Michaela Coel Makes Us Feel Less Alone

Coel's show ‘I May Destroy You’ daringly takes on the intricacies of sexual violence

BY Skye Arundhati Thomas in Film , Opinion | 24 JUL 20

‘It’s triggering,’ a friend says to me, describing the television show I May Destroy You (2020). ‘It’s also – cathartic.’ In the second episode, Arabella – played by writer, director and producer Michaela Coel – is at the police station, trying to report a crime that she is only able to recollect in flashes of images: a bathroom stall, a man’s nostrils, fumbling at an ATM. She has woken up after a roofied blackout with a bleeding scar above her eyebrow and a smashed-up phone. ‘You can’t even call it a memory,’ she says, wondering if she made it all up. But a forensics team finds bruises on her knees and a small cut in her mouth. Funmi (Sarah Niles), an officer assigned to the case, uses the word ‘assault’, which makes Arabella balk, and snap back: ‘We should refrain from talking about things like they’re facts …’.

While there is a calm bravado to her voice, her face – which is intensely expressive, making visible the slightest tremor – is softly quaking. Something dropped in me as I watched this scene. Years ago, I fell asleep next to a friend. I trusted him; he assaulted me. The next morning, as I sat at the breakfast table picking at my plate, he casually chatted with my flatmates. I didn’t say a word. I was in denial, and full of shame. ‘You can see his eyes?’ Funmi asks Arabella. ‘Yeah,’ she replies. ‘Who’s he looking at?’ Arabella shakes her head, her cognitive dissonance beginning to clear. She pulls the collar of her T-shirt over her face – and sobs.

I May Destroy You, 2020, film still. Courtesy: ©2020 VARIOUS ARTISTS LIMITED

Nine months later, after a lengthy but inconclusive investigation, the case is closed. Funmi hands over the ‘evidence’ – plastic bags filled with soiled clothes. Arabella is dumbstruck by the lack of judicial closure. Her friend, Terry (Weruche Opia), gently nudges her as they sit in the waiting room of the police station: ‘I don’t know how healthy it is to be here any longer.’ This is Coel’s pointed critique of an unhealthy and re-traumatizing justice system, which is rarely able to protect survivors. The burden of proof is too intense: especially when sexual violence is so often rooted in ambiguity. Arabella was raped but can only remember the slightest details. She stashes the plastic evidence bags under her bed at home.

Her friends support her as best they can. Terry quotes from a ‘recovery toolbox’ – arranging special self-care activities like yoga and painting – but the toolbox keeps failing. Trauma is not driven by logic. Terry tells Arabella: ‘Surround yourself with people that affirm you.’ But Arabella makes a surprise trip to her gaslighting ex-boyfriend instead. Sometimes we reach for the things that hurt us most. Coel’s writing never sensationalizes violence. Her storytelling is too clever for that, too subtle: she is more preoccupied with what we internalize, and what remains blurry. In Arabella’s world, like in ours, ‘everything and nothing is normal’.

I May Destroy You, 2020, film still. Courtesy: ©2020 VARIOUS ARTISTS LIMITED

I May Destroy You is loosely based on Coel’s own experiences of assault. It was also a story over which she fought to have creative control. As a Black woman writing a nuanced script for a primarily Black cast, Coel has spoken openly about her struggle with racism and misogyny. Coel’s character, Arabella, is a writer too – and she has a sharp, almost enviable, ability to articulate the messiness of living with the memory of abuse. In a post-#MeToo world, mainstream culture has rarely taken on the contradictions, intimacies and untidiness of sexual violation. Coel – rather stunningly – does, and there is nothing palatable about this show. Neither is it about ‘objectivity’. In fact, it contests the very premise upon which survivors’ stories are judged. Arabella, while addressing her support group, declares, ‘in that place where rules, clarity, law, separation, cease to exist we will show you exactly what we mean by violation’. Coel manifests how surviving is about power – claiming it and saying, without hesitation: I get to define, and evidence, what happened to me.

I May Destroy You, 2020, film still. Courtesy: ©2020 VARIOUS ARTISTS LIMITED

‘The memoir is, at its core, an act of resurrection,’ writes Carmen Maria Machado in In the Dream House (2019), a startling, moving book about the author’s queer relationship that turned abusive. ‘[Memoirists] put themselves, and others, into necessary context.’ Coel gives survivors a context in which to hold our own hypocrisy, desire, inner darkness and proximity to (even, complicity in) acts of violence. Terry, too, finds her consent obscured, as does Arabella’s friend Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), a gay man who unblushingly says: ‘I’m into everything.’ When Kwame approaches the police to report an assault against him, he is met with an awkward, reluctant police officer that visibly operates from a homophobic bias. Kwame’s queer, Grindr-using desire is seen as inherently devious and corrupt. He leaves the station feeling hurt and alone.

‘I’m here to learn how to avoid being raped, there must be some way, because if there isn’t, that means […] it would happen all over again and I just … I don’t know what kind of world that would be,’ Arabella vents to her support group one day. But this is our world: we are repeatedly abused throughout the course of our lives, in both small and big ways, and have to live with the shame that follows. This is a world where trans people are killed simply for existing, where queer people are made to feel unsafe because of our fluid sexuality. There is, of course, no way to ‘avoid being raped’, just as there is no clear way to both give consent and to take it back; no clear way to desire violence but also not want to be violated. ‘You are not alone,’ Arabella’s support group says back to her. The show makes room for our stories, makes it comfortable and insightful to occupy the in-betweens. As we recognize ourselves in it, I May Destroy You makes us feel less alone. And that, in 2020, is truly a rare and precious thing.

Main Image: I May Destroy You, 2020, film still. Courtesy: ©2020 VARIOUS ARTISTS LIMITED

Skye Arundhati Thomas is a writer. They are co-editor of The White Review, and their essay-length book Remember the Details was published this year by Floating Opera Press.