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‘David Makes Man’ Is a Complex Portrait of Black Boyhood

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“Yeah, I’m real,” says Femi, a sharp-witted transgender den mother to abandoned youth, during the second episode of “David Makes Man.” Emerging out of nowhere with a group of homeless teens, Femi offers the 14-year-old David water and protection as he walks home with drugs he has been forced to carry. She is one of the show’s several characters who could be real or a figment of David’s vivid imagination.

“You didn’t see all these eyes on you?” she asks. “That’s all right, everybody don’t need to see everything.”

It’s a representative exchange on a show that may blur reality and fantasy at any given moment. But it also continues the nuanced explorations of black boyhood by the writer Tarell Alvin McCraney, best known for his Tony-nominated play “Choir Boy” and as a writer of the Oscar-winning “Moonlight.” And while “David Makes Man” shares a Miami setting with “Moonlight,” its 10-hour arc enables McCraney, who grew up there, to flesh out the hopes and tragedies of an entire South Florida black community.

The series, which premieres Wednesday on Oprah Winfrey Network, follows David (Akili McDowell) as he navigates life in a public-housing project while dealing with multiple pressures: to sell drugs and help support his family, but also to succeed as one of the few black students at his magnet school. Complicating these challenges is the death of Sky, a drug dealer and father figure who continues to mentor David by appearing to him in visions after he dies.

“The show came about because I was trying to track down those moments of trauma that were making it difficult for me to enjoy the moments of relative success that I was having,” McCraney said in a phone interview last month. “So many great things were happening for me, and I’d find myself depressed, in a fetal position, and then I realized I did not know how to be in the moment, take care of myself, love my body, my space, and the people around me.”

“I wondered why I didn’t learn those things,” he added. “I was surviving rather than living.”

When McCraney turned to his past in order to heal, he began to conceive of his title character, David, a dark-skinned African-American wunderkind who is mired in poverty, racism and colorism. Michael B. Jordan, who is an executive producer for the show, noted how similar his own childhood in Newark, N.J., was to McCraney’s.

“We thought it was important,” Jordan said, “to show other kids that have similar experiences or live in a similar situation that you can take the stereotypical disadvantages that you grew up with and turn them into strengths.”

And it was this complex portrayal of childhood trauma that caught the eye of Oprah Winfrey, who first heard about the show’s concept by chance. In 2017 she happened to attend a meeting just a few rooms from where McCraney and Jordan were promoting the show, and Winfrey said she had intended to stop by briefly to greet them.

Once McCraney started relating his personal path to this story, though, she was so captivated that she sat through their entire presentation.

“It was the best pitch I’ve ever heard,” she said.

The show’s slow-paced, hyper-vibrant aesthetics, steeped in magical realism, make “David Makes Man” the most experimental show on her network. But Winfrey was drawn mainly to David’s desire to work through tragedy.

“Everything we know about trauma is that most kids who’ve experienced it have trouble regulating themselves,” Winfrey said by phone. “And when David has trouble regulating himself, he dissociates and his imagination takes over. I love the fact that the show doesn’t pause to explain what is happening in his head. We just see him navigating between these two worlds.”

McCraney and the showrunner Dee Harris-Lawrence (“Shots Fired,” “Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G.”) knew they had to push the limits of realism in order to capture the creativity and coping mechanisms of David’s mind. Much like “Six Feet Under” and “The Leftovers,” the series explores the boundaries between life and death; it does so, in part, by referencing West African spiritual practices such as ancestor worship and divination rituals.

“We had a lot of practical conversations about how to show his imagination,” Harris-Lawrence said. “We weren’t ‘Krypton’ and did not have a lot of special effects. So we went to all the different departments helping us make this show and asked them to think out of the box and use sound, color and music differently, beyond their usual television tropes.”

As a result, “David Makes Man” upends preconceived notions about so-called urban dramas and the black characters they feature. Just as he did with “Moonlight” and his other previous works, McCraney turns the coming-of-age story into a complex treatment of black interiority and resilience.

“He always gives us multiple layers of black masculinity,” said E. Patrick Johnson, the author of the book and one-man show “Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South — an Oral History.” “In one character, you may have a whole range of masculinities. The person who you perceive initially as a queen is the same man, or boy, that may, on the turn of a dime, become probably the most traditionally masculine person standing before you.

“In his art,” Johnson added, “masculinity is seen as a performance that has a whole range of modes and expression.”

That fluidity shows up in the series’s portrayal of the inner lives of its black male characters, as well as in the way it centralizes gender nonconforming characters like David’s neighbor Mx. Elijah (Travis Coles), whose nurturing spirit, along with those of David’s mother (Alana Arenas) and teacher (Phylicia Rashad), are all essential to David’s maturation.

In the end, we begin to see the world not simply as David lives it, but as he wills it to be. And “David Makes Man” emerges as one of the most innovative television shows debuting this year.

Jordan said he hoped it would also inspire children growing up the way he did.

“We want to show a way for them to take their reality and turn it into a dream and a bigger opportunity,” he said. “And that your imagination is sometimes the only safe place that you have.”

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Editorial

Anna Torv of ‘Mindhunter’ on Playing It Cool, if Not Straight

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[This article contains spoilers for Season 2 of “Mindhunter.”]

The Netflix drama “Mindhunter” is about an F.B.I. unit that studies serial killers, but the series is all tell, no show — most of the violence is described rather than depicted.

Another sleight-of-hand is that one of the most compelling characters in the second season, which dropped on Aug. 16, is not one of the killers or agents but the unit’s coolly dispassionate psychologist on loan from academia, Dr. Wendy Carr, as portrayed by the Australian actress Anna Torv.

Torv first came to the attention of American viewers on the Fox series “Fringe” (2008-13), in which she played both the F.B.I. agent Olivia Dunham and her alternate-universe version, referred to as Fauxlivia. At one point they even fought each other, predating Tatiana Maslany’s clone wars on “Orphan Black” by a few years.

Wendy’s calm aloofness is most likely a byproduct of her analytical mind and of being a closeted lesbian in law enforcement, and Torv plays it with a minimalist precision that does not preclude a certain sneaky warmth. Watching her performance is like listening to Dusty Springfield in a world of Mariah Careys.

“She gives everything ‘depth,’” said David Fincher (“Seven,” “Zodiac”), an executive producer and director on the series, in an email. “Her perceptible thoughtfulness is always ‘on’ — even when it’s understated.”

He added: “She knows that Dorothy has to leave the Yellow Brick Road from time to time and that drama lies in the areas that are often ‘off limits’ or ‘out of bounds’ for what’s been established for Wendy.”

Season 2 includes major developments for Wendy, who conducts her first interviews with killers and develops a romance with a free-spirited bartender, Kay (Lauren Glazier). Yet throughout, Torv maintains a poise that is almost hypnotic. In a phone interview Thursday, she spoke from Los Angeles about the outsize emotional expectations placed on actresses, and about the extra challenges of playing such a stoic role. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

True crime has long inspired pop culture. Was it a subject you were ever interested in?

It’s not something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, honestly. I started with John Douglas’s book, [“Mind Hunter: Inside the F.B.I.’s Elite Serial Crime Unit,” written with Mark Olshaker], and did a bit of research on the serial killers that we were talking to on the show. I don’t find it particularly pleasant to go deep into that. My character has a little bit more of an intellectual approach to it — not that it doesn’t seep into her life, which is a lot of what the show is about.

Then I started reading about psychopathy and sociopathy and all of these different personality biases that exist on a spectrum and don’t always result in someone’s becoming a serial killer. We all know narcissists [laughs]. They operate in the world and don’t all go out and kill people.

It has been said that Wendy is based on a woman named Ann Wolbert Burgess. Did you meet her?

No. When I started the book, I realized, “Oh, she is probably Ann Burgess,” but we took it so far away from her that I think it would do Burgess a disservice to say that. It’s just a completely different character.

Wendy shows very little outward emotion. The strong, impassive type is relatively common among male actors, but we don’t see that so much from actresses.

What I find fascinating is that when you’re an actress, you don’t even realize that the majority of the time you end up carrying the emotional weight of whatever scene you happen to be in. If someone’s going to cry, it’s going to be the girl. If someone is emotional and having a meltdown, it’s going to be the girl. And so you end up getting really good at it. Not even getting good at it — it’s just the expectation, so that’s what your instincts end up honing. All of a sudden to be in the skin of this woman who is just so dry … Anytime I showed a flicker of something, especially in the beginning, David would be like, “Please, pull it back.”

How much of it was in the script?

The writers do a beautiful job but, there aren’t a lot of physical directions. We do have the luxury of rehearsals. One of my favorite scenes is the first time Kay and Wendy sleep together after they’ve been on a date, and the aftermath of that. I really love that scene, and [the director Andrew Dominik] gave a couple of gorgeous, playable character notes.

Do you feel the emphasis on understatement when playing Wendy reflects the series’s general approach?

David has set up the show, and even though we have other beautiful directors come in, he was the tastemaker. Building suspense, drama or action in a show about serial killers with no blood, no action and no guns, that’s the choice. Sometimes people think shows or stories should just hit the audience over the head with what they’re wanting to say, and they don’t give people enough credit.

David always says this one thing that I think is so right: “I don’t want to see two people having an argument where one’s right and one’s wrong. I want to see two intelligent people who are both right.” That’s what makes the show smart and not engulfed in melodrama.

Is that what ultimately happens between Wendy and Kay — they are both sort of right and sort of wrong?

The heartbreak is that it was a relationship that could have been something, that should have worked. Wendy studies patterns of behavior, but she’s totally incapable of holding the mirror up, which I think is true of all the characters.

The show hasn’t been officially renewed for a third season yet, but Fincher is said to have a five-year plan for it. What would you like to explore with Wendy?

With the relationship with Kay, we were able to see a bit more of Wendy outside of the office. You understood her a little more, like you could go, “Oh, there are three dimensions to her — that side is just the way she has to live her life at the office.” I was incredibly grateful to have these opportunities. So I guess more of that [laughs].

Your character in the Australian thriller “Secret City,” whose second season came recently to Netflix, is involved in quite a bit of action. What was fun about that project?

I thought it was a really smart show and it was executed beautifully — and we shoot so quickly in Australia, it’s incomprehensible the kind of difference in that respect between shooting in the States and shooting in Australia. There, we do one, two takes max, and good luck. I also wanted to work at home. To go back to Australia and sit down to a table read with people you’ve come up with was warming.

And maybe they don’t mistake you for Carrie Coon over there.

Poor Carrie Coon! I feel terrible, but I’m also flattered because she’s fantastic and beautiful.

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Editorial

‘American Girl’ & Me

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Over the course of the books, each heroine celebrates her birthday and Christmas (later, a Jewish doll was introduced, but this was well after my time), does some kind of summer recreational activity, makes at least one friend, thwarts at least one enemy and establishes some kind of companionship with an animal. She also speaks reverently of her own doll; you can buy your doll a doll, too, but she is sold separately. I was a through-and-through American Girl fan, and I remember dutifully arranging the books on my bookshelf, though the more vivid memory is reverently reading every page of the catalog.

American Girls Podcast is moving chronologically through history, not the order in which the dolls were released, so they began the show with Felicity. Current episodes focus on Josefina, who lives in the 1820s in what is now New Mexico. (She wasn’t introduced to the collection until 1997, after my doll days had passed.) Kirsten, a Swedish immigrant who lives in the Minnesota Territory in the 1850s (and my personal fave), will be next, followed by Addy, the first black American Girl doll, and whose first book includes her and her mother escaping slavery. Then comes Samantha, an orphan raised by her grandmother in 1904 New York. Finally, there will be Molly, an Illinois girl whose father is serving overseas in World War II. After it finishes with the original lineup, the podcast will cover the newer characters — like Nanea, who lives through Pearl Harbor, and Julie, who’s into folk music in the ’70s — in the order in which they were introduced.

Here’s what I remembered about the books: Mad, roiling jealousy that little girls got to have bodacious adventures 100 years ago and all I did was play softball and sing in choruses. Might I, like Kirsten, be named Lucia queen to celebrate St. Lucia’s day, wear a candle crown and present my family with cinnamon rolls? No, Margaret, the adults in my life would say. We are not Swedish, and you are not allowed to use the oven by yourself.

Might I embody the spirit of the American Revolution by rescuing a horse, and also by subverting expectations at my stuffy etiquette classes? Well … feel free to turn your spoon however you want, but no one else knows the norms of Colonial tea settings, so be prepared for that to go unnoticed.

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Editorial

‘Hot Air’ Review: A Right-Wing Radio Host Learns to Love Again

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Don’t get too excited about the prospect of Steve Coogan playing an American right-wing radio host. The British actor’s comic wings are clipped in this sincere but unwieldy film about a abrasive radio personality whose heretofore-unknown African-American teenage niece shows up at his fancy New York City apartment.

Tess (Taylor Russell) has left home after her mother returned to rehab, and while the by-the-bootstraps blowhard Lionel Macomb (Coogan) doesn’t believe in handouts or charity or even kindness, he reluctantly lets her stay. His publicist and girlfriend Valerie (Neve Campbell) is nicer to the girl, and soon, points of view are being challenged and upsetting family memories are being unearthed.

Directed by Frank Coraci, the film feints at comedy with background gags and an occasional broad performance or two, but it’s primarily a dramatic story — and not a focused one at that. As uncle and niece learn more about one another, Lionel faces competition from a former employee who has adopted a sunnier, blander variation on the conservative loudmouth persona.

The movie seems afraid to follow through on any one emotional through line, and instead throws a whole bunch together. The script, by Will Reichel, jumps between Tess and Lionel’s challenges without ever entirely convincing us that their fates are connected. We feel like we’re watching two very different movies, neither of which is particularly engaging.

Amid the tiresome speeches about the American dream and tearful reconciliations, Coogan gets some big scenes, but anyone familiar with what this actor is capable of may wonder why he was cast in the first place.

Hot Air

Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 39 minutes.

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