The protagonist of David Makes Man walks among ghosts. The show’s first episode, which aired last week on Oprah’s OWN network, introduced viewers to David (played by Akili McDowell), a “gifted” 14-year-old attempting to balance his home life in a South Florida housing project called “The Ville” with the pressures of attending a far-away magnet school. David doesn’t travel alone: As he buses to school, and then skulks about The Ville after class, he’s regularly joined by a mysterious dark-skinned man who advises him to stay the course and focus on getting ahead in his classes at any cost.
By the end of the pilot, this occasional mentor, whose name is Sky (Isaiah Johnson), is revealed to be dead. “They shot you!” David yells at the former drug dealer during an argument. The teen reminds himself that Sky, in all his Machiavellian glory, isn’t real. He’s an apparition. But his influence still hangs over David, and the show takes care to reveal how powerful the boy’s imagination can be. With both its mysticism and its thematic clarity, the series, from Tarell Alvin McCraney, offers a rare portrait of black boyhood that expands on the narrow depictions most often seen in pop culture. In doing so, David Makes Man complicates static ideas about what kinds of barriers black children can (or should) overcome.
Quiet and driven, David struggles to navigate his dueling environments, including the literal distance between them. The scenes in which he runs after buses—or looks distraught when an authority figure asks if he’s eaten yet that day—reveal a bone-deep, adult weariness that will likely feel familiar to viewers whose educational experience mirrors the teen’s. These moments of conflict, internal and otherwise, reveal to viewers just how superficially David and other black boys are regarded by the outside world. “Get her to see that you’re one of the good ones,” Sky advises David in one early scene, after the teen vents about a conflict that sent him to the principal’s office. “Get her to see that you’re exceptional.”
The advice is sage if only because it acknowledges an unfortunate truth: For many black children, being good isn’t good enough—they must also prove that they “transcend race,” that they are somehow better than their black peers, who are presumed to be underachieving by default. This tension animates much of the action in David Makes Man, and some of the show’s richest story lines come from its exploration of the fissures that these external pressures have helped create within black communities. Thus far, the series isn’t preoccupied with how its characters interact with white people, or even necessarily with how they might respond to direct expressions of racism. These are refreshing narrative choices—decisions that prioritize the growth of the boys at the center of the series rather than the (nonblack) audiences who might turn to a show like David Makes Man expecting didacticism.
The fight that sent David to the principal’s office, for example, saw him provoking the only other black student in his magnet class. Seren (Nathaniel Logan McIntyre) is a comparatively affluent, lighter-skinned boy whose mother is white. The two teens are ostensibly friends, but David is well aware that Seren’s complexion and wealth make attending their magnet school a less obviously fraught experience for him. When Seren sings during a class presentation, David goads him into a physical altercation by whispering a reference to the fact that Seren’s black stepfather abuses him.
It’s a low blow, and one of the show’s most poignant scenes thus far is the one in which the boys sit outside the principal’s office following their fight. They rock back and forth in their seats, visibly pained but not speaking. Suddenly, writing appears on-screen—handwritten notes between the boys, rendered visually for the audience. Seren’s message asks why David said such a terrible thing; David responds that he doesn’t know. ( “I got mad ‘cause he was doing better than me and whispered that shit to him!” David later admits to Sky.) Seren and David are bruised and open with each other, even as they try to hold it together when the rest of the school is looking. These moments of intra-racial, interpersonal vulnerability abound on David Makes Man—a marked contrast to teen dramas in which black children are either peripheral or stereotyped.
The show also treats the drug trade with a level of empathy and nuance that eclipses that of acclaimed crime dramas such as David Simon’s The Wire. The Ville resident Raynan (Ade Chike Torbert), who often embroils David in the neighborhood’s drug dealing, is a particularly complicated character. In the show’s second episode, which aired last night, Raynan was both a minor villain and a sympathetic figure. He distracted David from his education by retaliating against the boy for failing to be a useful lookout in case the police arrived, but he also opened up about the loss of his own father. These are teenagers who are straining toward livelihoods despite their circumstances; David Makes Man never suggests that its hero is more deserving of happiness or success than the other kids who share his background.
McCraney, who wrote the screenplay on which Barry Jenkins’s 2016 film, Moonlight, was based, is no stranger to producing work that explores the interiority of black boys. For the series’ creator, David Makes Man is a tremendously personal production. “I was trying to track down those moments of trauma that were making it difficult for me to enjoy the moments of relative success that I was having,” the Miami-raised writer told The New York Times recently. “So many great things were happening for me, and I’d find myself depressed, in a fetal position, and then I realized I did not know how to be in the moment, take care of myself, love my body, my space, and the people around me.” The surrealism of David Makes Man channels McCraney’s out-of-body experiences to wrenching, lyrical effect: Even when the show ends, the quiet grace of its protagonist hovers over the viewer.