David Makes Man Creator Tarell Alvin McCraney On Tapping Into Imaginations and Going Behind Masks

The Moonlight scribe and executive producer of the acclaimed OWN series talks to Tre'vell Anderson about the show's fervent imagination, its queerness, and why he doesn't claim the title of "activist."

by | June 22, 2021 | Comments

Tarell Alvin McCraney

(Photo by Justin Bettman )

Writer and producer Tarell Alvin McCraney is clear that he is no activist. Despite a body of work that often grapples with topics of belonging and community, codeswitching and survival, and freedom and healing, the Oscar-winning scribe of the Barry Jenkins–directed Moonlight is just committed to reflecting the world as it is, particularly for those poor, Black, and queer. Therein lies the importance of his television drama David Makes Man, which returns for its second season on the Oprah Winfrey Network this Tuesday. Focused on the struggle to survive in a world that would rather see Black people snuffed out by systematic and systemic oppression, the series is perhaps the realest and most liberating show on TV making plain a vision for the future, and the present, that holds, like a grandmother’s embrace, all of its people.

“As an artist who definitely wants to learn and be affected by all of the activism in the world, I try to allow that to make me brave enough to at least bring up the questions that I don’t have answers to,” McCraney says of creating work in this moment of ongoing social unrest. That means not “rehashing anything that we know is right or wrong in this work, like the prison industrial complex,” he says. It’s about more nuanced questions, says the writer and series’ executive producer. “How does [the prison industrial complex] harm our communities, and whom does it harm? And in what ways? And are there other possibilities, like whose voices can be lifted or not in these moments? I was like, ‘I’m scared of that question, but at the same time, I’m going to talk about it.’” 

Tarell Alvin McCraney

(Photo by Rod Millington / ©2018 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. )

The first season of David Makes Man centered on a 14-year-old prodigy named David (played exquisitely by Akili McDowell), who lives in the projects of Miami and who is haunted by the death of a father figure and mentor. Bussed out of his community to a mostly white school, David is forced to embody two personas: one to navigate the streets that raised him, and another to succeed in the education system that may offer him a way out. With a strong ensemble cast including Alana Arenas, Isaiah Johnson, Travis Coles, and icon Phylicia Rashad, the series was a critical darling — season 1 is Certified Fresh at 100% on the Tomatometer — and nabbed a Peabody.

In season 2 of the series executive produced by Michael B. Jordan, Oprah Winfrey, and showrunner Dee Harris-Lawrence, David is now a rising businessman in his 30s (played by Kwame Patterson) who must choose between the instincts that helped him survive adolescence or finding a new way to live. Ahead of the season’s premiere, Rotten Tomatoes spoke with McCraney about the decision to jump 15 years in the narrative, how the 2020 social uprising and pandemic impacted the show’s storytelling, and the subtle and overt ways queerness shows up in the show.

Tre’vell Anderson for Rotten Tomatoes: At the end of season 1, David is still a teenager in school; we start season 2 almost two decades later. Talk to me about the motivation behind that choice. 

Tarell Alvin McCraney: The decision was in the making of the show. One of the initial passes at the last episode of season 1 was to do a little fast-forward, so you would see David dealing with the issues he had experienced in season 1. So even in the initial pitch, when I spoke to Ms. Winfrey and MBJ, my thought was: I want to show how we pick up these skills. I want to show how the Kobes of the world, the LeBrons, the Ryan Cooglers, how these very particular genius-folk get from being where they are in the communities that they grow up in to navigating mostly white society in these various different ways.

In order to do that, I want us to look at how trauma can sort of take a snapshot of who you are in that moment, that moment when the bear attacks, the look on your face and your reaction, and how you keep replicating that moment throughout time, and how you are still that 13-year-old, that 14-year-old, that 15-year-old, even as you’re an adult now dealing with your own child, or dealing with your spouse, or dealing with your boss. You’re now dealing with them as if it’s that moment of collision all because you’ve been triggered and haven’t found a way to let go of that, or work through it, or find another way. That was always the aim.

And rather than make it clinical, you will see David seemingly successful with the trappings of success all around, surviving [but] still not living fully, still thinking everything is a life-or-death situation, still thinking that they’ve got to be the best at everything and not taking the time to learn, to be wrong, to be still. There’s that meme that’s been going around just last week of like, “The best thing we can do for ourselves is to find what triggers us, so that we don’t enact those traumas onto other people.” Well, I couldn’t have said it better myself for good ol’ David: he has yet to take that time to, as my grandma would say, look back over his life and think things over. That was always the purpose and now we’re here, in this chapter of David’s life, doing just that. 

David Makes Man

(Photo by Rod Millington / 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

Rotten Tomatoes: The last time I spoke with you was in the lead up to the series premiere and we talked about the masks we, as Black people, sometimes learn to wear to navigate various spaces. In what ways does that concept manifest for David now?

McCraney: In the same way. That’s the problem, right? There are moments that you’ll see 15-year-old David bring grown self and not really living through grown self, but just wearing it. Same kid, same terrified, same insecure, same childlike imagination. And in some ways, that’s great. I mean, who is that friend that can be like, “Hey Tre’vell,” and in the way that they say it, a part of you fully [transports back to that time, even as] it may not be able to in the flesh because we’ve grown or changed or shifted our hair or now we got a different eyeliner than we used to wear when we were 15.

But as Missy Elliott says, “Same teeth, same hoop earrings.” Within us, there is a person that is connected to that part of our lives, and that is in there sometimes popping up and not. The masks we put on to go out and be, “Oh, I’m grown,” but that kid’s still in there somewhere. And is he OK? Or is he running around terrified? And if you don’t stop him from being terrified, if we are not comforting that part of ourselves, I think some real stress and some real damage can happen. It’s been thrilling actually doing all of this cause, I swear, it’s like affirming to me some of the work I needed to do with myself, but also talking about the ways in which our society, our communities, don’t allow this kind of inward looking.

Rotten Tomatoes: Production resumed in October after the social uprisings of last summer. Did any of that, or the pandemic, impact the storytelling and ideas you all decided to surface?

McCraney: We don’t write directly about those times, but a lot of those issues come up, be it care, be it closeness, be it community, be it gentrification. Police reform comes up. One of the things that we kept talking about was, “Who are we at this moment?” and someone asked me earlier today, “Am I an activist?” and I was like, “I can’t claim that.” I feel like activists are superheroes. That’s like asking me if I’m an Avenger. You’ve got to have a certain skill set and the ones who are out there saving our lives and making space, they have a certain skill set and their analysis is on point.

David Makes Man season 2

(Photo by Rod Millington / 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

Rotten Tomatoes: But you have spoken before about purposefully making a show that will stoke very necessary conversations that we as Black people need to have. You and the team seem to have perfected the ability to reflect the specificity of Black trauma in a way that doesn’t feel harmful, and I can see how people might see that as activism. 

McCraney: Well, how do I talk about the fact that every time I wanted to make a show about a 30-year-old Black man, people were like, “Well, Black men don’t watch TV.” OK, I recognize that the world thinks that; however, if they did, if for some reason a whole bunch of Black people sat around and watched this, what would I want us to be doing? Certainly not just crying the entire time, or certainly not just bemoaning a lot of the pain that we’ve been through. Do I want to be in the reality of it? Sure. But I also want to be pointing at a path towards healing. I want to be a part of families being able to come together and watch together and engage together and have dialogue together in a way that may be uncomfortable, but it’s not suffering.

Where’s the line of uncomfortability, but not suffering? bell hooks talks about that in All About Love, that that’s love. The intention is that I can make myself uncomfortable in order for you or somebody I love to grow and to be nurtured, but the moment I’m suffering in order for you to be growing or be nurtured, that’s not love. So, I don’t want anybody to be suffering or having to suffer through what I’m doing. Uncomfortability I can take. Uncomfortability is where the growth happens anyway.

Tarell Alvin McCraney and Phylicia Rashad

(Photo by Rod Millington / 2018 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

Rotten Tomatoes: One of the many beautiful things about this show is its creativity and imagination, its extremely cinematic in approach. What are the conversations you have with the writers’ room about ensuring that?

McCraney: Well, that’s the job. That’s the agreement of our show that’s different from other shows. There are plenty of shows about people who grew up in the hood. There are plenty of shows about police officers who used to be in the hood. There are plenty of shows about architects who are developing the neighborhoods in which they grew up. We have those shows, but we don’t have shows about when the young person who may or may not become a part of the drug operation is trying to do their homework and starts imagining their lineage through water and earth. We don’t have those moments, and not because they’re not there. 

I thought, this is where I’d love for us to see it and feel it, and remember it. And even though we don’t experience the world exactly like David, I am sure that the corner boys have imaginations. I’m sure that the corner boys imagined different things than what they’re seeing right in front of them. I’m sure of it because some of them ended up writing dope rhymes that we listen to. I’m sure that the little girls who are playing double dutch one minute and dodging bullets in another, imagine things different and feel things different and wish they could say something like this in their head, but can’t in real life. I’m sure the mothers who may have been addicted to drugs and are trying to get past that obstacle for the benefit of their children and themselves, sometimes imagine a world that is completely different than the obstacles that they face. And that’s our remit, that’s our job to explore the interiority of those folks and how their resilience to get through those things can be so compelling, amazing, but also exhausting, tiring. And that maybe there are other things, and other ways and other tools that we need, once we have survived those things, to live. 

David Makes Man

(Photo by Rod Millington / 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

Rotten Tomatoes: I find that the way queerness is incorporated to the show, in both subtle and overt ways, to also be something special. It feels intentional.

McCraney: I’m glad you brought that up. In full transparency, one of the things that we did early in the first season is engage with consultants on the show. I was like, “Yeah, I’m queer and I’m here, but I want another opinion. I don’t want to be the only person refracting back.” There were queer people in our writers’ room, but I also asked Hari [Ziyad] to be a consultant. And so in the way you’re talking about it, in the writers’ room, in the creative process, we had queer reflections in many ways, some that were visible and some [that weren’t]. That was really important to me that it would be reflected in the show because it, again, reminded me of growing up. There were just so many ways that queerness was around me all the time. Sometimes it was talked about. Sometimes it was admonished. Sometimes it was celebrated. But it was just always there.

Again, that’s why I always say I’m not an activist. Activism takes a great deal of intentionality – and so does art, but also sometimes it’s just the way you see it. Sometimes you just go, I see it this way and I’m going to paint it that way ’cause it’s easier. How do I be as truthful to this as possible and make sure that I can maintain it with all the respect and love that I can? I feel really honored that [people] think I’m some super genius that is figuring this stuff out, but queerness finds a way to be in the picture anyway.

David Makes Man season 2 premieres on OWN on Tuesday June 22, 2021. 

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