The Buzz: 'David Makes Man' Makes A Splash
Spoilers Contained Within.
“The first bite is the hardest” is what Sky (Isaiah Johnson) tells David (Akili McDowell) in the series premiere episode of David Makes Man. And just like the first bite, so to is the first episode the hardest. Tarell Alvin McCraney, a screenwriter and creator of Moonlight (Barry Jenkins 2016), is no stranger to coming-of-age stories. David Makes Man is his newest project, and much like with Moonlight, it is equal parts beautiful, and equal parts confusing.
‘David’s Sky’, the title of the premiere episode, opens the way most dramatic stories do: with a dark and stormy night. Only in this case, it’s not so much stormy as it is starry. We close-up on David’s face, drenched in sweat, as another unidentifiable face leans in and whispers an unintelligible murmur in David’s ear. David wakes up, to a ceiling replaced with ocean waves, before he becomes fully alert and realizes that his little brother, JG (Cayden K. Williams), has wet the bed.
In the morning, after dropping JG off to school, David misses the school bus to go to his own middle school - a magnet school - and winds up on the city bus. He is greeted by a cool and suave figure in sunglasses, Sky, who gives him a pep talk about David’s upcoming school presentation. The entire conversation is possibly even more surreal than David’s dream sequence, with it being unclear as to whether Sky is genuinely there or not.
At school, the entire theme of the episode is summed up in the Dr. Woods-trap’s (Phylicia Rashad) question to the class: How did I get here? Seren (Nathanial Logan McIntyre), David’s biracial best friend, delivers his speech first. His speech is overlaid with a non-diegetic insert of archival footage of black farmhands and laborers. The footage adds depth to Seren’s words, especially given how he struggles to effectively convey the deeper meaning and history behind how he got here. Although he is praised by Dr. Woods-trap and the rest of the class, David is not about it. He whispers to Seren about how Ray (Jimel Atkins), Seren’s stepfather, must be “teaching him something new at night”. The boys get into a physical altercation, although David later lies about what he said to trigger Seren, saying that he called Seren racial slurs because “I’m black. He wants to be.”
Consequently, David must get his mother, Gloria (Alana Arenas), to sign her permission for David to begin counseling sessions with the school. Gloria is implied to be a former drug addict, and if David acts out too much or the wrong kind of attention gets put on their family, social services will separate David and JG from Gloria.
David, in order to keep JG safe, winds up as a lookout for the neighborhood boys while they sell drugs. One of the boys, Shinobi (Jordan Bolger), seems to have a soft spot for David, having done work with him and the near mythical figure, Sky, in the past. By the end of the episode, David is cleared for counseling, but his euphoria is cut short when he catches Seren changing in the boy’s bathroom, his chest covered in severe bruises in the vague form of a hand. This causes David to have a breakdown out of guilt and frustration. When Sky attempts to convince David to just let Seren be and focus on himself, David tearfully shouts out that Sky is dead and has been dead for a while.
All in all, the pilot is a wonderful mixture of serious and serene. ‘David’s Sky’ attempts to tackle a lot of issues all at once - colorism, childhood sexual abuse, poverty, addiction, dealing with death, growing up too soon etc. - and only time will tell if the show is able to survive under the weight of all this. So far, it seems to be doing a phenomenal job.
Arguably, it is the scenes without diegetic dialogue, or at the very least, little of it, that are the most poignant. After getting chastised by Principal Fallow (Liza Colón-Zayas) for their fight in class, Seren and David sit adjacent to one another as far as the school bench will allow. They don’t say anything verbally, but as they sit and shake in nervousness, sentences fill the screen. The words are written in juvenile handwriting accompanied by the sound of pencil scratching, calling to mind passing notes between classes. Even without verbal words, the emotions of fear, anxiety, and guilt portrayed on their faces in combination with the on-screen words say more than any monologue or dialogue. It is the fear of what you’ve done and what is still to come all captured through their silent conversation.
The cinematography is more noticeable than most television shows. At times, it is shaky and set at odd angles, calling attention to itself. Despite this, when the camera is steady, some of the shots are undeniably beautiful. On David’s way back from school, there is a scene of him running through a grass field intercut with hands clapping. The bus passes by in the background as David runs. It is a perfect metaphor for David’s journey throughout this episode. He feels a disconnect from those around him, as mentioned by Dr. Woods-trap, and is constantly striving to do better, to be better.
David Makes Man seems to intentionally set up the ambiguity of Sky’s presence. Although his name is invoked by the other characters – almost as if he is an omnipotent force or entity – Sky only ever interacts with David. He appears in the strangest of locations, once even outside of David’s bedroom window, and has a steadfast knowledge of David’s actions. If David is the Hamlet of his story, then Sky would be his ghostly father. Yet, in the aftermath of shows such as Mr. Robot (Sam Esmail, 2015) or films like A Tale of Two Sisters (Kim Jee-woon, 2003), the revelation that Sky is a figment of David’s imagination isn’t all too surprising. In fact, it’s even a bit predictable. However, this “surprise” doesn’t harm or detract from the show’s potential. Sky’s relationship with David was never the main focus of the show. That honor goes to David’s own internal conflict with himself. Second, would be his relationship with Seren, and the guilt he feels over feeling envious of Seren’s progress in school despite Seren’s home troubles with his stepfather. Perhaps, a better analogy for David would be Ophelia, driven to conflicted madness by those around him and having an odd connection with water.
If “where did you come from” is the question of the episode, then “where are you going” would be the question of the show. David struggles between his own desire to improve and get into a better high school and the responsibilities he feels towards others: his brother, his friend, his reputation. This is even implied in how David is called DJ and clowns it up at school but is more serious and mature in his neighborhood. There are still several unanswered questions and murky plot points such as David’s past relationship to Sky or why he keeps dreaming of water. As with any pilot episode, this is to be expected. For now, and unless proven otherwise, it is safe to say that David Makes Man has the makings and success of shows like The Wire or Breaking Bad.