Oprah, Tarell McCraney Talk Toni Morrison's Impact On ‘David Makes Man'

August 7th 2019

Just hours before Shadow And Act sat down with Oprah Winfrey and Tarell Alvin McCraney to chat about their new OWN series David Makes Man, news broke that Toni Morrison had died. There had been an atmospheric shift at the literary giant's transition into an ancestor, and to not discuss the loss that was on everyone's heart would have been akin to removing the air from the room.

So, right away, we dug into the legacy of the woman who is exalted for writing the interiority of everyday Black life as poetry and song. That legacy is stamped all over David Makes Man. The new autobiographical coming-of-age series from the mind of the Oscar-winning Moonlight writer McCraney and executive produced by Winfrey and Michael B. Jordan, follows young David (the excellent newcomer Akili McDowell) growing up in Miami-Dade projects. David's one shot at a safer life and future is through the magnet school he attends across town. But dodging drug dealers and helping his single mother care for his little brother as she deals with her addiction, further complicates David's life and his decisions about who he wants to become.

The arthouse series plays out like a film as McCraney's lyrical vision emphasizes that trauma is not the end-all of Black life; that beauty and joy and pain co-exist. In David Makes Man's elevation of Black humanity as universal art, the spirit of Morrison lives.

“I think that what she represented for me is this idea that where we've come from and everything that came before us lives in each of us in such a way that we have a responsibility to carry it forward," Winfrey told Shadow And Act of Morrison's impact.

“I remember one of my first conversations with her and I don't remember what the question was but she said, ‘I've always known I was gallant.' And I had to look up the word gallant. Her assuredness about the way she could tell stories and her ability to use the language to affect us all is what I loved about her and also what I love about [McCraney]. From the very first time I heard the pitch, I sat in the room, I closed my eyes and I was doing everything I could not to cry during the pitch because it's kind of unprofessional," she said.

“I was crying," McCraney interjected, to laughter.

“I knew if he was able to do a portion of what the pitch represented, that we would have something that would be, in its own way, a phenomenon," Winfrey said.

“First of all, most of the stories I read growing up were always about Black girl stories. Pecola Breedlove, my favorite book of all times [The Bluest Eye]. So, sitting in the room with Tarell was the first time I thought, ‘Wow. I really don't know much about Black boys, nor have I ever actually thought very much about Black boys.' This will give not just me a chance to express it. I'm not the only one who feels that. So I think mothers who've raised Black sons absolutely know, but for the most part I don't spend a lot of time thinking about Black boys so I thought the series and the way he pitched it would offer the rest of the world an opportunity to see inside a world that we rarely get to see. And certainly, I believe that what he and the team have done, what he and Dee [Harris-Lawrence, the showrunner] have done, what everyone has collaborated to create is this series that validates the Black boy."

“Because there's a whole bunch of Black boys who haven't seen or thought a bunch about stories about Black boys," McCraney said.

“Because what are the stories?" Winfrey asked.

“You said that and it made me want to shout. What stories did I grow up looking at, seeing, literarily, that were about or centered around the Black boy's experience? There were so few," said McCraney.

“I thought that. I could only think of [Claude Brown's 1965 autobiographical novel] Manchild in the Promised Land," Winfrey said.

“It's so funny because the only thing I can think of is [the 1975 film] Cornbread, Earl and Me. And then the jump between that, it was Cornbread, Earl and Boyz n the Hood. How long? There's a big gap between that," McCraney said.

For a new generation, David Makes Man bridges that gap and extends the legacy of Black storytelling.

“I'm very fortunate to have a legacy of Black interiority handed down to me," McCraney told Shadow And Act, holding back tears. “I didn't get the privilege of going to an historically Black school, so in the institutions like David [attends] you have to run into your Dr. Woods-Trap [played by Phylicia Rashad] those teachers, those professors who would sort of open your life up in ways you didn't even know. And on the road to that, when I was in grad school, I met and was the assistant of Mr. August Wilson, one of the [stars of David Makes Man], Alana Reynes did The Bluest Eye production that we did in Chicago and we toured around the country with it. And it was very difficult for me to think that my job was to follow in those folks' footsteps. So, rather, I sort of thought I'm reaping the benefits, does that make sense? Rather than trying to repeat or try to forge anything like them, I would take what they gave and sort of filter it through me," McCraney said.

“That's really where David comes from or this experience of David being serialized in this way. It's really about finally being able to see myself and get that validation of self and seeing characters, reading characters--I read Tar Baby and I know Tar Baby is the one that no one likes to talk about, but when I read Tar Baby it was one of the moments where I was like, ‘I know this southern boy. Ooo, I know him so bad. I know wanting after a person so wonderfully.' And then to sort of turn around and see Florida life in a way that I hadn't seen since Zora Neale Hurston, I thought to myself, 'Well, that's what I'll do. I'll reach into my pocket, my corner of the world, and show it as best I can,'" McCraney said.

“And so I'm grateful for that legacy. I'm terrified of it, in ways that you would be of any of your grandparents, your aunts, uncles, your mother and your father. You want to be noble you want to stand up in front of it. But you also know, in order to truly do it, you have to bare yourself, flaws and all. There's no way to really be a part of that legacy or add to it unless you show your full self. That means the warts and all," he said.

“And that's the terrifying part of it."

Brooke Obie is the managing editor of Shadow And Act

David Makes Man premieres on August 14 on OWN.

READ MORE:

WATCH: OWN Premieres Trailer For Powerful New Drama 'David Makes Man' At Sundance

'Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am' Presents A Personal Perspective Of A Miraculous Life

Photo credit: Courtesy of OWN/Photographer: Erik Umphery

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