Film / TV

the humanity of ‘david makes man’

August 13, 2019
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Toni Morrison encouraged Black creatives to craft narratives of Blackness, in resistance of the white gaze’s lust for trauma-induced porn, which was centered on the dehumanization of our lives. Morrision’s principles of the utilization of historical sociocultural truths are evident throughout Tarell McCraney’s David Makes Man, an auto-biographical drama series rooted in his experiences as a young Black queer youth in Homestead Village, Florida, and which will debut on the Oprah Winfrey Network, on Wednesday, August 14th. 

“We come from a legacy of work and free joy. Both joy and pain were very prominent to us when we were making this show,” said McCraney during a press roundtable for David Makes Man, last week. This is the challenge of David Makes Man: how to train a humanistic lens in acknowledging generational trauma on Black lives, and depicting it in our daily existence, as we navigate through the societal violence of capitalism, gendered violence, and poverty. “Black life along the margins is complicated and complex.”

“How did I get here? What is your story? Will there be one?” The guiding doctrines of the series are spoken by Dr. Woods-Trap (played by the legendary Phylicia Rashad) to lay the foundation for the characters’ development. In the pilot episode, viewers are exposed to David’s double consciousness. The young middle-schooler (played by Akili McDowell) is aware of his fluidity between his magnet school and the ‘Ville, the Homestead Village-inspired neighborhood. At moments, viewers witness the physical and mental toils imposed upon David, and how these materialize in his schooling, in his relationships with family and friends, and his overall health. 

“What do we do with that, now that we know?” asked McCraney during the interview. “We know that the synapses in the brain are fight or flight, that their adrenals in our young people are up too high. That’s why they can’t sit still. Now that we know, what do we do now?” 

When David is triggered, whether due to a realistic or imagined threat, he looks to Sky, a stand-in father figure represented by Isaiah Johnson. Sky’s teachings are reflective of the streets’ survival beliefs. “Stay on top like a man of war. Keep your head up. Make sure you stay first. You stay ready. You ain’t got to get ready.” 

David’s story  is reflective of McCraney’s childhood experiences. “When I was six years old, I came home and my mom told me that Blue, a man who basically had helped raised me, was shot, killed, and I’d never see him again,” said the playwright whose stage drama, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue was adapted by Barry Jenkins into the Academy Awards-winning film, Moonlight. “From that day forth, I have been recollecting, restructuring every tidbit that he’s ever said to me. I’m 39 now, almost 40. To be constantly using that as a metric for manhood, it’s what trauma does to us, right? It’s what the gulf of death will do. That’s what grief will do. You designing or holding folks in your mind for the rest of your life. 

“That’s the impetus for David Makes Man,” McCraney continued. “I was trying to figure out, ‘How do I measure up the man that I am today to the man that he was almost 40 years ago? What does that mean to me that I’m still aligning myself with this person, who I can’t get new information from?’” 

The side-effects of Sky’s death on David reflect the sadistic reality of many Black youth living in high-crime communities, and experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, but lacking social support to heal after tragedies. In David’s situation, he is mandated by school administration to attend counseling sessions with a psychologist to identify root causes of his erratic behavior towards Seren, his magnet school best friend who himself is experiencing sexual abuse at the hands of his step-father. Despite the school’s trauma-informed approach to his behavior  — instead of fast-tracking him into the school-to-prison pipeline via suspension — David is hesitant to self-disclose. His reluctance is rooted in a genuine fear of government intervention that would disrupt his family structure, and which is alluded to in the series. Social services has threatened to remove him and his little brother JG from home, because of his mother Gloria’s history with addiction. To maintain his equilibrium, David sought instructions from Sky in order to remain grounded in times of despair.

Pictured: (L to R) Akili McDowell (plays “David”) and Phylicia Rashad (plays “Dr. Woods-Trap”) in ‘David Makes Man.’ (Courtesy of OWN & Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc./ Photographer: Rod Millington)

“As a child growing up in Miami — very much a part of the Black American experience, but also the Black Caribbean experience — I was taught that your ancestors just never leave. They’re always there, always guiding, always a part of who you are,” said McCraney. “We come from Black people and Black people are ancestor worshipers, right? We engage our ancestors on all levels and they’re never away from us. No matter what religious doctrine we have been institutionalized with in this country, we still somehow find a way for that ancestor connection to remain.”

One of McCraney’s spiritual gifts is to grant Black people humanity in his work. It is a radical act that demolishes historical notions of fear — because of whiteness’ historical definition of Blackness as fear — which clearly affects how we are allowed to express sorrow and loss without being dehumanized. The demonization of Blackness is one of the greatest triumphs of white supermacist ideologies in popular culture. For generations, our filmed representation was rooted in The Birth of A Nation and Gone With the Wind; but now a new generation can witness a set of diverse narratives, because of the shift of industry stakeholders such as Oprah Winfrey at OWN, willing to risk everything to bring this story to life.

At the roundtable, Winfrey talked about walking into a reading of David Makes Man, and the spiritual experience that captivated her into working with McCarney. “I just saw something in the room. I felt something in the room and I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to stop and listen.’ Tarell finished and I thought, ‘I just want to be a part of this in whatever way I can.’ I went back to the board meeting and said, ‘I just heard the greatest pitch of my life.’ I believed in what he was saying so much, fiercely. I sent him an email, ‘I know you’ve pitched for all these other people. Whether you come to us or not, I wish you well.’ Because I felt that what David Makes Man could do. I just instinctively felt that, in the same way that I felt Barack Obama was going to be president. 

“What it had to say to the culture at this moment in time, was like the new religion,” Winfrey continued. “I think storytelling is the new religion because this is how we get people to see and know the best of themselves. That was worth the risk of ratings, worth the risk of even how it would be perceived. I just believed in it.”

Interwoven within David Makes Man are seeds of McCraney’s legacy. Her has established himself as an artist who utilizes the arts as a vessel for telling our stories, channeling the ancestral power of storytelling. Our histories have been maintained by passing down of our beliefs, traditions, and truths. A story is production of energy, which cannot be killed but only transformed, allowing future generations access to that energy’s influence and draw upon it in times of despair. A student of Morrison, Tarell Alvin McCraney is an anchor for Black boys to seem themselves.

David Makes Man premieres on OWN on Wednesday, August 14th