OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network’s anticipated new drama series “David Makes Man,” from Academy Award winner Tarell Alvin McCraney, premieres this week; the hourlong drama centers on a 14-year-old prodigy from the projects who is haunted by the death of his closest friend and relied on by his hardworking mother to find a way out of poverty. He must choose between the streets that raised him or the higher education that may offer him a way out – and it is the crucial depiction of that interior struggle that gives the series its soul.
“It’s rare that the interiority of black men is depicted on screen,” McCraney said. And in his series, the title character’s interior life is so generously examined, and sumptuously illustrated in rich, symbolistic terms, bringing to life the dreams and disappointments of young black men from poor and working class backgrounds who live in a constant state of uncertainty and anxiety. “A black man enters any space and that’s all that people see, bringing with them their own biases and prejudices,” he said. “But we are walking complexities just like everybody else, and deserve to see those complexities shown in all their diversity.”
Inspired by the writer’s impoverished youth in Florida, McCraney speaks about navigating a career that has unfolded on a singular trajectory: He’s an openly gay black man from working-class Liberty City, who has been alternately described as a “genius” and “prodigy,” excelling in what have historically been mostly white, heterosexual spaces. His resume includes an International Playwright in Residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company in England, Chair of Playwriting at the Yale School of Drama, member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Ensemble, a MacArthur Genius Fellowship, and most recently, an Oscar. However, he still sees himself as something of an industry outsider.
“I have always navigated these spaces with a sense of knowing that I’m being ‘allowed’ entry by the gatekeepers,” he said. “They say, ‘this space is being occupied by Tarell McCraney, and there isn’t any room for any more like him.’ And that’s just not what I want my experience to be, because it’s not a notion that affords me the kind of nurturing and healing I need as a queer, black, male artist, and I long for moments when I’m part of a community. Otherwise it’s kind of isolating.”
It is that need for community that brought him and his series to OWN, where “David Makes Man” joins a lineup of other dramas created by and/or starring African Americans, including “Queen Sugar,” “Greenleaf,” and new addition “Ambitions,” which premiered in June. “I don’t want to be the only voice in the room, talking about ‘the black experience’,” he said. “And at OWN, we haven’t had to explain certain things simply because I’m surrounded by black people and other black creatives. And I want to be in conversation with them.”
The series stars Akili McDowell (“The Astronaut Wives Club”) as the titular David, a passionate young teen who toggles between two distinct personas that reflect his surroundings, employing a vivid imagination to escape the inherent trauma caused by poverty. The young actor immediately identified with that life.
“One reason why I took the role is because David and I have so much in common,” McDowell said. “For example, his mother is a single parent. My mother is also a single parent. And that reality is the foundation for everything else that happens. I know what it feels like to think that you have to be the man of the house, and help my mother wherever I can.”
Working with the young actor to bring the character to life meant many in-depth conversations. And given the emotionally dark places David goes, McCraney would at times have to pull McDowell from the abyss.
“There are moments when he got so deep into the character that I would have to kind of bring him back, just to remind him of where he is, and to make sure that he remained grounded in our reality, and not in that of the character he’s playing,” McCraney said. It was important to him that McDowell trusted him completely, and he created an environment that allowed for honesty and openness, given the emotional cost.
For McDowell, landing the part gave him “new life,” he said. And while he is critical of his performance, he’s pleased with the end product, and is looking forward to audience reactions – and quite possibly significant changes in his personal and professional life – once the series premieres.
Emotionally demanding, “David Makes Man” requires patience, but it’s worth it. The series is filled with timely psychological and social observations. But what is maybe most intriguing about David is not necessarily his plight so much as the way McCraney characterizes him as the center of a quiet storm of almost dreamlike interruptions.
The atmosphere calls to mind “Moonlight,” and even borrows some of the film’s stylistic touchstones, bathing images in evocative colors, accompanied by a melancholic score that sets the lyrical tone.
“From the very beginning, it was important for us to be clear that we were making a 10-episode film and not a series in the traditional sense,” said McCraney, who won the Best Adapted Screenplay for “Moonlight” along with Barry Jenkins. “A lot of thought went into the color schemes depending on where David is physically and mentally in any given scene. So yes, given it a cinematic look was very intentional.”
The series also boasts “Moonlight’s” sensitivity. It invites audiences on a tumultuous journey through the life of a black boy and demands that you empathize with him. “It will be painful at times, but we sometimes have to navigate terrain that is littered with landmines in order to get to a place of healing,” said McCraney. “John Hughes made several movies that depicted the rich interior lives of young white American men and women. I just want the same for people who look like me.”
Netflix’s “High Flying Bird” marked a turning point for McCraney as he settled into the role of writer for hire. But “David Makes a Man” ensures that he hasn’t lost touch with his abilities as a personal storyteller.
The series’ main cast is rounded out by veteran actress Phylicia Rashad, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Elvis Nolasco, Gillian Williams, Juanita Jennings, Lisa Colon-Zayas, Lindsey Blackwell, Lela Rochon and Nick Creegan. Debuting at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Wednesday, August 14, immediately following “Queen Sugar,” the premiere for “David Makes Man” will be presented with limited commercial interruption.
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