The title of the wonderful new OWN drama David Makes Man is slightly misleading. Yes, it’s about a 14-year-old boy named David (Akili McDowell) struggling to become a man faster than he should have to, due to the complicated circumstances of his life. But David is just one of several names and identities our anxious and deeply sympathetic hero goes by.
To adults like his recovering addict mother Gloria (Alana Arenas) and his teacher Dr. Woods-Trap (Phylicia Rashad), he is David, a very smart but reserved boy doing his best at a magnet school for gifted kids where he’s one of the few black students — and comes from by far the most impoverished background. To friends at school like Seren (Nathaniel McIntyre), he is DJ, a class cut-up who can’t always stop himself from taking a joke too far. And to everyone back at the projects where he lives with Gloria and little brother JG (Cayden Williams), he is Dai, reserved and odd but also considered a very promising prospect by the local drug crew.
We see David shift between these personae instinctively, never comfortable in any of these worlds, but understanding how he’s expected to present himself to each. While his story is mostly told in a raw fashion, creator Tarell Alvin McCraney sprinkles in bits of magic realism throughout. This includes interludes where David imagines himself code-switching in an awkward moment to tell people what he really thinks. In one episode, we even see his three main identities in a room together as school counselor Dr. Bree (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) tries to figure out what makes this kid tick. For much of that story, David, DJ, and Dai are all at odds with one another; occasionally, though, they speak in perfect harmony, because there are some truths universal to this young man no matter where he is and who he’s trying to be.
“That would be hard, having to split yourself like that,” Dr. Bree suggests as he ponders the realities David has to straddle. “Hard” would be an understatement. It’s exhausting, and among the things David Makes Man does so well is to portray just how much this wears on David, and how quickly his anxiety can turn to desperation when a piece of his very delicately-arranged life seems on the verge of falling out of place.
There are similarities to Moonlight, which McCraney co-wrote. David is not just a quiet kid unsure of where he belongs; he’s allowed a local dope dealer, Sky (Isaiah Johnson), to assume the role of father figure in place of the useless man who wanted nothing to do with him and Gloria. There’s a lyrical, dreamlike quality to the storytelling, even in some of the most nerve-wracking moments. Yet the periodic glimpses of David’s fantasy life don’t undercut the gravity of his situation; rather, they underline how badly he’d like to escape, and how hard that will be to do. He dreams of being admitted to an elite high school with the well-to-do Seren, but Sky warns him about trying to help anyone but himself. (Recalling the school’s glossy pamphlet, Sky asks, “You see two black faces or one?”)
This isn’t always an easy show to watch, because David and Seren and so many of the other kids are so clearly vulnerable. Even Raynan (Ade Chike Torbert), the scowling underage dealer who wants a reluctant David to work for him, isn’t nearly as powerful as he likes to make others think. But McCraney and his collaborators(*) do a superb job of etching in these different communities and the people in them, and of getting us to want to protect David in a way he’d be afraid to ask anyone in his own life to do. There’s nuance and understanding to each group, so that Woods-Trap and another African-American teacher can have a casual argument about colorism, or so we see the space that gender-queer Mx. Elijah (Travis Coles) has carved for herself in the projects. (The only time the neighbors are thrown by her anymore is on the rare occasion that she has to wear men’s clothes to conduct business outside her home.)
(*) Dee Harris-Lawrence (Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and Biggie Smalls) is the hands-on showrunner. But the producers include Oprah Winfrey and Michael B. Jordan, whose first TV role of note was on The Wire as Wallace, a corner kid who would recognize a fair piece of himself in David.
The debut episode, written by McCraney and directed by Michael Francis Williams, runs an hour without commercials and can occasionally feel sluggish, particularly regarding a twist that’s telegraphed long in advance. But the way it simply lingers in David’s worlds, and in his head, pays enormous emotional dividends in later episodes. Those installments aren’t quite as stylish as the premiere, but they allow for a touch more humor and whimsy, which proves a welcome trade-off.
The camera spends much of its time in close on David’s face, not allowing him to hide from us in the same way that he feels under constant interrogation from teachers, friends, and neighbors. That also asks a lot of a young and relatively untested actor like Akili McDowell. He has to convincingly be David, DJ, and Dai, conveying the weight that the character feels under any and all of those names. And he has to make you want to keep watching a story that is so much about his hard life, which requires him to communicate more through expression than the limited, halting dialogue he’s often given. Fortunately, McDowell is more than up to the challenge, and makes David someone who’s easy to root for even when he makes the kind of dumb mistakes any 14-year-old would.
In one episode, David does a presentation for Woods-Trap’s class about his background, the first time he’s exposed so much of himself to his classmates. As part of the assignment, he recruits Seren and another friend to accompany him on an arrangement of Mary J. Blige’s “Your Child.” He explains the choice by talking about how all of them are so often judged and made to feel like they’re nobody, “but something as simple as a song on the radio can tell you that you’re not a nobody.” Something as simple as a TV show can do the same thing, particularly when a character like David is still such a rarity in a universe with 500-plus scripted TV shows — and when the show is as good as David Makes Man.
David Makes Man debuts August 14th on OWN. I’ve seen five of 10 episodes.