Michaela Coel’s limited series “I May Destroy You” took home the “Breakthrough Series Short Form” award at the 2020 Gotham Independent Film Awards held this past Monday, Jan. 11; the IFP Gotham Awards was originally scheduled for November 2020 before a postponement due to the pandemic.
Although the Gotham Awards is lesser-known than the award show giants of the entertainment industry, as IndieWire’s Anne Thompson sees it, the New York independent film awards show garners preliminary buzz, “[steering] various voting groups toward which movies matter the most.” Most notably during the ceremony, Taylor Simone Ledward gave a moving tribute in honor of her late husband, actor Chadwick Boseman.
“He was the most honest person I ever met … [He] was not merely telling a story or reading lines on a page, but modeling a path to true fulfillment,” she said.
If you haven’t seen Coel’s 12-episode series by now, hop onto your HBO account or sign up for a free trial. “I May Destroy You” may be reminiscent of shows like Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s “Fleabag” or Natasha Lyonne’s “Russian Doll,” but on the whole, it is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Vulture Magazine describes “I May Destroy You” as “the most sublimely unsettling show” of 2020.
Coel is the showrunner — director, creator, writer and star — of the HBO and BBC One limited series, which bluntly unpacks main character Arabella’s experience of sexual assault. Coel shared in 2018 that Arabella’s story was based on her own traumatic experience while writing the second season of her critically acclaimed comedy sitcom “Chewing Gum.” Unlike “Chewing Gum,” a lighthearted coming-of-age story about an awkward 24 year-old on a quest to lose her virginity, “I May Destroy You” plunges the audience into the vulnerable and scattered mind of an intelligent self-assured woman facing the darkest dilemmas. It was a difficult topic to approach — Coel wrote 191 drafts of “I May Destroy You” before she was satisfied with this story.
— IndieWire (@IndieWire) January 12, 2021
The show’s main character, Arabella, lives in East London. She is the author of book series “Chronicles Of a Fed-Up Millennial,” the popularity of which makes her a prominent voice among many young, independent women. Adoring fans frequently approach her in the streets, quoting the life mantras that struck them most.
One night while seeking to cure her writer’s block, Arabella procrastinates, despite an early morning due date to her publisher. Arabella finds herself drinking with some friends and strangers at Ego Death Bar. The next morning, we see the cotton candy, pastel pink-haired woman furiously typing away at her desk in the same clothes as the night before. Sleepless, the writer miraculously manages to make her draft deadline. It is only later that day that she takes notice to the bleeding gash on her forehead. A blurry scene of a man above her in a bathroom stall sharply flares in her mind, but Arabella refuses to acknowledge this scene as memory.
“I May Destroy You” interweaves flashbacks and false memories in a disjointed form of storytelling. This is not the result of an unreliable narrator but rather the real-time, raw emotional processing of the main character’s memories as she desperately seeks truths concerning her assault. Arabella’s identity transforms from millennial guru to social media prophet, as she is thrusted into the spotlight as a spokesperson for sexual assault victims.
Coel’s masterpiece addresses multiple ethical grey areas and novel topics, including performativity and processing trauma in the social media era and the parasitic aspects of relationships in both the main character’s inner and outer circles. Yet, “I May Destroy You” does not impose a moralistic agenda; instead it bares all, refusing to sand down sharp corners to create a well-rounded takeaway. “I May Destroy You” urges the audience to decide for themselves what is right or wrong, or if clear-cut interpretations could possibly even exist. Coel acknowledges the truth that healing from trauma is incredibly complex and different for each individual by offering endless scenarios and questions. It is from these pieces that viewers are encouraged to pick and choose where to derive meaning and comfort.
Arabella’s journey toward cathartic release and understanding is a high-pressure, fast-paced fever dream occupying Arabella’s waking life, in which she must also try to navigate the misleadingly progressive world of East London. Arabella can never expect what’s coming just around the corner — and neither can you.
Although Coel’s television series was one of the most praised of 2020, it debuted on June 7, 2020, barely missing the 2020 Emmys qualification cutoff date of May 31. However, as the Gotham Awards kicked off the 2021 awards season, it is a strong indicator that Coel’s original work will finally receive the recognition and honors it deserves.
“I May Destroy You” was nominated alongside notable contenders such as Crystal Moselle’s coming of age series “Betty,” which follows a group of New York-based femmes navigating their way through the male-dominated world of skateboarding, and rapper Lil Dicky’s “Dave,” in which a fictionalized version of the rapper awkwardly makes his way to the top with strong will and undeniable talent.
Despite competing alongside “Betty” and “Dave,” “I May Destroy You” winning the Breakthrough Series Short Form award at the 2020 Gotham Independent Film Awards solidifies Coel’s status as a modern creative writing icon and the dark comedy series’ potential for mainstream recognition.
Jacqueline Lee is an Entertainment intern for the Winter 2021 quarter. She can be reached at Jacqusl4@uci.edu .