audiences who are from worlds like mine to recognise themselves in what I’m doing’.

Michaela Coel draws parallels from her own reality, using her own experiences to form the series. She writes and plays Arabella, a Black writer in London, her character full of life and ferocity. The series centres around her story of sexual assault and its serving as a catalyst into understanding and overcoming issues within herself. Coel poignantly transforms her own personal trauma into art; the sexual assault at its core was based on a true event. After realising the scale of relatability surrounding the issue of consent, she wanted to write a story that would echo and reflect the realities of many. Two years went into writing the series, and her strength of looking inwards to this deeply wounding event should be recognised. I May Destroy You looks at exploitation, whether sexually, socially or self- inflicted, and Coel would not allow her position as a creator to be exploited in its making. Importantly, she gave herself time, space and creative freedom to write her own truth – one that has touched many.

After realising the scale of relatability surrounding the issue of consent, she wanted to write a story that would echo and reflect the realities of many.

Lia Gomez-Lang

Coel’s navigation of the television industry has yielded positivity, carving a path for creatives to learn from. The making of the series envisioned her work throughout its production as entirely her own. This in itself is rare, as a writer’s ownership is often lost through the changes that the nature of television commissioning and development demand. In telling and making her story, Coel wanted full transparency from her collaborators. After coming close to signing a $1million Netflix deal, then learning that it would exclude her copyright, she turned it down. From this defiant act in saying no her value as an artist became instrumental and teaches the importance of self-worth as creators of our own stories. After pitching I May Destroy You to the BBC in a single conversation, she was offered full control: writer, director, executive producer, actor, and crucially, owner.

Through I May Destroy You’s therapeutic lens, we see a hopeful way in how the future of television can look. A conscientious approach was consistent throughout the series’ production; intimacy coordinators and therapists were provided for cast and crew during shooting. The production of the series exemplifies agency and ethics both on and off-screen; a story centring around Black characters made by a diverse crew. A diversity of voices around the table, not just through on-screen representation, is essential for structural change. Michaela Coel has made a moment in which this change feels tangible, and it is truly exciting. As the first Black woman to give the James MacTaggart lecture, she asked for better conduct from the industry, her exemplary speech will undoubtedly leave a legacy: ‘I’m going to try to be my best; to be transparent; and to play whatever part I can, to help fix this house. What part will you play?’.

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Lia Gomez-Lang

Lia is from South London and works in television. Having studied English Literature and Film Studies at university, she is passionate about exploring cultural works. Lia’s writing analyses different aspects of great books, films and TV.

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