Many things come to mind when watching OWN’s new drama, David Makes Man.
It’s evident the show is a natural evolution for its creator, out Moonlight writer Tarell Alvin McCraney and executive producer Oprah Winfrey; two iconoclasts behind numerous unflinching narratives of Black life. The other point that resonates with this terrific show is how much TV has changed for the better in the past few decades. Where once only a sliver of humanity was depicted — namely the white, straight, cisgender existence — now characters of all descriptions are deemed worthy of interest, exploration, and admiration.
David Makes Man, inspired by McCraney's own life, centers the stories of people living in the margins. Not just the show’s protagonist, 14-year-old prodigy David (Akili McDowell), but the struggling, ambitious circle of individuals who surround him in his hardscrabble Miami neighborhood. There are drug dealers, yes, but also desperate parents trying to do right by their children, and a whole community of transgender friends working a broken system to survive — Travis Coles and Trace Lysette play two formidable trans characters who show David kindness, and serve as role models of strength and pride.
McCraney digs beneath the surface of David’s story — which revolves around his efforts to stay in school and escape prison or death like so many of the men around him — to illustrate what’s going on inside his psyche; the anxiety and fear, as well as the love and respect he has for his brother, mother (wonderfully portrayed by Alana Arenas), teacher (played by Phylicia Rashad) and a father-figure/mentor who he idolizes.
Dream sequences, archival footage, and word bubbles illustrate the interior of characters’ minds. The magical realism is something rare for television, as is the atmospheric locales, where Miami’s sweaty expanses are expertly depicted. The location of David Makes Man, as well as the focus on a young man’s loss of innocence, certainly brings to mind Moonlight, which won the Best Picture Oscar, with McCraney being awarded an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
“I was so taken, enraptured by the lyricism and poetry of it,” Winfrey told The Advocate of her experience with Moonlight; both McCraney’s play and film, which focuses on a young gay Black man growing up in Miami. “I was moved by the depth and beauty of it. So I knew Tarell was this extraordinary, open, depth-giving writer. When you get to work with people like him, like Ava [DuVernay], it’s stimulating, it’s life-enhancing.”
Winfrey and McCraney weave many themes through the show, from homophobia to sexual harassment to colorism. One less obvious subject explored in David Makes Man is the effect of childhood trauma and how it ripples through communities and then entire cities.
“When I listened to [McCraney’s] pitch on the show, it felt like growing up in this community is in of itself a traumatizing event,” Winfrey said at a press event for the show. “What I’ve learned about trauma is if you’re raised in an environment where there’s constant noise, constant chaos, people yelling at you, the synapses in your brain don’t even form properly. The story of David is that story.”
Violence, crime, and loss surround David, but McCraney makes sure to highlight the beauty that survives among these circumstances.
“Black life along the margins is complicated and complex,” McCraney said. “We didn’t want to shy away from complexity and the same time we didn’t delve so far into explaining the complexity that you didn’t see the joy, the music, the longing, the quotidian.”
McCraney and Winfrey are deservedly proud of David Makes Man and its rarely-seen stories that they brought to life.
"I felt that what David Makes Man could do, I just instinctively felt that, in the same way that Barack Obama was going to be president, what it had to say to the culture at this moment of time was like the new religion," Winfrey said. "I think storytelling is the new religion because this is how we get people to see and know the best of themselves.”
David Makes Man, created by Tarell Alvin McCraney and produced by McCraney, Mike Kelley, Melissa Loy, Michael B. Jordan, and Oprah Winfrey, airs on OWN on Wednesdays at 10 p.m. Eastern.