It felt incredibly appropriate interviewing Oprah Winfrey and Tarell Alvin McCraney about David Makes Man, the latter’s new show on Oprah’s OWN channel, on the day Toni Morrison died. Morrison was a pillar of American literature, particularly to the African American community.
Winfrey’s connection to her is obvious—she had chosen Morrison’s 1977 novel Song of Solomon, the author’s third, as one of the first selections for her Book Club in 1996, propelling Morrison to even greater popularity. And Winfrey had starred in and co-produced the 1998 film adaptation of Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize–winning 1987 novel Beloved.
McCraney’s connection to Morrison becomes evident in David Makes Man, his first television show and the latest in a string of accomplishments that have placed him squarely in the running to become our “Voice of a Generation”—a singular talent that emerges every so often that renders the human experience in a way we had never conceived. Described as a lyrical drama, the series is a beautiful and visually stunning exploration of a black boy’s coming-of-age.
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Akili McDowell as David in David Makes Man.
Drawing on the magical realism that runs through much of Morrison’s work, David Makes Man plays with the very nature of reality, as David retreats further and further into his imagination as a means of protection and defense from the outside world. There was perhaps no author more acutely capable of translating the queerness of the black experience—that is, the #blackgirl and #blackboy magic of it all—than Morrison. And with his latest project, McCraney takes up the torch.
“We lost a giant among us: Toni Morrison,” McCraney said at a roundtable discussion for the series at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills last Tuesday. “And I think in the midst of that, one could look at not having her physically, corporally with us. But I also just think back to the first time I ever heard of Pecola [Breedlove, the protagonist in Morrison’s The Bluest Eye]. That moment to me is magic. It will live with me forever, and the fact that I have something illusory, something in my imagination that will stay with me for the rest of my life, means that those two things are connected together.”
After hearing McCraney deliver what she considers “the greatest pitch of my life,” Winfrey immediately wanted to be a part of the show’s journey to the screen.
“I didn’t think we were gonna get it, or we could get it, but I believed in what he was saying so much, so fiercely, I sent him an email,” she recalled. “I said, ’I know you’ve got all these other people. I don’t know whether you’ll come to us or not. You know I wish you well.’”
Winfrey continued, “I felt that what David Makes Man could do—I just instinctively felt that, in the same way that I felt Barack Obama was going to be president—I just felt that what it had to say to the culture at this moment in time is like the new religion. I think storytelling is the new religion because this is how we get people to see and know the best of themselves.”
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Akili McDowell (left) as David and Phylicia Rashad as Dr. Woods-Trap in David Makes Man.
McCraney followed up the runaway success of his Best Picture winner Moonlight—which he co-wrote with director Barry Jenkins, the two men adapting it from McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue—with the Tony-nominated Choir Boy. And somehow he also found time, while maintaining a professorship at the Yale School of Drama, to write David Makes Man.
“A lot of people ask, ’Why television?’ Well, because right now it is a platform where we can have a conversation with folks so far and wide, but also intimately,” the 39-year-old playwright said. “What I couldn’t do with Moonlight I can do here in that I can go into your living rooms and then you can have a conversation about this very thing that I think is really important to my community.”
Co-produced by Winfrey and perennial bae Michel B. Jordan, David Makes Man stars 16-year-old Akili McDowell as the titular David, a brilliant kid trying to transcend his meager surroundings, the dangerous projects of South Florida’s Homestead Village, known to residents as The Ville. Based in part on McCraney’s own youth, the series shares many stylistic and thematic elements with Moonlight—extreme poverty, a single mother battling addiction, a drug dealer as mentor and father figure, the use of blue in various shades and hues—but takes advantage of the breadth that television affords to greatly expand on the narrative.
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Isaiah Johnson (left) as Sky and Akili McDowell as David in David Makes Man.
And like Moonlight, it’s very, very queer. Whereas that film centered its story around protagonist Chiron’s sexuality and the way his world changes in reaction to it, David’s sexuality is less clear. There’s definitely something between him and his best friend Seren (Nathaniel McIntyre), not to mention a healthy portion of man candy for which we should all be grateful.
Travis Coles plays genderqueer diva Mx. Elijah, the soul of The Ville, who sometimes watches David and his younger brother when their mother Gloria (Alana Arenas) is working. Mx. Elijah and Gloria also have a deep bond born of the ballroom scene, so David is surrounded by queer affirmation. Trace Lysette has a great cameo in the second episode as the leader of what appears to be a roaming gang of queer kids and transgender prostitutes. Even this potentially problematic development is treated in a very matter-of-fact way. These are the people who live in and around The Ville. This is what life is there.
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Nathaniel Logan McIntyre (left) as Seren and Akili McDowell as David in David Makes Man.
If David’s world is inherently queer, his reactions to that queerness reflect his uneasiness with his sexuality. In one scene he physically withdraws from Mx. Elijah’s; in another he’s particularly reticent around Lysette’s character. Later, when someone suggests, rather confidently, that Seren might be gay, he’s dubious. The idea, it seems, never occurred to him.
Still, life isn’t so simple as black and white or straight and gay, and David Makes Man tackles these complexities while giving voice to the unique challenges and universal desires of black, brown, and queer people.
“I just love [David Makes Man] so much—it makes me want to cry,” Winfrey said, “because I think about all the people who will see it and not just recognize themselves, but that thing that happens when art validates your life. You get validated by it. There are so many people who are going to be validated by the experience of watching it.”
She added, “What I love about this series is that I know that it’s going to make people feel deeply and be expanded in that feeling. So what else y’all want?”
David Makes Man premieres August 14 at 10 p.m. ET on OWN.