In a mid-season episode of David Makes Man, the new Oprah Winfrey Network drama that explores the emotional volume of black teenhood and the gnawing effects of trauma, lead character David (Akili McDowell) encounters calamity. When friends from competing worlds meet on the night of the school dance—two classmates are introduced to David’s date, a girl who lives in the same impoverished Miami housing development he calls home—friction presents itself. David’s simmering panic becomes palpable, taking the form of destruction: light fixtures burst, decorations crumble, a disco ball shatters. The auditorium buckles under chaos, transforming into a realm of vivid instability.
But isn’t a young black boy’s imagination just that—a vivid plane of curiosity, fear, and possibility where anything can happen? That is the singular brilliance of Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s show: It goes where few dramas have dared sojourn, into the minds of young black boys. As it turns out, the school auditorium is not actually imploding, it just feels like that for David, who, at 14, is prone to flights of imaginative escape.
The marvel and terror of his dreaming are the central draw for McCraney’s debut TV project, which often flirts with elements of magical realism. In one scene, laying in bed, the air above David’s head becomes an ocean of wonder; and later, a row of trees are set aglow with color as he walks by, brimming with excitement. When I spoke with McCraney last summer, for a profile about OWN’s push into more prestige storytelling, he told me he wanted to engage with how trauma and love shape a young black person’s mind, even as they are cycling through those experiences in real time. “It’s not just dealing with the street and the palpable,” he said, “it’s also about dealing with the world that we sometimes can’t see.”
But it’s about more than that, too. Conscious of the bloat that the streaming wars have caused—there’s just way too much TV right now—McCraney admitted that he found solace in the overflow. It freed him to create more purposefully. “The good news about television across the board, in terms of narrative,” he said, “is that they’re doing so much of it that you can kinda take yourself off the hook for trying to invent or rebel against anything. Or at least I do.” But the very nature of David Makes Man both invents a doorway into something new and rebels against a genre of TV-making that has historically cast out the stories of black teen boys. McCraney might not call that radical. I do.
Think about it. Teen TV dramas have traditionally been regarded as the province of white girlhood. Pretty Little Lies. Gilmore Girls. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Daria. Gossip Girl. Riverdale. The OC. Even some of TV’s best new coming-of-age vehicles—Sex Education, 13 Reasons Why, The Society, and Euphoria—don’t fully engage the the breadth of black teen life, and especially as it pertains to black boyhood. The error feels that much more catastrophic when one considers how black men, and the images we see of them, are hyper-infused in almost every other aspect of media. On the news and across social platforms, we’re regularly inundated with portrayals of black men as targets of the law, as criminals, as irresponsible fathers, or, in popular internet parlance, as “trash.”