In its first season, OWN's David Makes Man has solidified its place as one of the most unique shows on television. While there have been shows that feature young Black boys growing up in dangerous circumstances, very few of them have allowed the audience to look as deeply into the emotions and mindsets of their protagonists, while also centering Black queerness and Black male tenderness, as this show does. David Makes Man shows us every side of its 14-year-old protagonist David (Akili McDowell). We see every bit of his frustration, his trauma and his love for those closest to him.
David lives between two worlds. One world is his neighborhood of Homestead Village, a.k.a “the Ville,” where he lives with his mother Gloria (Alana Arenas) and little brother JG (Cayden K. Williams). In the Ville, David is surrounded by drug dealers who want to use David’s intelligence to their advantage, as they can tell he will likely have a future outside of their world. The Ville is also a source of extreme trauma for him because he’s haunted by the memory of his father figure, Sky (Isaiah Johnson), who was shot to death while David watched.
The other world is the preppy middle school David attends, where he’s one of only a few Black kids. In that world, he has his closest friend, Seren (Nathaniel Logan McIntyre), and his teacher, Dr. Woods-Trap (Phylicia Rashad), who David has grown to admire and trust. But that world has it owns complications. For instance, Seren’s mother and stepfather are abusing him, and David is struggling with how to help Seren. Also, after noticing pandering-like behavior from David, Dr. Woods-Trap has suddenly gone from being warm and encouraging to distant and tough. The change in his teacher’s attitude toward him threatens David’s chances of getting into the elite high school that could change the course of his life.
With the whole world on his shoulders, the clear presence of trauma and PTSD, the people who do support David become noteworthy.
The character who supports David and his family the most--providing them with physical, mental financial and emotional care--is their non-binary neighbor, Mx. Elijah (Travis Coles). Through their words and actions, Mx. Elijah gives David and his family the unconditional love and acceptance that they haven't received from the rest of their community.
David Makes Man uses Mx. Elijah as an individual that illustrates the concept of "found family:" friends who provide the care, intimacy and love that blood relatives cannot or will not give. The love that Mx. Elijah gives helps to fill the void created by the members of David’s family who are not as engaged in his life, such as his absentee father and Gloria’s estranged mother.
Mx. Elijah is a pillar of the community in the Ville. Their neighbors know them, and more importantly, they respect them. Gloria and Mx. Elijah have been friends for years and Mx. Elijah has played a large role in the raising of David and JG--especially when Gloria was in the midst of recovering from drug addiction. We see Mx. Elijah doing everything from babysitting JG, to giving David and Gloria words of wisdom, to fixing David’s too short dress pants and teaching him how to ask his crush out. When Seren, whose sexuality has not been explicitly stated, but has been characterized by a classmate as a boy who is gay, comes over to David’s to celebrate Halloween, Mx. Elijah is the one who sees him clearly. Mx. Elijah gives him a costume and encouraging words, assuring Seren that it’s alright to be himself. And when their hateful landlord Mrs. Hertrude (Juanita Jennings) has something rude to say about Seren’s outfit, Mx. Elijah is quick to defend him.
In the second episode of the series, Mx. Elijah takes a young trans man named Star (Logan Rozos) into their home. We--the audience and David--actually meet Star through another trans person who helps David out, Femi (Trace Lysette), a trans woman who David meets while on a long, exhausting journey home. When David meets Femi, he has been walking for miles to get to a bus stop; he’s sweaty, worn out and thirsty. Femi gives David some water and introduces him to Star, who is waiting on the same bus that David’s waiting on. David and Star then watch as Femi and a group of women defend a trans sex worker from an aggressive man.
Star himself is another example of a trans person showing David and family the kindness they don’t usually receive. While Star is living with Mx. Elijah, he develops a friendship with JG and David, and he’s one of the few people that’s genuinely nice to them without expecting anything in return. When Star does things, like paying for David’s bus fare, it’s solely because he wants to help David out in some way. When Star is hanging out with JG, it’s because he really enjoys hanging out with the kid. This is in direct contrast to the drug dealers in the Ville, namely Sky’s son Raynan (Ade Chike Torbert), who try to use JG to coerce David into selling drugs with them, or who only show brief moments of kindness and helpfulness as a way of trying to trick David into trusting them.
In episode 8, we see one of the greatest examples of Mx. Elijah and Star looking out for those in need. Throughout the episode, we’re told that Seren is missing and has run away from his abusive home. Initially, we are led to believe that David doesn’t know where his best friend has gone and is scared and helpless. However, by the end of the episode, we see that David, Star and Mx. Elijah have actually arranged for Seren to run away. He leaves for Tampa alongside Star, who made the decision to leave Mx. Elijah’s home in the previous episode. They care so much about Seren’s wellbeing that they have pooled their resources together to get him away from the dangerous situation at home.
The fact that Mx. Elijah and Star are gender-nonconforming and trans is significant because it demonstrates how queer, trans and gender-nonconforming people have always managed to create a space for themselves to care for and protect one another. Just look at ballroom culture, which was created by Black and brown, queer and trans people for Black and brown, queer and trans people. One of the most integral parts of the ballroom culture is the house you’re in, and who your house mother/father is. These houses were formed to give the people who had been abused and left behind by the rest of the world a place to know love, safety and acceptance. Your house is a place where there are other people like you, who understand your experiences and who want to see you grow. They’re your family.
We see this culture depicted in the documentary Paris Is Burning, and the FX show Pose, but David Makes Man takes things a step further. It builds on those depictions by showing just how common it is to have queer, trans and gender non-conforming people take care of people in the hood. Black queerness isn’t new, it isn’t some trend. Queer people have always been an invested part of our communities and David Makes Man makes that clear in a way that has yet to be depicted so centrally and so beautifully on screen.
In an interview with Out Magazine, Travis Coles, the genderqueer actor who plays Mx. Elijah, said that people have told them that Mx. Elijah reminds them of someone from their own lives.
“Everyone knows Mx. Elijah,” Coles said. “So many people came up to me after we did one screening and they're like, ‘Mx. Elijah, we called her 'auntie' in my neighborhood’ or ‘Everybody went to get their stuff fixed by Mx. Elijah. Mx. Elijah had all of the goodies and treats.’ And that's true.”
This is one of the reasons that David Makes Man is such an important show; it gives a fuller, more intimate, more tender picture of Black life by centering queerness. And the way the show portrays its trans and gender non-conforming characters is nothing short of revolutionary. Season 1 may be over, but David Makes Man is a show that we’ll be talking about generations from now.
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