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Robert Hayden’s poem “Full Moon” plays a pivotal role in the pilot for OWN’s upcoming drama David Makes Man.
The poem pits the constancy of the moon against the way the moon has been studied, interpreted and mythologized by endless generations. The moon can be interpreted differently by children or adults, by those who view it through a prism of science or religion or superstition, by those who view it as a concrete celestial object or those who greet it through the eyes of a poet. It’s maternal and paternal, literal and divine. It’s all in how you remember it, how you imagine it, how you study it.
The illuminating power of the moon, mythic or otherwise, is clearly something that fascinates David Makes Man creator Tarell Alvin McCraney, who shared an Oscar for co-writing Moonlight, based on his play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. Threads from that work and Hayden’s poem run through David Makes Man, which casts a variety of light and shadow on a coming-of-age story that, in this context, becomes something much harder to define. Through three episodes of drama — the hourlong pilot premiered this weekend at SXSW, ahead of a summer premiere for the series — David Makes Man is hard to quantify as an ongoing TV series working in a superficially familiar genre, but it’s easy to tell that its poignant humanism, a potent mixture of gritty clarity and a dreamlike nostalgia for childhood and the past, is something distinctive.
Boasting Oprah Winfrey and Michael B. Jordan among its A-list producers, David Makes Man could probably be promoted as something with an easily recognizable and marketable hook. That pitch would probably call this the story of David (Akili McDowell), a South Florida teen who hopes to advance from his magnet middle school to a prestigious prep school as the path to escape from the projects where he lives with his rambunctious younger brother and their frequently absent, hard-working mother (Alana Arenas), who often has to leave them in the care of the stern-but-caring Miss Elijah (Travis Coles). David is smart and committed to a positive path, even though he hails from a housing project in which juvenile crime is rampant and personal tragedies have clearly scarred him.
When David instigates a fight with one of the school’s only other black students (Nathaniel Logan McIntyre’s Seren), his caring teacher (the great Phylicia Rashad) senses he’d be better served meeting with a counselor (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) than receiving a suspension that could end his educational dreams. So I could try to sell you on a version of David Makes Man that would make it sound like an African-American, Miami-set Good Will Hunting, which honestly isn’t really what it is, but at least might get you in the door.
It’s a series that’s weighty in theme and tone, perhaps to the point of sameness in the second and third hours. The arrival of a plucky female classmate of David’s in the third episode offers tremendous relief because she actually generates a couple laughs, something the series badly needed. As strong and earnest as Rashad and Arenas are, the performances I appreciated most were the ones with a little more variation, like Ade Chike Torbert as a neighbor whose kindness to David may have ulterior motives and Isaiah Johnson as a tough-to-define authority figure whose advice David struggles to follow.
McCraney’s never made television before and even with prolific writer-producer Dee Harris-Lawrence as showrunner and a creative team that includes Michael Kelley and Melissa Loy (Revenge), David Makes Man rarely feels like a TV show. The pilot, written by McCraney and directed by Michael Francis Williams, is half-theater, half-indie movie and feels most cumbersome when any sort of plot is inserted — particularly the episode-ending beat that’s treated as a twist even though it’s not the least bit surprising and the questions it raises are ones that are immediately soft-pedaled in the next two hours. Yet it’s still a lovely hour of storytelling, broadly announcing its identity-driven thematics early on — David’s class is doing presentations with the prompts “How did I get here? What is your story?” — and then using McDowell’s vulnerable performance as a gateway.
McDowell’s stillness and maturity allows Williams and cinematographer Todd A. Dos Reis to work with the sort of close-ups most directors would be terrified to entrust to a young actor. David feels everything deeply and, effortlessly, bridges gaps between past and present. The self-identification “I come from growers!” tethers him to the landscape he has to pass through going to school each day and to “memories” setting his roots back in slavery and then freedom. He flashes to vivid terror at the sound of police sirens or to the pure innocence of a summer splashing with a hose at a burst of rainfall. He’s in touch with the pain that’s etched in his DNA, with the unformed voices bouncing around in his head. He recognizes the insecurities that his peers are feeling, using that awareness for sympathy or occasional cruelty. Like the hero of Moonlight, David is a man in fragments, captured in waves of lyricism and surrealism.
He’s not fully formed and the series’ shape is David’s journey, one that brings him into contact with threatening drug dealers, friendly trans prostitutes and an assortment of young men who are either fatherless or haunted by the male authority figures or mentors in their lives. Dos Reis gives the series a sweaty, rundown authenticity of pink-stuccoed poverty, in which David is sometimes shot in heavily stylized lighting or lensing, a reminder that he’s at least got the potential to be something exceptional, a diamond from this rough.
David Makes Man won’t be a diamond in the rough because shows like Greenleaf and Queen Sugar have already established OWN as a destination for prestige drama. Those two shows, elevated family sagas with soap opera undertones, were quickly comfortable in their genre trappings. David Makes Man is harder to define. The pilot is more vibrant and unique, the next two episodes (directed by Kiel Adrian Scott) may be more conventional. There’s potential in either approach, and it will be interesting to see how David Makes Man — and David himself — continues to find its identity.
Venue: South by Southwest (Episodic Premieres)
Cast: Akili McDowell, Nathaniel McIntyre, Isaiah Johnson, Ade Chike Torbert, Cayden Williams, Jordan Bolger, Travis Coles, Phylicia Rashad, Alana Arenas
Creator: Tarell Alvin McCraney
Showrunner: Dee Harris-Lawrence
Premieres on OWN in Summer 2019.
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