The Invention of Black Boyhood Onscreen in “David Makes Man”

Tarell Alvin McCraney created the OWN series, and, of his explorations of Black adolescence, this one is the strongest, second only to “Moonlight.”

By Doreen St. FélixJuly 5, 2021

David Makes Man

The second season of the coming-of-age drama finds its protagonist grown up.Illustration by Hokyoung Kim

When the teen drama “Euphoria” premièred, on HBO, in the summer of 2019, it was a cultural event. Its themes of drug abuse, mental health, and ecstasy, and its packaging and presentation of queer aesthetics, came Instagram-ready. No matter how bleak things got at East Highland High, you still wanted to dress like Rue and Jules, characters who, given the show’s interest in appearances, were necessarily fetish princesses of the genre. Later that summer, another teen drama, “David Makes Man,” débuted, on OWN. It is the metabolic opposite of “Euphoria.” The remarkably humane melodrama is not trying to influence you, or make you buy something; nor is it trying to ride on pop-cultural rhythms. “David Makes Man” is the rare successful portrait of a teen life that privileges narrative over contemporary critique.

I came late to “David Makes Man,” which is now in its second season. (The first season can be streamed on HBO Max.) I’d been turned off by the loglines and some of the reviews, which tended to use “lyrical” and its variants when discussing the journey of David, the protagonist, a fourteen-year-old Black boy living in grinding poverty in Miami-Dade County. It wasn’t the plot, which can edge close to the ponderous, that converted me but the groundbreaking work of the lead actor, Akili McDowell, who seems to invent Black boyhood onscreen. Barely older than his character at the time of filming, McDowell suffuses his portrayal of David with the intelligence of a child who is approaching the realm of adulthood with wonder and panic. It’s a full-body performance, with a suppressed smile and darting eyes and a crooked, nervous posture. Even at rest, David always seems prepared to take flight.Published in the print edition of the July 12 & 19, 2021, issue, with the headline “Split.”

Doreen St. Félix has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2017 and was named the magazine’s television critic in 2019.More:HBOTeenagersTelevisionTV ShowsRace

Doreen St. Felix


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