Editor’s note: This review contains mild spoilers about the first five episodes of David Makes Man.
If the initial episodes are anything to go by, OWN’s upcoming coming-of-age drama, David Makes Man, is well on its way to redefining and bringing new light to the way young Black boys are portrayed in film and television. Created by the Oscar-winning co-writer of Moonlight, Tarell Alvin McCraney, the drama boasts executive producers like Oprah Winfrey and Michael B. Jordan.
From the instant that the lush South Florida setting is introduced to viewers, Moonlight’s influence on the show is clear and apparent. Even more so like Moonlight, at its face, David Makes Man is lyrical drama at heart that by no means operates like your typical television drama. It functions more like a scrappy arthouse film that is more concerned with creating complex characters than tying together cyclical, serialized storylines, making it different from any other show on television right now.
The character of David is a marvel in itself, as is newcomer Akili McDowell, who within his first few moments proves he is an absolute star in the making. In most narratives, similar stories will focus on one solid archetype but David Makes Man and its title character are constantly exploring the duality between two worlds. On one end, he has his home life in the projects where he lives with his hard-working mother who is recovering from a drug addiction (Alana Arenas) and his younger brother (Cayden K. Williams). Then, he treks over to an affluent neighborhood to catch the bus, where he attends a magnet school on the other side of town.
To further indicate the dichotomy, David even has two names that he goes by in the two different environments--D.J. to his friends from upper-middle-class families at school and Dai to the folks back at the projects. In both, he shows traits of a natural-born leader, which is why he catches the eyes of a school figure who want him to maximize his potential (Phylicia Rashad’s Dr. Woods-Trap) and local drug dealers who think he’s a prime candidate to help out their cause. The duality between the two worlds is never clear and distinct, they are ever-changing and are dependent upon time, places and the people that are present. He’s never one of the other and McDowell masterfully coveys every emotion and every version of “David” with ease.
A gifted student that’s quiet, smart and driven, he’s even a foil to his best friend, Seren (Nathaniel Logan McIntyre), in both background and personality. Through the friendship of David and Seren, David Makes Man is the latest in a string of recent films and television series that push the bounds of typical male relationships we see on-screen, especially between young men of color. Between pairings like Spencer and Jordan on The CW’s football drama All American, to the trio of Cesar, Jamal and Ruby in On My Block, we’ve seen masculinity deconstructed in different ways. It’s so important that a narrative showcases friendships as Black male adolescents interacting and behaving in a loving way, which is something that has been afforded to other coming-of-age narratives throughout time. In terms of David Makes Man, Black boys are rarely given the chance to be written with such sensitivity. It is refreshing to see and it's all smartly written and depicted, including an early scene with no dialogue that depicts a conversation between David and Seren through scripted graphics. Even when not explicitly stated, we understand their dynamic. McIntyre is also a standout as the abused, but optimistic Seren.
In on-screen narratives, it is very rare that Black kids get coming-of-age narratives in the same way as white kids. Stories focusing on Black teens that center them at the focal point of the story are few and far between. Even when young Black kids are at the center of these works, most chronicle the trope of “making it out the ‘hood.” While this is is a component of David Makes Man’s story as well, it’s the ties that bind David to his neighborhood, the people and the dream sequences that transport viewers to an idyllic, atmospheric utopia. And through this, we understand what could be instead of what is. It also helps that McCraney’s expansive world-building has established a bevy of characters, from Mx. Elijah (Travis Coles), a parental-like figure in David’s life who is gender non-conforming and takes in queer kids who need a home to Sky (Isaiah Johnson), another parental-like figure who is a brooding drug dealer and has an omniscient presence that looms over David almost always.
David Makes Man wants to say a lot of things and it’s hard to not be drawn in by David’s world; how, through McDowell’s eyes, he feels the weight of that world on his shoulders, and in turn, you do as well. The strong start for the series bodes well for it to breakthrough as hopefully the first awards season player for the network, which would be well deserved.
David Makes Man debuts August 14 on OWN.