“I May Destroy You” (2020) created by/starring Michaela Coel

The question of sexual consent in contemporary life and how, in the new landscape of dating and relationships, we make the distinction between liberation and exploitation. -Tagline for the HBO TV series

[1] Sexual assault story has never been told this way before. Groundbreaking stuff. A must see.

[2] It’s not meant to be Girlfriends or SATC and it doesn’t pretend to be. It’s not a sitcom or light comedy, it’s devastating at times, yet humorous.

[3] …this show is honest, heart-breaking, uplifting, funny and sad all at once.

[4] It’s definitely a hard show to watch but worth every moment. Love seeing a largely Black cast in a big network series too.

[5] To me, what it strikes similarity with is the Black Mirror. Almost each episode opens a certain problematic topic of the modern western world.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

There is much to discover in this HBO show (consisting of 12 eps, 30 mins. long). It’s dark (perhaps too much for sensitive viewers), multi-layered, and has some of the most unique characters you’ll see on modern TV. I esp. liked the scenes w/ the literary crowd, some of whom are quite problematic. Michaela Coel (now 32 y.o.) was sexually assaulted when she was making the second season of her comedy series Chewing Gum (2015) which provided the inspiration for this show. She turned down a $1M deal w/ Netflix for the series, as she would’ve lost ownership of the rights. Coel (named Michaela Boakye-Collinson) was born to Ghanaian parents and raised in Tower Hamlets by a single mother, a cleaner who became a NHS nurse. She attended the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (where she was awarded a scholarship named for Olivier). In 2013, Coel made her stage debut in Chewing Gum Dreams; in 2015, her sitcom Chewing Gum began on Channel 4 TV in the UK.

Arabella (Coel) is a 20ish writer in London working on her second book; her first book (comprised of her popular tweets re: millennial life) was published online. There are several fans who approach her on the streets, asking for a selfie and/or giving out praise. She lives in a humble flat w/ her friend, Ben (Stephen Wight), a quiet/white man who enjoys gardening. Arabella’s best friends are an aspiring actress, Terry (Weruche Opia), and an aerobics instructor, Kwame (Paapa Essiedu- the lead in Hamlet at RSC in 2016). These three pals (all of Ghanian heritage) have known each other for many years and talk about (almost) everything together a la SATC. Another old friend, Simon (Alm Ameen), works at a bank and lives in a fancy apt. w/ his gf of 8 yrs. Simon has a wild side; he plans a three-some and carries drugs (coke). Arabella is known for her partying ways, incl. sometimes using drugs. Some viewers were suspicious of Simon, guessing that he wasn’t going to be a good friend.

One night, Arabella takes a break from her novel to go out w/ Simon and a few others (on his b-day). It turns out that someone spiked her drink and assaulted her that night! The details are few and hazy; at first, she doesn’t want to admit something so terrible happened. Though disoriented, injured (w/ a forehead gash), and lacking sleep, Arabella goes to a meeting w/ her two literary agents. They’re worried re: her falling behind on providing chapters; they’re portrayed as typical white yuppie/liberals. Later, she goes to the local police station to report the crime; we see a few scenes not unlike those in Law & Order: SVU. The two cops on her case are considerate and professional women; they don’t act judgmental of Arabella.

The locations, sets, clothes, and accessories seemed true to life. Many critics and viewers commented that the city scenes looked like “the real London.” The scenes in Ostia, Italy were esp. shot well; Arabella is drawn to her on/off bf Biagio (Marouane Zotti). Though Biagio sells drugs, he seems to be supportive of Arabella (at first). (Coel said she took a vacation to Firenze after her assault and fell in love w/ the place and people.) Arabella wears a pink wig in the first few eps; this was purposefully chosen and dyed not suit Coel’s face/skin color. As the series progresses, the wig frays (symbolizing Arabella’s mental state). Casting directors question Terry about her hair (a wig) in a rather blunt manner; you can tell she is uncomfortable. Almost all of the characters are constantly on their smartphones. Later in the show, Arabella becomes huge on social media; her therapist asks if she really needs it. Kwame may or may not be addicted to a popular gay dating app (Grindr). One of his old friends (who is questioning his own sexual identity) worries about Kwame’s behavior. Kwame nonchalantly says that this isn’t Ghana, so he won’t be thrown off a building. This show is laced w/ dark humor (another element which sets it apart from US shows).

There are some flashback scenes where we see Arabella and Terry as H.S. kids (age 14); the casting of the kids was done very well. They support a male friend after he is (falsely) accused of attacking a white girl, Theo. In the present time, Theo is the head of survivors’ support group; though Arabella wants to know her better, Terry is still suspicious. Terry isn’t a “perfect” friend either, as we eventually discover. No one is totally a good or bad guy in this show! Kwame faces a difficult situation in the middle of the series; he’s not sure if this qualifies as sexual assault (so he Googles it). At first, he consented to hookup w/ a man, but then was forced into something else (w/o his consent). Arabella (thanks to a podcast) learns that her writing partner Zain (Hardip Gill) was “stealthing” when they slept together. She also didn’t give her consent; in fact, she hadn’t experienced this before. What did you think about Terry’s “wild” night w/ the two Italians- could that also be considered non-consensual? There isn’t always an easy answer!

School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls’ Play (Round House Theatre-Bethesda): SEPT 18-OCT 20

Pretty, popular H.S. senior, Paulina (Kashayna Johnson), longs to become Miss Ghana 1988; she’ll do whatever it takes to win the crown. Suddenly, there is a new student at the Aburi Girls Boarding School, Ericka (Claire Saunders), who arrives from America w/ dresses from Macy’s and the latest beauty products. With humorous lines, deep insight, and timeless themes, Jocelyn Bioh’s award-winning comedy (sold out last year off-Broadway) reveals much about all of us, not just teenage girls.

The teen girls are the focus of the story. Paulina is the “queen bee” who takes charge of her peers, yet carries deep insecurities. Ama (Awa Sal Secka) is a very smart senior looking forward to college w/ a serious boyfriend. All the girls are part of a choir; some ’80s music is featured in the play. Cousins Mercy (Debra Crabbe) and Gifty (Moriamo Temidayo Akibu) provide moments of humor. Mercy’s father is a doctor, but very careful w/ money; the girls want new clothes and shoes. Nana (Jade Jones) is the girl w/ a heart of gold who (eventually) finds a way to stand up for herself. Her stepmother put her on a strict diet, disapproving of her weight.

The adults in the story are former classmates- Headmistress Francis (Theresa Cunningham)- a motherly, no-nonsense woman and self-serving, elegant Miss Ghana 1968- Eloise Amponsah (Shirine Babb, a theater veteran). The headmistress wears traditional clothes, incl. headwraps; Miss Amponsah wears high heels and Western skirt suits. Though all her girls are excited re: the beauty pageant, Headmistress Francis insists that education comes first. Only one girl will be chosen to represent this school- everyone is sure it will be Paulina.

Acceptance, standards of beauty, colorism (experienced outside Africa as well), and pains of growing up are the main themes of this play. It starts out like a broad comedy, then you get to know the girls, and realize just how layered their lives are (as we find in real life). This play is being put on by a team of all women- how rare! Also, Round House Bethesda was renovated recently (w/ a upper level of seats); check it out for yourself if in the DMV area. I went to see this play on one of the PWYC nights and really enjoyed it!

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan (Amazon) starring John Krasinski

So you MAY have heard that this ain’t your dad’s (or grandpa’s) Jack Ryan! There are MANY negative reviews (bordering on Islamaphobic) to be found re: this new Amazon series. FYI: It has been renewed for S2. I saw the 8 eps over a 3-day weekend soon after its release; I thought it was meh (like some critics I follow). The writing is (mostly) predictable; I wanted to see a LOT more depth. You can check it out; it keeps your attention (w/ its editing/pacing, high production value, and a few unique characterizations). The action (if that’s your thing) is well-done; Michael Bay is one of the executive producers. Carlton Cuse (Lost) is one of the creators.

Jack Ryan (John Krasinksi) is a 30-something former soldier w/ a PhD working as an “analyst” (they don’t say “officer”) for the CIA. He rides his bike to work, dresses preppy (BUT has a V fit body underneath), and works in a (nice/modern) cubicle. One of his young co-workers is played by Mena Massoud (who will be star of the new live action Aladdin); he doesn’t have many scenes. Jack’s direct supervisor, James Greer (Wendell Pierce- one of my fave actors), has been aged down and is a Muslim convert divorced from his Arab-American wife. THIS is one of the points that that die-hard Clancy fans objected to in their reviews. There is a scene early in the series where we get to know a BIT re: Greer’s family life, incl. his conflicted relationship w/ Islam. He meets w/ an older immigrant man at a little cafe who says that he is missed at the mosque (masjid); I haven’t seen a scene like this on ANY (network) show!

In the Harrison Ford helmed movies, Jack is older and has two young kids w/ his eye doctor wife. Here, Jack’s future wife- Dr. Cathy Mueller- is an epidemiologist. Cathy (Aussie actress Abby Cornish) tells a work friend that Jack’s NOT like the guys she usually goes out w/; perhaps he’s more brainy, reserved, and unsure of himself (when in comes to romance). Their paths (work-wise) eventually cross; this is a staple in MANY network TV shows and movies. Some Clancy fans didn’t like this coincidence; I wouldn’t have cared IF Krasinski and Cornish had chemistry onscreen. I’m sure there are MANY other actresses who could’ve done better w/ this role.

The villains of this story are NOT cartoonish stereotypes; Suleiman (Ali Suliman), is a former banker who grew up partly in the ghettos of France w/ his artistic younger brother, Ali (Haaz Sleiman from The Visitor). As kids, they survived the bombing of their hometown in Libya. Suleiman has a young/beautiful/clever wife, Hanin (Dina Shihabi), as well as three children who live in a spacious compound in Syria. Shihabi grew up in Saudi Arabia and (quite naturally) portrays a woman who would do anything to protect her kids. I hope this actress gets more roles! There is great (familial) chemistry between the actors, making them believable as brothers. How did they become terrorists? We get to see the backstory (also unusual in a typical network show). As some viewers noted, these characters are MORE interesting than the Westerns who are on their trail.

Below are excerpts from some IMDB reviews:

The writing is far from great. This could’ve been an amazing series, but instead the writing is very TV. Also, I can’t with the love interest. Her acting is terrible and there is zero chemistry between them.

If you are new to Clancy, or the action spy drama all together, you will probably enjoy this. The acting, action, and production value will carry it a long way.

…it doesn’t break any new ground. But it provided a season of tense, tight entertainment, if this is a genre that you find appealing. There, of course, is lots of violence, some of it graphic… but I thought all of the particulars of good visual storytelling were present.

Beautiful Boy (NOW PLAYING) starring Steve Carell, Timothee Chalamet, Maura Tierney, & Amy Ryan

Based on the best-selling pair of memoirs from father and son David and Nic Sheff, Beautiful Boy chronicles the heartbreaking and inspiring experience of survival, relapse, and recovery in a family coping with addiction over many years. -Film Synopsis

The title of this film (and the book) comes from John Lennon’s song “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)”. David Sheff, a successful freelance writer, interviewed John Lennon and Yoko Ono in 1980. This emotional, sensitive, and timely film (opioid addiction is a VERY serious/common issue today) is a BIT more from the viewpoint of the father, Dave (Carell), than his teen son, Nic (Chalamet- now 22 y.o.) I would’ve liked to see more of the mom, Vicki (Ryan); there are a few nice scenes w/ the stepmom, Karen (Tierney). Nic’s parents divorced when he was quite young; every Summer, he traveled from San Francisco to LA to spend time w/ Vicki. (We don’t know what her career is, BUT are lead to believe that she’s quite busy and also successful.)

As Nic got into his high school years, he became more withdrawn (spending a LOT of time alone, writing and drawing). Dave didn’t realize that his son was ALSO getting into hard drugs; he assumed that it was only marijuana that Nic was experimenting w/ (like MANY teens/college students). There was something missing w/in Nic which he couldn’t explain; drugs filled that void. Dave thought that he and Nic were closer than most fathers and sons. When Nic runs away from a rehab facility (for the second time), Dave sets out to learn exactly what kind of damage could be happening to his child. (Timothy Hutton has a cameo as an M.D. who specializes in addiction.) There are some fine, nuanced performances here, esp. from Carell (aging quite well/stretching his dramatic muscles) and Chalamet (who lost 25 lbs. for his role). There is more to this story, so check it out yourself! 

The Hate U Give (NOW PLAYING) starring Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby, Anthony Mackie, Issa Rae & Common

It’s not everyday that you watch a film re: the development of an individual’s race consciousness! This isn’t just for fans of the YA book (which many adults also read); it’s for anyone who has had to  deal w/ unfairness, violence, and/or navigate two worlds (cultures, languages, etc.) and come out resilient on the other side. In my audience a week ago, there were viewers of ALL ages, incl. several families (black, Latino, Asian) w/ pre-teens and teens. It’s realistic, emotional, intelligent, and still hopeful re: our future (and that of the protagonist- Starr). Like ALL good films, it takes the viewer on a journey (BUT this time it’s through the eyes of an intelligent, sensitive, and curious 16 y.o. black girl). After the film ended, a black woman in her 50s commented (in a pleasantly surprised tone) to her gal pal: “This is what happens when there’s a black writer, producer, and director.” You don’t need to be black (or in a minority group) to appreciate this film (of course), BUT it does speak esp. to a modern, American, black audience. 

I was impressed by all the actors, esp. Stenberg (who is already quite experienced for a 20 y.o. in Hollywood) and Hornsby (who I saw on Broadway several years ago in Fences). The Carter family (which is blended) is such a strong and loving unit- this is VERY rare to see in modern film! Hall gets a few moments to shine; she’s NOT just the one-note wife/mom. Common (known for his music) does pretty well w/ his role as Starr’s uncle (and cop). It’s good to see Issa Rae getting more exposure (on big screen). The chemistry between the kids and parents was really good. The costumes, music, settings, and extras ALL contribute to giving this film its authenticity. Don’t miss this film- it has its pulse on what’s (sadly) going on now in our society!