'I May Destroy You' Explores Sexual Assault Between Black Gay Men In Gut-Wrenching Episode
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Michaela Coel (Chewing Gum), stars, writes and co-directs this British series import now showing on HBO. "That Was Fun," the latest episode to air in America on June 29 continues to tackles themes of consent and sexual assault as experienced by the show's protagonist Arabella, played by Coel. But in what many are considering a first on cable television, Coel has written a painfully human experience between a trio of Black gay characters, with fan favorite character Kwame, an aerobics instructor, played brilliantly by British actor Paapa Essiedu and his new love interest Damon—a guy he meets online while seeking a "third."
Spoilers Ahead: Do not read this next section if you haven't seen Episode 4.
Damon is interested in Kwame but unwilling to label himself just yet. He’s obviously nervous about having sex with another man. As a way to potentially put him at ease, Kwame suggests inviting a third partner into the equation so Damon can watch them have sex.
The meeting is almost unbearably awkward to watch since it becomes clear early on that Damon isn’t entirely comfortable with the situation. He stays for a while as dating app guy – Malik, and Kwame flirt and fool around.
Malik first raises a red flag when he tells Kwame he wants to have sex bareback — without a condom. Kwame isn’t interested in that and he puts his foot down. Malik is visibly annoyed, but relents and gets a condom anyway.
Then the two of them start having sex. At that point, Damon gets a little too uncomfortable and decides to head out.
It seems like everything went okay with Kwame and Malik the rest of their time spent together until Kwame tries to leave. First, Malik begs him to stay repeatedly and then slams the door on his finger when he tries to go.
He then forcefully shoves Kwame onto the bed and pulls his pants down, vigorously humping him from behind as Kwame begs for him to stop.
Essiedu spoke with Esquire about the preparation that went into filming the scene, working with an intimacy coordinator and the importance of telling this particular story as it relates to Black gay men onscreen.
ESQ: What does the process of working with an intimacy coordinator look like?
PE: I honestly cannot imagine a world where you do scenes that demand this level of intimacy without an intimacy coordinator. To me, it’s insane. You would never film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon without someone on set whose job it is to make sure you don't cut someone's head off. I think intimacy coordinators are crucial in that same way. Ita O’Brien was our intimacy coordinator; we had some sessions with her long before we started filming. Those sessions were all about us being clear with what we were comfortable doing and what we weren't comfortable doing. We talked about how we could navigate our individual safe zones emotionally, mentally, and physically in order to create a scene that does justice to what's written on the page. It is all about empowering, safeguarding, and liberating performers. It felt like a liberated, freeing environment to do what is on the surface a very demanding task for an actor.
ESQ: Throughout the series, there are many moments where we see Kwame swiping through dating apps with a tone of desensitization. How do those apps shape a person’s dating life, for better or for worse?
PE: I think it's important to recognize what life as a queer man on the dating scene is like. It's not as straightforward as you might think; there are certain spaces where as a Black queer man, you'd be beaten up for expressing your love or sexuality. Not everywhere is safe for Black queer people. I suppose it's ironic given what happens in this particular show, but in a way, dating apps can be a safe space for people to express their sexuality with freedom. As for facelessness or desensitization, that's down to your own erotics. For some people, that is what is demanded and necessary for them to feel fulfilled. For other people, it's less fulfilling.
ESQ: Something noteworthy about Kwame’s sexual assault is the fact that it occurred after a consensual encounter. Consent given once, of course, is not consent given twice. In another scene, Arabella is violated when her sex partner removes the condom without her knowledge. The series has such a nuanced perspective on consent, and on violations that many people may not realize are forms of sexual assault. In what ways does I May Destroy You seek to challenge the preconceived notions about consent that viewers are bringing to the table?
PE: I think that doubles down to making it real and authentic. We're desperate to see consent in a binary way, as in it’s either yes or no, and as soon as you've said yes, it's consent, and as soon as you've said no, it's not. Anybody who lives in the real world knows that it's more complicated than that. Our lack of nuance in this binary consent structure allows people to take advantage and be taken advantage of—to get off by saying, "It’s a gray area. We don't know what is right or what is wrong." That kind of environment provides protection for people who don't care. The show does a brilliant thing in really looking our perceptions of consent in the eye, challenging us to be real about the spaces in which we exist sexually.
ESQ: For many viewers, they will be coming to the experience of a man sexually assaulting another man on television for the first time. What do you hope those viewers take away from following Kwame through his journey?
PE: If seeing it makes people rethink things that have happened to them and empowers them to think about those situations in a healthy way, then that's good. We are not showing these situations in mainstream entertainment; we don't read about it in books, we don't hear about it in music, we don't watch it on television. That causes people to think that their experiences are not real or not validated—or not as legitimate as the ones that we do see on television, read in books, and hear in music. I would love for this to be a step toward recognition that these experiences are valid and should be treated exactly the same, even though they're so chronically underrepresented.
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