But I also understood the payoff. Through a brilliant series of undoings and re-doings, she covered the range of possibilities that many of us survivors privately explore in our journals, in therapy and in our imaginations, our striving to approximate some semblance of justice when the law and our communities fail to protect us.
“I May Destroy You” can be considered as part of a larger cultural trend in which Black women’s experiences with sexual assault are appearing with greater frequency and treated with more sensitivity, in documentaries like “Surviving R. Kelly” and “On the Record” and television shows like “Queen Sugar,” “The Chi” and “Lovecraft Country.” (Except for “On the Record,” all of these were created by Black women).
This season of Lena Waithe’s “The Chi” on Showtime, which had its finale on Sunday, in particular stands out for its story line about the kidnapping of a teenage girl named Keisha (Birgundi Baker). The subplot explores the overlooked phenomenon of Black girls being abducted and sexually exploited, and Keisha’s recovery depicts sexual assault as a kind of founding trauma that binds several generations of Black girls and women, including her mother, to each other.
The intimate and layered storytelling of “I May Destroy You” stands out, however, because Coel does two incredibly hard things at once. She explores, with great nuance, the complicated and often fraught public conversation about sexual assault and consent. She also centers rape victims that have historically been treated as less worthy of support: Black women, those attacked while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and in the case of Bella’s friend, Kwame, Black queer men.
The finale ends with the launch of Arabella’s book “January 22,” which she self-publishes after losing her original publishing contract, but which also symbolizes her wresting control of that fateful night back from her assailant. In some ways, this outcome echoes Coel’s actual decision to walk away from a $1 million dollar Netflix deal in order to maintain ownership of this show. But, this result is also unfulfilling and deeply unfair, because Arabella, like so many sexual assault survivors, has been left to resolve the criminal act done against her on her own.
And though I remain curious about the long-term effects this trauma will have on Bella’s well-being, I’m likely to never know. There have been no indications from Coel or HBO that there will be another season.