Who would you want to talk to if you’d made, arguably, the most accomplished television show of the year? A 12-episode, multilayered, heartbreaking, hilarious, synapse-firing, soul-raking voyage into a part-real, part-fantastical, all-relevant universe that serves as a mirror to reflect back onto us – creator and viewer – the very worst and the very best of humanity? Well, if that show is I May Destroy You and you are its “mother”, its writer, executive producer and codirector, plus your name is Michaela Coel, then the person you want to talk to – Right. Now. – is Donald Glover.
Glover’s path is at once similar to Coel’s and, of course, completely different. Having grown up in Stone Mountain, Georgia, as a boy wanting to be a wedding planner, he’s gone on to work as a stand-up comedian, a writer on 30 Rock, an actor on cult comedy Community, a DJ named mcDJ, a musician called Childish Gambino and a movie star, playing a young, swashbuckling Lando Calrissian in Solo: A Star Wars Story. (He also voiced Simba in a live-action remake of The Lion King opposite Beyoncé as Nala – no biggie.)
Although Coel too has popped up in her own galaxy far, far away (she appeared as an unidentified “Resistance monitor” in Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi), it’s with Glover’s own television show, Atlanta, which premiered in 2016, with a third series due early in 2021, where creative parallels and paths can be drawn and compared.
Before Atlanta, certain television shows with all black protagonists were just not being commissioned as frequently as they could be. Despite such ratings successes as Scandal and Empire, one could argue such shows had more in common with the old-fashioned dramatic soaps; there was little room for verisimilitude and hardly any ambiguity woven in. Narrative was neither warped nor abstract; Easter eggs were for a Taylor Swift single – or True Detective – not for television shows made by and starring mainly black talent.
‘Love is taking something painful and releasing it. Sharing that pain was an act of survival’
Why? Well, for black sitcom creators who wanted to get their work commissioned, getting creative still felt like a risk. Atlanta shifted these creative goalposts. Its dialogue, much like Glover’s real-life speech, was somewhat nonlinear; there was a shifting focus every episode. Characters seemed good when they did bad things and bad when they were good. There was no one single narrative. It was weird. Gloriously so. And it set a new precedent. It was also Glover’s self-proclaimed “Trojan horse”, his way of changing television by getting inside television; it’s well known that the series he pitched to FX and got green-lit wasn’t the show he intended to make or, indeed, made.
Of course, by 2014, Coel herself was already well on her way to tearing down walls. A 2012 graduate from the Guildhall School Of Music & Drama, she took her play Chewing Gum Dreams to London’s fringe and National Theatre, shortly after which Channel 4 announced that Coel was to star in and write the television adaptation, Chewing Gum. It was a huge achievement and one that no doubt set her trajectory ever skyward: in 2016 she would go on to win two Baftas – one for female performance in a comedy, the other for breakthrough talent.
Yet, like Glover, her experience of creating Chewing Gum – one as very much an “outsider” or “misfit”, as she would describe the “underrepresented” three years later in her culture-quaking MacTaggart Lecture, which scorned the television industry for its failings – was potholed with difficulties or what you might politely call incidents. On her first day on set, for example, she arrived to find that five black cast members were confined to a single trailer, while another, white actor had one to herself. If you think she stood for such behavior, then you don’t yet know Coel.
If it was Coel’s otherworldly talent, steely self-belief and doggedness that got Chewing Gum made in the first place, it was those same traits that would come to the fore when it came to creating her next television project. Indeed, her struggles, not only with getting I May Destroy You commissioned as she had envisioned, but also her battles to build a fence of ownership over her creative material, are already well documented. (In the spring of 2017, Netflix offered Coel $1 million [£740,000] up front for the show. When the gargantuan streaming service wouldn’t allow her to retain any percentage of the copyright, she said no – and fired her US representation, Creative Artists Agency, to boot. In the end, that autumn, she went with the BBC.)
Yet if Glover has worked from the inside out – pursuing a disruptive agenda from within – Coel has been employing a different set of tactics: refusing to accept the industry’s prejudice as business as normal. If Glover’s agent of change was a Trojan horse, then Coel’s has been a grenade. To excel (and to be seen) she has stood up, rather than stay quiet. She refuses to do the thing many black working-class creatives are told to do if they want to get ahead in a predominately white industry such as television: to politely keep her head down and graft. Oh, she’s grafted all right, and then some, but silence in the face of systemic oppression isn’t an option. For her, it’s all part of the work.
‘I could feel myself moving. When I wrote I May Destroy You, it felt spiritual’
Of course, like all great creators, neither Glover nor Coel want any sort of pat on the back for the work they have pioneered, nor for the new ground and standards they are redefining for future generations. And although they aren’t after any statues – a commitment to interpret their material is enough – that doesn’t stop us, the viewers, the critics, the fans, from holding up their talents in wonder and awe. To see, clearly, and to listen, via Zoom – Coel in London, Glover in California – as they both talk about a new future, their own futures, maybe even your future, being forged out of the embers of the past.
Donald Glover: Hi, Michaela,
Michaela Coel: Hey, Donald. So we’re actually doing this!
DG: Yeah, I know, we’re doing it. How’s it going?
MC: It’s going well. I just got back from the photo shoot, which is why I have this plait in; it’s about as long as I am...
DG: It looks good. I thought you were just doing it for fun. I thought you were like, “The ‘WAP’ video came out. I wanna do something...”
MC: I haven’t seen the “WAP” video. Is the hair like this?
DG: I’ve only seen it twice. I’m sure it is like that. Maybe I’ve seen a lot of people talking about how they switched their shit up because they saw the video.
MC: What shit? I don’t know anything about it. I just know it’s got something to do with lubrication. Could that possibly be true?
DG: The female excretion of natural lubrication. It’s not actually like, “I went to Target and bought, you know, lubrication.”
MC: Yes. Yes!
DG: It’s about how wet a vagina can get, which is, I guess, a new concept to a lot of people. What was really weird about it was, at first, I saw a lot of men talking shit about it, which I didn’t understand. I was like, “This isn’t even the dirtiest song I’ve ever heard!” But I also hadn’t seen it. I just saw a slew of men saying, “This is bad for children!” I’m like, “What the hell are you talking about?” It’s just kind of funny to me.
MC: Let me google the lyrics. Let me just call them up, because...
DG: One thing about your show that I really liked – I mean, it’s a little thing – was you got being young, with the music and the retro Nokia [mobile] and all that kind of stuff, really down. I was like, “Oh, I used to play Snake like a motherfucker too!” When I was really young I used to listen to Kilo Ali, which was really dirty at the time.
MC: I don’t know that song.
DG: Kilo Ali, in Atlanta, he had a song called “My Ding A Ling”. That was when I was really young. It was really ratchet. It’s just him saying there’s nothing like his penis.
DG: When did we first meet? We don’t know each other super well. But we met a couple of times.
MC: We met when you came to the UK to write.
DG: I was writing Deadpool [Glover’s cancelled FX animated series], but I was also shooting Solo. And we met a couple of times there. And after I saw I May Destroy You, I texted you, but I thought maybe you switched up your number, because when people start to get famous, they start to switch their number. I’ve switched my number up three times. I was like, “Is this really you?” And you were like, “Yes.” So I asked you to prove it.
DG: And you said, “Well, I took you to a party that we never went to. You said you felt bad about it.”
‘Because of George Floyd I thought, “I don’t know if [the show] is too triggering right now”’
MC: Yes, because the first thing you said, when you said prove it, was, “I’m gonna ask you a question about when I came to London and if you answer correctly, I’ll know it’s you.” I was like, erm, “I’m a university dropout!” And then you asked, “Where was I living [when I was in the UK]?” You had the little writer’s house somewhere. And I couldn’t remember where, so I was staring at my phone thinking, “It’s definitely me, but I can’t answer this question.” I didn’t reply. Maybe all you saw were those ellipses, you know, when you’re typing and thinking.
DG: You were honest. That’s what I liked. You were like, “I do not know.”
MC: You replied, “Too hard?” And then you said, “Tell me something you remember.” And the first thing that came to me was that I was supposed to be going out with your team, your brother and a couple of other writers – that was the plan. And I could manage [that]. Especially at that time in my life, there was something about you – I think maybe many people say this when they meet you – there’s something about you, or was something about you that I felt at the time, that’s quite enigmatic. The vibe seems a bit more tricky. So I was cool to take those guys out. That was gonna be normal. If we weren’t gonna make it into a venue, it would have been OK. Then you were just suddenly, “Oh, yeah. I’ll roll.” I was like, “What the fuck, man? No! You’ve fucked it!”
DG: I’m a vibe. I’m a vibe feeler. I’ll sit back because I want to know what’s going on. I want to feel it. I’ll sit in the back and I’ll feel it for a little bit and then be like, “OK, can I get in this?” Especially now, when it’s hard. It’s tricky with subcultures because they come and go so fast, so you’ve got to figure out what exactly is going on.
MC: “It’s tricky with subcultures,” did you say?
MC: What does that mean?
DG: Subcultures? Culture travels and disperses so much faster now than it used to. People talk about the change in music and rap and I’m like, “Well, that really happened because of how information travels,” and it happens so fast. You used to be able to go to Australia or Japan, or you might have a friend there and they’ll say, “Yo, check this out” and you’ll go and you’ll hang out and you’ll be like, “Oh, this is cool. This is interesting.” But now all of that “culture” or “subculture” is shared by pictures and people just going back and forth so much. I’m just saying now it changes so much that this thing you might be experiencing may be already over. I think your show kind of speaks to that too: you can’t tell what is any more. It’s sometimes hard to tell what’s real.
DG: That’s why I’m not on the internet. I don’t tweet or anything like that. It’s way more fun to just skulk around and watch you guys. I’ll meet people and I’m like, “Oh, yeah. You were there last week.” And they look at me and say, “Oh, how do you know?” Because you told everybody. You’re on Instagram! You’re on Twitter! Truth is, if me and you are going meet, I’m going to see what you’re up to.
MC: So did you feel Chewing Gum, for example, was a subculture you weren’t too familiar with?
DG: Part of it. I mean, for me, when I first got to London, I didn’t know it. I knew it in a way, through colonisation and Paddington Bear, Thomas The Tank Engine! Stuff that I had seen as a kid. But when I got there, it felt way different. And when I was hanging out with people, it felt different. I was like, “I don’t know if I like this.” A lot of things were scary to me. I was like, “Man, I’m not used to people spraying acid on each other.” But London has exposed itself to me as an extremely soulful place that I connected with and I actually miss it a lot. Your show actually made me miss it a lot. By the way, I’ve realised I’ve only had ten episodes of I May Destroy You. We have two more to air here. I think we’re missing the final two?
MC: Yeah. Oh, sick. Now that I know you haven’t seen it, I’m so excited for you to see the last couple...
DG: Man, what an ending on [episode] ten, though. Ten felt like an ending. I was like, “That is ballsy. That feels so crazy.” I guess the biggest compliment I can give [the show] is this: it made me feel super inspired. And [before], I was not feeling very inspired. It really broke me out of feeling that everything’s the same. Your show is such a good feeling, and flavour.
MC: When I’m sometimes asked, “How do you want people to feel?” or, “What do you want to leave people with when it’s finished?” sometimes I say it’s a feeling. I don’t have a word to even pinpoint what it is, the feeling, but it’s inside you and you feel it. So it’s a feeling.
DG: It feels spiritual. Do you see it as spiritual?
MC: Massively. The whole process. Yes, spiritual in the sense that the minute I talk about it I could cry. It’s the whole process of making it last year, feeling like it’s something I’m receiving and feeling the way the show evolves, I could feel myself moving. And especially when I wrote it, it definitely felt spiritual.
‘When you realise the characters come from you, you want to have compassion for them’
DG: I felt there are so many moments when it feels like you could cry, or it feels so honest. I feel like that’s what it is. It feels like you’re sitting in the truth. And it’s not easy, because it’s just ever-expanding. It just keeps getting bigger and bigger.
MC: Yeah, the bigger it gets, the more overwhelming it is, right? And the more difficult it is to even share. It’s astounding. It’s difficult to look, but you can’t help but gaze at it. Weird. And then you can’t describe it any more and so you end the show on that feeling and you hope that it jumped out from the screen and it jumped into the mouth, through into the belly of the people watching. And then it’s shared.
DG: When I started working, I wanted to make stories. I was like, “Oh, this is world-building.” But then I realised, actually, what I really want to make are universes. When watching your show, anything’s possible here. And you bend the human experience in such a way where there’s no flying cars or anything, but I feel like anything can happen and that’s why I want to keep watching. It’s a real treat. I read somewhere that you always try to practise empathy, [that] you’re always trying to look for empathy in a lot of things. We actually have a very similar background as far as you relate that to yoga, because I do yoga every morning and I work out every day. I run. I meditate. I have this studio in Los Angeles that I call The Temple and that I just sit alone in. I’m actually travelling there right after this. I sit there alone and I try to meditate and figure out what that voice is. And you just let it come out, just vomit it out in whatever way is possible. But the empathy aspect... I am always trying to find compassion because it is so hard.
MC: I agree with you. I feel like because you’re writing these characters, they’re a part of you. So surely you want to empathise with it. You’re making these people and they’re coming from you. They are connected to everybody who actually exists, not just the people I put in my head, so therefore we are all related. If you don’t have empathy for the other, you don’t have empathy for yourself. When you realise that all the characters you’re writing come from you, you want to love them and have compassion for them. Then, maybe, it increases your love and compassion for yourself.
DG: Yeah, that’s really what it is. You don’t remember, but you kind of pitched this. Well, not a pitch so much as “Should I do this?” I think you were saying, “I’m gonna do this show about this.” And I remember talking to a writer on Atlanta about it too, Stefani [Robinson]. And she told me, “It takes so much love of self to do this. It’s such a hard thing.” The way your show handles it, there’s a truth to it. Especially dealing with fame. You’re the first show I’ve ever seen to show social media the way I really see it – as a kind of macro therapy. It really is. You really can’t control it, because it’s getting so much bigger. It’s big and it’s this reflective medicine. Much like DMT and ayahuasca and all this stuff, it’s just a reflective medicine. Did you have any fear when you first started doing the show?
‘Black, white, good, bad... Trauma can lead us to that binary thinking’
MC: I never had any fear. The fear only came a couple of weeks before I May Destroy You came out, simply because of the coronavirus and George Floyd, and I thought, “OK, I don’t know if this is too triggering for where we are right now.” I suddenly felt actual terror that we weren’t ready to see or to feel what I was offering – or a lot of people might not be.
DG: I don’t think everybody’s ever going to be ready. All you can really do is give the medicine out. It’s not your job to prepare them for their reaction. It’s your job to make the medicine. It’s funny, even over here in America, people aren’t sure of how to handle these subjects. But I feel like this is a perfect time for it. It’s not going to be easy. I had a friend of mine, a white male guy, and he was like, “I’m doing research [on race]. I’m trying to do as much work as I can and reflect. But it’s hard work.” It should be hard: stop trying to make yourself look cool on social media doing this. It’s going to be awkward. That’s why I like yoga, because it forces you to deal with stuff.
MC: Yoga? Yeah, I hear that. I hear that. Yeah, you have to stretch yourself. Literally.
DG: Another thing that I like about your show is that it’s not really giving. It doesn’t make it easy for everybody to swallow – at all.
MC: Yeah, that’s what I mean when [I say] I got worried during this particular time. Because it happens to my character, Arabella, in the show. Obviously she’s going through a lot of trauma; plus social media has led her to see everything in quite a black-and-white way, right? Black, white, good, bad. To the point that she’s not aware of the way she speaks or her own motivations and she ends up projecting the trauma she suffered onto Kwame’s situation with Nilufer, just projects on him and comes to a very firm decision that his actions could be seen as predatory. And the reason why I have empathy with her is because it’s coming from her trauma. And I did think trauma can lead us to that binary thinking. And by me simply saying, “Oh, sometimes we do that when we’re feeling traumatised,” it’s not going to make those binary goggles go away. So, I think, yeah, I understand why we do those things. You’re on Twitter, right?
DG: I mean, yeah, secretly.
MC: OK. And you look at it?
MC: But you’re aware that it is encouraging binary, polarising thinking. So do you feel you therefore are able to avoid it infecting how you see things?
DG: Again, it’s like yoga. I don’t think I can completely do it. I think my job is to keep whittling it down. Because it’s infinite. We’re never gonna be like, “We fixed Twitter! We fixed misogyny! We fixed racism! It’s all fixed!” It’ll never be, “The system is perfect!” We keep whittling down the knife or the pencil or whatever we’re using to sharpen and sharpen and sharpen to be like, “What’s in between? What do we really feel?” We keep going deeper and deeper. I’ve definitely seen things. I think people look at us and they think because we have a show we’re impervious.
MC: What does impervious mean?
DG: That the things they say don’t affect us, don’t affect how we view the world.
MC: I’m always trying to get to the middle thing; the centre of something. I actually wanted to know whether you also found writing a spiritual experience. And does that differ between when you write music to when you write for television?
DG: It doesn’t differ, no. I grew up a Jehovah’s Witness. There’s a lot of good teachings in it, but I don’t consider myself religious any more.
MC: When did you leave it?
DG: I guess technically when I lost my virginity. But probably around college, when I was just experiencing a bunch of stuff. It was always an outlet. With writing, I definitely feel, like on the last project and on the project I’m working now, musically too, it’s all spiritual. It’s all spiritual. A feeling of “I love us. I love me”. I really do.
MC: I really loved your last album, by the way. I played it a lot during the lockdown. I actually had a dance night with my friend Karan [Gill], who plays Zain in the show. We both played your album at the same time in our separate homes and had a party. So we were listening at the same time and I had tequila in my glass. It was beautiful.
DG: I still don’t feel like I’m done with that [music] project. When the coronavirus hit, I was, like – this sounds super crazy – but a woman who I go to, almost a shaman, I told her I wanted to write a Bible.
DG: Yeah, I told her I wanted to write a Bible; that was years ago. I was like, “I just keep getting this feeling.” She was like, “You have to put it out in pieces. How long do you think they’re gonna wait?” She said, “You’ll know when the time is.” And then when coronavirus hit, I was like, “Everybody’s stuck inside,” and I’ve been in The Temple listening to this and suddenly I thought, “Oh, some people will get it.” That’s why it was really funny when you were talking about your show. You’re like, “I’m a little afraid...” I’m like, “This is actually the only time some people would have to have that type of medicine, to be able to watch a show like that and really get it.” That’s why I like to release stuff on Sundays. [Donald Glover’s son Legend walks into frame.]
‘You hope it jumped out of the screen and into the belly of the people watching’
DG: [To Legend] You want to show them your mask? It looks cool.
MC: Wow. That’s a cool mask. Did you make that? What is it?
Legend: It’s a mask.
MC: It’s a mask! Of what? An animal?
Legend: It’s just me.
DG: It’s just you?
MC: That mask was really convincing. I thought you were somebody else.
DG: This is Michaela. This is Legend.
MC: Legend! I think I saw you walking around when you were really, really young.
DG: He was barely walking around. He’s very grown up now. You know, I had [a kid] during the coronavirus.
MC: Oh, during the coronavirus?
DG: Yeah, it was nuts. I was in the hospital bed. My son had just been born, like, an hour before and I was watching the George Floyd video. It was such a weird moment. It was such an intense, weird moment, because I’m watching that video and it’s like eight minutes long, so you’re sitting there and I had just had this amazing, joyful, expanding moment, plus my dad had passed away recently, so [my son] was named after my father... I don’t even know what, really, the word is to describe it. It was just expanding: the empathy and compassion and the terror and the joy of it.
MC: Oh, God. And then having the future in your hands!
DG: Having the future in your hands! And then having to explain to him – the one who was just in here [Legend] – “Why are people angry? Why are people marching?” “Well, you look like this...” It’s just heavy. Again, your show, you whittle down that kind of thing; you simplify what is happening to us. It’s really beautiful to see it, because you can’t really describe it. You can just feel it. This is a personal question: do you think about kids at all in this world?
MC: About kids in this world like the ones coming from my vagina or just kids in the world?
DG: Let’s talk about ones coming from you first.
MC: Yeah, I actually don’t. And sometimes I worry that I don’t as much as I should, which is why, just in case I ever think about this more, I’m freezing my eggs, just in case. I’ve never been too thinky about bearing my own children through my vagina. I have thought about adopting. That I’ve thought of more than vaginal children. But in case I changed my mind, because I don’t know, they say it happens... Like, you reach this point where suddenly you really want babies and all you can think about is you want a baby and the clock’s ticking. I don’t ever have that. I’ve never felt it. I’ve never even said, “I want to have a baby” ever in my life. So I’m freezing them in case that hits me later.
DG: That’s great. I feel like it’s gonna become more and more [common]. Because I’ve actually had that thing where I’m like, “Maybe I should just get a vasectomy and just freeze those assets.” Because adopting kids, my family adopting kids... And we actually have been talking about [it], because we have three boys so I’m like, “Oh, it might be nice to be get a girl in there.” So I think all those are great options. But it is hard.
MC: Yeah and it’s changing so quickly. The older we get, it seems, we can’t keep up with things that are moving. At one point, I feel like, you had a child and you birthed them into a world you understood and would probably understand for your lifetime. Whereas now, things change drastically and rapidly. We’ve got no idea what the world will look like in ten years’ time.
‘I have friends who at some point say to me, “I love black men.” It’s all my white female friends, Donald!’
DG: We don’t. I also feel like we haven’t found the correct path. It helps to understand the context of what was happening in the past; this helps us look at the future. I remember my dad always used to tell me, “You know, people didn’t love Martin Luther King.” He told me, “I knew a lot of black people who were actually mad at him.” You need the context to understand. Because in America, they teach you “Everybody loves MLK” and then you realise a lot of people thought he was making life hard for them. A lot of people were like, “Yo, let’s go with Malcolm [X]. He’s more in your face.” There was a lot of stuff happening that no one ever taught me, but I spoke to my dad about it and he gave me the context. We don’t get that; we have so much information. And it’s right in our hand. We’re all smarter, I think, because of phones and because of the information available. But the outlying context is hard.
MC: Yeah. I think there’s something quite reassuring about understanding that you’re not new.
DG: But that’s so hard for people to hear, though.
MC: That we might not be a special generation of humanity.
DG: I agree. We’re not special. Every generation has a job they need to do. But the job is always the same, which is to plant a tree you won’t eat from. Period. If you can’t do that job, it doesn’t keep going. Which is, I think, hard for us to really grasp. I think your quest to understand is this: you need to plant a tree right now. And you don’t get to eat from it. Maybe your kids don’t even get to eat from it. You just teach them to water it, but their kids get to eat from it. And you die or you go on, you transition, knowing you did the right thing. What do you define love as? Like, what do you think love really is? I know that’s such a big question.
MC: “What is love?” Taking something that’s painful and releasing it. I thought a lot about making the show and the simple act of taking the pain and turning it and dancing with it and controlling it and manipulating it. As you said earlier, something like a world you create in your temple or in my writing room. But to take it, to share [that pain], was like an act of survival for me. That was the best way to survive, because the other way, where you swallow it and you ignore it, doesn’t seem as enjoyable.
DG: We’re attracted to that, though. I mean, if you look on the internet, people are just like, “Twenty-twenty? I’m out.” People are very attracted to that kind of thought process. They’re just like, “Man, who else is gonna die?” They’re kind of excited. Because it’s attractive. Death is attractive – or just the end of something. It’s something that’s mysterious. For me, I May Destroy You is really about the power of the infinite and how our power is constantly changing. It’s an evolving power.
MC: Losing your dad may be something that you thought could destroy you. And yet you’re here to think about the destruction and the sadness, which means you have been hit by lightning and you have morphed into something else. And that’s something to look at and be enamoured by. Who is this new person? And you might discover what you thought would end you is a rebirth, right?
DG: It’s completely what I mean. I feel like we’re going through that right now. It’s a transition. You’re forced to look. I know people who died. I know people who got really sick. And you have to decide: what is really important? Naming that bar Ego Death [in I May Destroy You]? I was like, “Yo, this shit is fucking deep. This is a fucking deep dive, man.” It felt like you didn’t stop, which a lot of people are afraid to do, and I have deep compassion for that. Do you know what you want to do next?
MC: I’m asked this question and I have an answer that I give, which is, “I’m taking a break.” However, it’s been a while now. And even though I’m still technically working, because, hey, we’re doing press, there is, like, there’s a tiny seed far away. I’m just on the edges. I don’t know. I have something in my womb. I sometimes equate my show with children. So the inception might be beginning. There’s something, but for now, I’m trying to just live for a minute. I think I’ve given myself September to just live.
DG: It was really liberating for a lot of people to hear you say what you did about your show’s ownership. In the business, I’ve tried to give people back-end points but been told not to do it as it would “set a bad precedent”, you know? And when you have a show and it’s something that you actually want to see on the air, it’s scary to say no, especially as a black person, especially as a black woman. So now that you have this sort of power, do you feel any sort of pressure to trailblaze? I do, actually.
MC: I avoid the idea that my work will have any impact. I don’t do the mic drop thing. “Boom! She throws a bomb on the industry!” I’m not really here for that. It’s just that if I’m asked a question, I give the answer. I don’t know if you saw this, but in 2018 I gave a lecture called the MacTaggart Lecture – it’s an annual keynote address to the television industry – and that’s when I first mentioned this Netflix thing. This was two years ago. And I did the lecture and people said, “How did it feel after? How did you feel? And what did people say?” Well, here’s how it felt: I gave the lecture and then I got on the train and went home. I carried on with my life. I wasn’t checking to see what impact I had; I didn’t even think about it. It was just done. I’m basically not trying to be anyone’s hero.
DG: That’s awesome. Nina Simone did her thing and then she went home. She wasn’t on Twitter checking, “Do people like this shit?” I try really hard not to know what people are saying about me. That’s not to say that I’m impervious, because I definitely do check. It’s so easy to get caught in that loop. I feel like a lot of people I see are getting caught in the narrative of who they are. And I’m like, “Man, you’re not anybody. Stop!”
‘Losing your dad may be something you thought could destroy you. And yet you’re here to think about the destruction’
MC: Yeah, it’s the Twitter version of who they are. It is a very specific, flattened [version]. It doesn’t benefit me to read anything about myself on Twitter. I know we’ve spoken about this before, because I do also think sometimes I can be way too extreme with my voice on social media. Yet by overly avoiding it you’re almost giving it a strange weight in your life. So now I do actually check my feeds. I’m turning Twitter into a monster, but, actually, just like all monsters, you can see it either as this huge monstrous thing or this little baby that’s having teething problems. And this is what [Twitter] looks like to me right now. But two years ago I couldn’t write this narrative. I couldn’t write it while being on Twitter, because it wasn’t giving me clarity as to how I see myself and see things around me. It was actually affecting me. And I know that because I’ve left and it’s different. I’ll go back for a week and then I’ll feel like, “Hmm, I feel Twittered.I need to leave.” And then I feel more me again.
DG: I look at you as a very important person right now, because you’re a searcher. You’re really searching for stuff. And a lot of people feel like there isn’t a boundary. You know that experiment where they took a bunch of kids and they put them in a field and they didn’t have a fence around it and they watched them from far away? They put 12 kids together and say, “OK, you guys can go anywhere” and the kids just stay together because they are scared. But then they put another 12 kids in a field with a gate around the outside and say, “OK, just go wherever” and they go everywhere.
MC: Oh, my gosh. Wow. There’s this great book called The Corruption Of Language. Have you heard of this book? It’s about how, from generation to generation and across, as we interact with each other, language is so slippery. It’s so slippery and your understanding of something might not be my understanding of something, and extremism can adopt the language of the other extreme or of the oppressed. It’s really something.
DG: I’m waiting for Elon Musk’s “Neuralink” to get rid of that.
MC: What is that? I don’t know.
DG: It’s supposedly, basically, a hook-up via a brain implant. Neurologically, [it] will be linked. So there’s no lag. There’s no lost in translation. It’s just like, boom! Whether that’s the beginning of the singularity or not... It’s hard to do something different because we have so many blueprints. Millennials – and your show does a good job of this – [are] showing how we’re kind of stuck, in a weird way. Why do people online get stuck in that narrative? Because it’s safe. And you know what you’re going to get if you follow in the steps somebody else took. There is security to being identified. “I’m a straight white male” or “I’m a gay Asian dancer” – you can find community easily and safely. Instead of being like, “Man, I really don’t know...” Most of my college years were me being like, “I don’t know what I like.” I had friends who asked, “Are you gay?” And I’d be like, “I sort of feel like I am because I love this community.” You know? But maybe I’m not? And I always was trying to figure out “Am I weird for not wanting to label it?” Yet, also, I never felt completely safe in just one place.
‘Extremism can adopt the language of the other extreme. It’s so slippery’
MC: In what way did you not feel safe?
DG: One time I was really close with this guy – a white guy. I was like, “Oh, man, this guy’s my friend.” And then one day we went to the mall and some black kids ragged on his shorts. He turned to me and said, “There are black people and then there are n*****s.” My brain, my heart... It was really intense, so I go home and I tell my dad. To his credit, he sat there for a minute and just thought about it and then he said, “What do you feel? That’s the most valuable thing right now.”
MC: Do you remember what you said?
DG: I think I said, “I think I understand what he meant. And that really hurts me.” But I was in high school, so I didn’t really have the emotional tools to really be like, “Oh, I understand,” because I had no experience. We just never talked again. It was a hard lesson, to understand that separation between myself and my friend. And all credit to my father for helping me see that for myself.
MC: So what do you do with that separation? Basically, this has happened all through my life; it happened again recently. I have friends that I love who are not – let’s put it in quotations for now, because we’re talking about categories – “black”, who at some point turn to me and say, “I love black men.”
DG: Like in the show?
MC: Yeah, and whenever I hear it, my brain starts thinking, “You’ve grouped a whole people and you’ve made a decision on them. Can’t you just ‘love’ that black guy at the bar? Why can’t you like whatever his name is? Why come with the whole group thing?” And they’re my friends, so sometimes I don’t know how to do it. How do you stay friends with them?
DG: First of all, if you want to have them as a friend, it’s always your choice.
MC: It’s all my white female friends, Donald! Literally. I’m running out! It’s making me worried.
DG: I’ve had friends where I’ve just been like, “No, I’m done with that” or like, “Don’t do that.” “I understand where that’s coming from” or “I just don’t want to deal with it,” which is your prerogative too, but I feel like most of the time when I see that I’m like, “This is coming from wanting to be in.” And to be quite frank – and I’m not going to say this as well as I probably should – I feel like that’s hard for a lot of white people. Because they don’t know what it really is.
DG: An interviewer asked me once something like, “Would you rather have been white and not get the experience of being black?” And I remember being like, “Would you rather see all the opportunities and not have them or have all the opportunities and not see them?” Because I think one thing that black people don’t understand because they’re not white is that white people can’t see most of this stuff. The idea of “I love black men.” Your friend might be thinking, “Well, I’ve heard black women say this.” And it’s like, “Yes, you have, because they’ve eaten a whole cake of being black and they understand that idea on a deeper level.” So it’s up to you to decide: “Do I want to have a conversation with this person?”
‘You can see Twitter as monstrous, or this little baby with teething problems’
MC: I’ve had a conversation every single time.
DG: You had a conversation every time?
MC: I have to!
DG: What do they say?
MC: So, basically, I say, “What do you mean?” And one, who is my very dear friend, said, “I just feel more comfortable around them, the way they treat me.” And I don’t know if I ever say, “Well, white men treat me like this. Black men treat me like this. I tend to feel more this around a white man. I tend to feel this around black men.” And if I ever have, I’ve questioned it.
DG: There’s the heart of it.
DG: You question it.
MC: Like, “I wouldn’t date a white guy.” Why do I say that? What does that mean?
‘I don’t do the mic drop thing. I gave the lecture and then I got on the train and went home’
DG: You’re a searcher. That’s what I’m saying. And black people tend to have to be a little more searchery, to be like, “Was that racist?” Why would a white person ever have to do that? I saw a lot of people this time around be like, “Man, fuck it. I’m not doing the research for you.” I understand that. I understand that point of view of being like, “Man, pick up the Malcolm X autobiography. Pick up these books. Here’s the list.” But we also live in a time where it’s scarier to do that. If I pick up this book, I might learn something I didn’t want to know that might be painful. I might have to look back and be like, “Oh, I was a bad person. I might fuck up again. I’m not going to be cool doing this. What do I gain out of this if I’m white?” So you’re asking them to do all this work? And I’m not saying that you can’t be angry about that. But, also, think about the position.
MC: I’m not angry. It’s just the quality of people I have in my life are of a standard. So sometimes, when that stuff comes out, I think, “Oh, should you be around me? I’m not sure.” And then literally before this interview, I was thinking, “No, Michaela, everybody, in any way, should be around you. Who are you to have exclusive rights? And then I began to crave my friends. I began to crave these white women. I missed them, because there’s so many other qualities. I can’t push you away. I shouldn’t mark a territory where I put you there. And when I realised that today, literally, I began to crave them. One friend is addicted to interracial porn. And she’s told me! And in the lockdown she couldn’t get a black guy to come and find you and come to your apartment, so she just looked up “Black dick, white pussy” and she had the time of her life! And you know what? It exists. Also she’s a great friend.
DG: That’s what I’m saying. It is OK. That’s what a lot of people don’t realise. It’s gonna be OK. Good can come from bad and bad from good. I always remember my dad saying, “It’s gonna be OK.” As much as it feels like this, life is not The Avengers. It isn’t good versus evil. It’s all together and we’re still figuring it out. One thing I wanted to say about your show, I don’t know your editor, but the editing on that show is so good.
MC: I need to big up my editors. They’re brilliant, particularly Christian Sandino-Taylor, who did episode ten. He is the controller of that episode; he got my script, chopped it up, threw parts of it in the bin, dragged some stuff, fucked the whole thing and created something far better than I could have ever made. So, Christian Sandino-Taylor! He also did all the music for that episode.
DG: Oh, thank you. I was just really impressed.
MC: We have seven editors. But episode ten was Christian. They’re incredible. They’re more like my writers’ room. I finished shooting, wrapped, arrived in the edit and discovered six writers who could see we had a lot of footage. Every episode is like 48, 50 minutes. Obviously they’ve got to be 28 minutes. So for them to edit it, they have to understand everything. And this is a script that no one really understood. Nobody really understood it. I suddenly encountered people who understood my scripts the way that I did. So I just want them to have everything that they want.
DG: Michaela, you’re travelling now. We better wrap up. Maybe we’ll see one another in the UK? I really want to live out there. Watching your show made me miss it. It was lovely talking to you. We’ll talk more.
MC: Cool. Absolutely.
This story originally ran on British GQ with the title “Michaela Coel and Donald Glover have a lot to talk about”
Originally Appeared on GQ