Miami native Tarell Alvin McCraney's new TV series, David Makes Man, is as much a unique and original story as it is an extension of a number of themes and narratives the writer has explored throughout his career. By no means is this familiar space a negative, but rather something truly exciting: It's a chance to see an artist who has worked in film and onstage navigate a new medium, one that allows for episodic and long-form storytelling.
David Makes Man, which premieres with the episode "David's Sky" tonight on Oprah's OWN Network, is about the internal conflicts that come with navigating life — specifically, the life of a young black man. The series follows David (an instantly captivating Akili McDowell), a 14-year-old from Homestead Village who attends a magnet school and finds himself navigating the conflicting environments; he changes everything, from his demeanor to his clothing, for the sake of survival.
Though a number of its themes are undoubtedly universal, don't mistake the show as representative of every individual's experience. At a free community screening at Pérez Art Museum Miami that McCraney and Alana Arenas (who plays David's mother, Gloria) attended, the creator noted, "This is a very specific story about black folks. Not every black person went to a magnet school and was bussed there, and I don't want us to think of ourselves as a monolith. I want us to know that there are so many stories about us, for us."
Though many observers will cite Moonlight — the Oscar-winning film adapted from McCraney's script In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue — as a visual and narrative reference point (in part because both works were shaped by McCraney's life experiences), David Makes Man allows familiar elements to play out differently. For instance, one common thread is a fraught mother-son relationship. But where the film aimed for a brash and more openly abusive angle, the series premiere offers quiet tension and melancholic longing.
Gloria's presence is felt more than it's seen, but the writing surrounding this family implies there's much to be found beneath the surface. Most of the first episode feels like an extensive setup of dominoes ready to be toppled at any given moment. It's not only the show's protagonist who's trying to make it through life one day at a time, but also everyone around him.
As Arenas, who was born in Miami, explained at Saturday's PAMM screening: "If you're really trying to survive, you're not afforded a lot of time to figure out if you're going to sink or swim. I think the stakes are high for Gloria and her children, and she desperately wants to see them live. She's inherited things like David has and doesn't want to see things play out for her children, so she's fighting against that cycle repeating. What I really admire about her is something to be admired about black people: in really tough circumstances, doing everything they can in the face of so many challenges to keep pushing forward."
Rather than spelling things out for its audience, the show explores the moments between dialogue as much as the talking itself. It's in the way characters silently navigate things — their gazes telling more of the story than their words at times — with premiere director Michael Francis Williams indulging in beautiful closeups without relying on them too heavily.
In an odd way, Williams' direction here is sometimes more reminiscent of Terrence Malick's than anyone else's. Similar to the renowned filmmaker's works, David Makes Man wears its emotions openly and presents them to the audience through a gorgeous lens. There's a texture to the way David experiences life and the way memories, dreams, people, and life flow in and out of one another. One minute, a character is remembering what it was like to feel grass brush against his arm or water splash on skin on a hot day; the next moment, he's thrown back into the reality of his current situation.
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More exciting is the fact that this visual style is being used to tell a story that isn't about heterosexual white men; it's an appropriation of the establishment to tell new stories through a black, queer lens. The premiere alone holds distinct conversations about the traumas that parents inflict upon their children (intentionally and unwittingly), how those who are no longer with us affect our lives, the accessibility of transportation, colorism, poverty, masculinity, queerness, and other topics.
This is not to say David Makes Man leans into misery or lecturing. The series' initial hour also includes moments of levity. One sequence shows all of David's thoughts (as well as those of his biracial friend Seren, played by Nathaniel Logan McIntyre) sketched out onscreen, externalizing the internal in a playful and engaging manner.
It's this distinct balance of the beauty and pains in life that makes David Makes Man worthy of weekly viewing. Says McCraney: "We want you to sit there and react with your families. The call-and-response you'd do in a movie, that's what we want. It's a community gathering — that's why we made it cinematic. Every episode is like a film designed to keep you engaged in the experience."
David Makes Man. Premieres at 10 p.m. Wednesday, August 14, on OWN. A free prescreening will be open to the public at 8 p.m. Wednesday, August 14, at the Sandrell Rivers Theater, 6103 NW Seventh Ave., Miami. Reserve tickets via ftfshows.com.