“It’s rare that the interiority of black men is depicted on screen,” said Academy Award-winner Tarell Alvin McCraney. That theme permeated the Oscar-winning “Moonlight” and it’s at the center of McCraney’s new OWN series, “David Makes Man.” The hour-long drama centers on a 14-year-old prodigy (Akili McDowell) from the projects who is haunted by the death of his closest friend as his hard-working mother looks to him to find a way out of poverty. In choosing between the streets that raised him, or the higher education that may offer a way out, the interior struggle gives the series its soul.
It’s a series in which David’s interior life is generously examined, and sumptuously illustrated, 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,” said McCraney. “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’s career has unfolded on a singular trajectory: He’s an openly gay black man from working-class Homestead Village, who has been alternately described as a “genius” and “prodigy,” excelling in what have historically been mostly white, heterosexual spaces. In addition to his Oscar for best adapted screenplay, 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, and a MacArthur Genius Fellowship. Even so, 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.”
That need for community brought 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 “Ambitions.” “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.”
As the titular David, McDowell (“The Astronaut Wives Club”) portrays a passionate young teen who toggles between two distinct personas, employing a vivid imagination to escape the inherent trauma caused by poverty. “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.”
Bringing the character to life meant many in-depth conversations. And given the emotionally dark places David goes, McCraney sometimes had to pull McDowell from the abyss. “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.
Watching “David Makes Man” is also an emotionally demanding experience, and requires patience, but it’s worth it. The series is filled with timely psychological and social observations, and McCraney characterizes David as the center of a quiet storm of almost dreamlike interruptions. The atmosphere recalls “Moonlight,” and even borrows some of the film’s stylistic touchstones, bathing images in evocative colors, accompanied by a melancholic score.
“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. “A lot of thought went into the color schemes, depending on where David is physically and mentally in any given scene. So yes, giving 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.”
“David Makes Man” premieres on Wednesday, August 14, at 10 pm ET/PT.