In David Makes Man, Growing Up Without a Margin for Error

Like its title character, this contemplative new drama series has potential.
  • David (Akili McDowell) in a promotional photo for David Makes Man. (OWN)
    David (Akili McDowell) in a promotional photo for David Makes Man. (OWN)
    Overwhelmed by Peak TV? Aaron Barnhart is your guide to the good, the great, and the skippable. Subscribe to get all his Primetimer reviews.

    David Makes Man
    Airs Wednesdays at 10:00PM ET on OWN 

    It is hard to watch David Makes Man, a moody coming-of-age drama debuting tonight on the Oprah channel, without thinking of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. Whatever you think about the plight of black men in America today — is it white supremacy, or self-inflicted? — the plague of violence against young black men and boys is both heartbreaking and appalling. These are people who barely lived long enough to dream dreams, let alone pursue them.

    As an aficionado of great TV, David Makes Man also makes me think, naturally, of The Wire, another show set in a public housing project that doubles as a drug supermarket. I hasten to add that David Makes Man is not a great show, but like its title character, it’s got potential.

    That character, David Young (Akili McDowell), is 14, lives in the projects and attends a magnet school in Miami. Before you know a thing about his hard-working single mother, dedicated teachers, and neighbors who watch out for him, you already know the question at the heart of David Makes Man: Is David going to get to chase dreams someday? Will he be afforded that chance, or will some outside force, some random act of cruelty or hey, bad choice he makes (if that’s how you look at it) result in throwing away his shot — his one shot, in all likelihood — at a better life?

    I’m rooting for both David and this show to succeed, for reasons that are personal. Like a growing number of white Americans, I have skin in this game, namely my two African-American grandkids, one of whom is perilously close to David’s age. And while no one will ever accuse me of being a helicopter grandpa, I do worry often about Malcolm and Alex and wonder if they’ll get the same shake as my two white grandchildren. I know it’s never far from their parents’ minds, either, so I take some assurance in that.

    David Makes Man is from the pen of Tarell Alvin McCraney, who won an Oscar for his work on Moonlight, and just knowing that will help get you through the slow-moving commercial-free first hour of the show. It opens with a surreal, ominously-scored dreamscape in which we see David outside somewhere, late at night, staring anxiously up at the moonlight (or streetlight, hard to tell). Sweat is pouring off his brow. Now there’s someone whispering into his ear. It could be David’s father. What counsel or word of encouragement is he giving this child?

    We’ll never know. David’s eyes open and he finds himself in his bedroom, his little brother JG (Cayden WIlliams) holding his sheets. He’s wet the bed, again. There is no father in their life, and their mom is already at work, so that means David has to wash the sheets, walk JG to school, then run as fast as he can to his bus stop so he’s not late for class.

    These opening minutes show us a man-in-training, someone who’s obviously had order and responsibility drummed into his head. But he’s still fourteen, and in addition to being capable of doing epically dumb things, David is just starting to develop a lexicon for expressing his feelings, needs, and wants.

    Seren (Nathaniel McIntyre) and David (Akili McDowell) wait to hear their fate after getting into a fight in David Makes Man. (OWN)

    After inexplicably getting into a fight in class with his best friend Seren (Nathaniel McIntyre), David is sent to a counselor, who has no better luck than his teacher in figuring out what’s wrong. David is fortunate; as one of just three African Americans in his school’s gifted program, he’s precious cargo. Suspension, or even so much as a mention of the altercation on his record, would all but doom his chances of getting into the prestigious high school that represents his ticket out.

    In the end, they’re forced to work it out. The instructor of the gifted class, Dr. Woods-Trap (played by Phylicia Rashad), assigns Seren to help David with a class presentation about his “origin story.” While Seren and Marissa, the other black kid in class, both choose to talk about ancestors they never met — a trope the show knowingly and gently mocks — David decides to make his presentation about his mother, Gloria (Alana Arenas), how they were rejected by his father, and how this trauma not only forced Gloria to be the family’s sole support but led David, at a very tender age, to question his own worth as a person.

    Afterward, a white student in the class comes up to congratulate David: “Really brave. Really important story.”

    Seren looks dumbfounded. “White privilege, is that how it works?” he asks.

    David shrugs. “I guess he liked it.” But we can see that Seren agrees, it was brave.

    Phylicia Rashad plays David's caring instructor in the gifted class at school in David Makes Man.

    Tonally the show jumps between gritty authenticity and dreamy escapism, with hints of DeGrassi, Six Feet Under, and The Wire. It’s something you might expect from an indie-film screenwriter in his first-ever effort for television. But the show’s compelling subject matter is why I’m cutting David Makes Man some slack.

    One constant source of tension that was not exaggerated for TV is how little margin of error exists in a family headed by a single breadwinner. When Gloria is harassed by her boss, she has to decide whether to accept  the humiliation or be fired. If she chooses the latter, the family could be evicted in the time it takes for her to find another job.

    Seren appears to be much better off — two parental figures are in his life and there’s a nice roof over his head. But that security comes at a terrible cost, with emotional and physical abuse from his white, Santini-like mother. When David accidentally sees Seren with his shirt off, and notes the ugly bruise on his chest, he understands.

    More than that, he responds the way you’d want your kid to respond, with compassion. On the bus ride home from school, Seren grits his teeth each time the bus hits a pothole. So David finds a way to turn the bumpy road into a joke and get his friend to laugh and forget the pain.

    Back at home, David is forced into compromising situations by the local drug kingpin Raynan (Ade Chike Torbert) that threaten to derail his progress as well. But after taking the measure of this young man for five episodes of David Makes Man, it requires tremendous imagination to convince me that David would even think of choosing thug life.

    In the end, this show may wind up going the way of Rectify, an almost pure form of character drama in which storylines take a backseat to the sheer pleasure of watching a human being evolve before one’s eyes, as David Young does on David Makes Man. Either way, I know I'll be watching.

    We've set up an area for David Makes Man in our forums. Please share your thoughts!

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: David Makes Man, OWN, Akili McDowell, Tarell Alvin McCraney, African Americans and TV