“Drop call my phone. Drop call my phone.”
A single scene, on the sunny corner of a UK housing complex. A clean-cut and eager white guy in a suit, trying to keep up with a matter-of-fact black twenty-something with two braided ponytails, a colorful windbreaker, no smile, and all the power. It remains one of those clips on the Internet I can always turn to for a belly laugh or five. For fans of Chewing Gum, I’m hoping this rings a bell. For me, this was my first introduction to Michaela.
But, I met her again as an unforgiving and hilarious airport employee in Black Mirror. I met her in her acceptance speech for the 2021 Emmy for Outstanding Writing. And I met her in the first 21 minutes of I May Destroy You. That’s all I could handle before needing to switch to a lighter viewing experience. (How smart is it for the title of your work to also serve as a warning label?)
Emmy-winning Michaela Coel is an actress, screenwriter, producer, director, and even more things. She has made a home in the zeitgeist as a comedic force and a powerful conduit for drama. And she’s got a knack for successes–the groundbreaking kind. In Misfits, she describes her experience with being the First (or Only) Black Woman several times in her career. (So, then it’s no surprise that she’s the first Black woman to win the aforementioned Emmy for writing for a limited series.)
Misfits is the printed, book version of her 2018 MacTaggart lecture. It’s a little over 100 pages of prose about her background, her career up until that point, and both a prescription and prognosis of the television industry. Even as a short book, it is, like Michaela, so many things in one. “Haha!” funny, ironically funny, smart, instructive, difficult, and pensive, and at times difficult. She presents her real experiences without comment, which punches the gut even more than a clever prepositional phrase would. I felt each of the 128 pages.
I had a few prevailing reactions while reading the book:
Wait, Michaela and I are both millennials? She has wisdom way beyond our thirty-ish years.
Michaela is, like, Maya Angelou-level wise. I was surprised to read that Michaela describes herself as a millennial. She possesses the kind of presence and wisdom that makes me assume 10 or 15 years on top of my own age, no matter how old I am. Her writing has a dizzying effect. (Again, so many different Michaela Coels.)
Her lyrical style of storytelling mixes contemporary slang and edge with something that feels like folklore and Proverbs at once. Like she’s tapping into something that’s been true for a long time. I asked myself, am I reading the right thing? What is this about? How did she know? This is the same girl from Chewing Gum?
Her insights on the entertainment industry are also piercing. She describes herself as a “misfit” and the industry as a “house” that we’re all in, but to which she’s new.
She also talks about the creative and executive teams as members of the “family” in the house. But the full impact of this metaphor didn’t hit me until later; inequality and structural unfairness built into the system goes beyond a workplace dispute. When you’re creating stories based on your life that people invite into their lives, sleights become personal. It’s like when a family member hurts you, or when your house is robbed.
Coel captures the unique, and yes, gut-punching experience of being mistreated in the very place you’re supposed to feel at home and in control. And still, she rises!
Her writing poses questions that are too important to be hypothetical.
“Is co-writing ‘immediate interruption’”?
“If 95% of us don’t fit something, why are we encouraging each other to strive for it?”
“Without a healthy writing team, and a great story, then what do we have on the screen to inspire misfits?”
I love how she gave us an example of herself not listening to a misfit different from herself. The work inspires questions from the reader, such as: Are we really trying to be fairer in our versions of the house? Our rooms in the house? Or are just creating our own houses, still as rigid as before but rigid to our own tastes? Are we at most variations of the theme, endless verses of American Pie, thinking that we’re different but really coming around to the same refrain. How do we make sure we’re not creating microcosms of the same problems when we get our own slices of power?
This book made me want to dismantle the next hierarchy I see.
Michaela writes about discovering the concept of “script editors” on Chewing Gum after she’s already struggled to write 29 drafts completely on her own. She says that she has the stories, and her new script editor had the tools. But, why did we build a system that assumes you have both, while actively making it harder to gain both?
Michaela now has both. And, we see how that makes all the difference because now she has power.
I used to assume that the institutions I grew up in had it figured out, that they would give me the tools I needed – deserved – to do what I worked so hard for, what almost no Black women had done before. But, like Michaela and the script editor, I’ve learned that billion- and trillion-dollar industries like to see what we can do ourselves. They like to make us work for “it” after we’ve worked for it. So it doesn’t just look or feel like it’s easier for everyone else; it actually, measurably is.
I used to think the New York Times crossword was one of those things I wasn’t smart enough for. So, I avoided it for months before I Googled the official companion guide… where they list all the clues you need to understand the clues. This is how they built it!? So many of us build our pride about overcoming obstacles, without realizing systems are built this way by design. These systems are shortchanging all of us in ways we can’t even enumerate yet.
. . .
Misfits was like that scene in Black Mirror’s USS McCallister I don’t want to describe because you really should just see it. There are so many great moments, so many important parts, but there’s at least one part that could sting you.
You should risk it, as much as you are able, because it’s worth it to know what you’ll know after. To ask yourself the questions you will ask. To answer them.