In Michaela Coel’s powerful new drama about consent, race, and trauma through a millennial lens, Paapa Essiedu’s character is a vital starting point for lives rarely explored in all their complexities on TV
Content note: This article contains some spoilers for I May Destroy You, and discusses sexual assault
Who gets to be vulnerable? And who is the ‘right kind of victim’ of sexual assault? As a Black gay man, these questions haunt me as I watch Kwame’s odyssey through the sexual and romantic ecosystem so intricately woven in Michaela’s Coel’s twisty, off-beat drama I May Destroy You. Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), the gay male best friend of protagonist Arabella (Coel) and Terry (Weruche Opia), has a narrative arc that is quieter and even more slow burning than theirs. Coel’s drama analyses the contemporary sexual economy, through as many prisms and ambiguities as artistically possible, and Kwame is crucial for voyaging into the unchartered waters of sexual violence against gay men.
Rather than presenting a moralising view of ‘hook-up culture’ among gay men, Kwame’s regular use of Grindr makes us think of the sexual politics of public and private space. His plot is central to episode four, “That Was Fun”; in its opening scenes, Kwame is shopping with his grandmother, and slips away for a low-key frisk in the toilets he’s arranged through Grindr. Sex in a public lavatory, otherwise known as ‘cottaging’, is outlawed by the Sexual Offences Act 2003, but in lieu of access to affordable housing in London where gay men can fuck in privacy, these laws are made to be broken. The difficulties of finding private space for sex often forces us into more public spaces or negotiations – Kwame cannot ‘host’ as his father is present, and sexual interest Damon lives with his grandmother, so they must get creative.
Negotiation is a defining feature of the sexual economy for gay men, layered by degrees of consent, sex roles, and individual confidence. For Kwame and Damon to find private space for sexual exploration, they are forced to find a third party who has housing – the cocky, tall, and muscled Malik. The three men in the scene come to represent versatile expressions of Black gay male sexuality; Malik as the dominant power, expressed not only by his ownership of the space, but in how he dictates the sexual roles the men must perform, with the more sexually reserved and less-confident Damon, though voluntarily an observer, being instructed to simply watch. Malik’s power is optically and sonically confirmed – the room is dominated by a large bed, and the pale green walls and scattered lighting makes the place feel claustrophobic and polluted, hardly bracing us for an arousing sex scene despite the attractiveness of the men involved. The background music contains homophobic lyrics, “why all these batty boys act like their mothers?”, which visibly distresses Damon, though Malik and Kwame are unbothered, evidencing clear distinctions in sexual confidence, and setting up for Damon’s eventual exit.
When Malik asks Kwame “what are you into?” (that dreaded question), Kwame answers, “I’m into everything”. Within the competitive marketplace for sex, gay men may willingly self-objectify themselves as commodities able to satisfy all desires to increase our chances of accessing the sexiest, most desirable men. But, to Malik, Kwame’s words don’t meet his actions when he rejects being “fucked bareback”. Immediately his own words are thrown back at him: “I thought you were into everything?”. After they have had condom protected sex, Kwame tries to leave, and in devastatingly vicious scenes he is sexually assaulted by Malik. This is shrouded in ambiguity – it is not clear if Malik is aggressively humping Kwame, or penetrating him to experience the bareback he felt entitled to, and it later becomes clear that Kwame is not even sure himself.
For Black gay men, the ambiguity of sexual assault and our willingness to report it are complicated by our race, gender, and sexuality. These scenes are not a sex-negative cautionary tale about Grindr and pleasure-seeking, but rather force us to question who gets to be a ‘victim’ and what safety and justice looks like for us. Despite the violence of his encounter, Kwame hesitates in reporting these events to his friends, instead staying quiet and continuing to support Arabella in her pursuit of justice against her as yet unknown rapist. In episode five “It Just Came Up”, the unblushing fierceness with which Arabella publicly exposes a man who ‘stealthed’ her is sharply contrasted by scenes of Kwame suffering in silence.
This follows Kwame attempting to report his encounter to the police, where he finds himself receiving frustrating levels of disdain and lack of care. The ambiguity of Kwame’s assault means he cannot tell if he was non-consensually penetrated or not by Malik and would have to “put (his) finger in (his) anus” to check what it would feel like – his answer visibly disturbs and amuses the police officer.
This will be physically quite understandable for gay male viewers; a penetrative assault when one has already been penetrated may be less sensually obvious, because the anus is quite literally more numb and not as tight as would be on first entry. As a gay man, I could comprehend this immediately, but it is no surprise to me that institutions could not. It is not simply that the police are culturally incompetent – certainly they lack the most basic empathy for the Black, gay male victim of assault in a way that wasn’t experienced by Arabella, and they cannot comprehend the technicalities of Grindr and gay sex. But the police, it is clear, were never a legitimate avenue for Kwame to seek justice in the first place – it’s here we see a queer perspective on the strained relationship between policing and Black men.
“I hope this inspires a revolution in Black British television and that sexual and gendered diversity within Black Britain is honoured... entire dramas can be developed around Black British queer people”
Kwame is also failed by his female friends. The characters in I May Destroy You are designed to be imperfect, and how this can be revealed by ignorance to queer subjectivity resonates with me as a Black gay man with straight female Black friends. At Terry’s birthday party, despite being evidently reserved and quiet due to constant reminders of his assault, Arabella locks him in a room with a handsome stranger who she has been trying to set him up with. This represents an under-explored aspects of gay male-straight female friendships, whereby the women in our lives can, though well intentioned, often lack sensitivity to our autonomy or ventriloquise our desires by projecting fantasies and romances into our lives and engagements with men. This is later confronted by Kwame who is forced to reveal that he, too, is a victim of sexual assault, and that Arabella had recklessly placed him in a compromising position – despite her having currently centred her world around seeking justice against sexual abusers.
Through I May Destroy You Michaela Coel rejects victimhood and attempts to reconstruct the economy of sexual consent in a way which is multi-layered and not polarised by ‘good’ and ‘bad’, but Kwame provides an avenue for exploring where a person’s identity may mean that they are disqualified from victimhood in the first place. The slow-burning after-effects of Kwame’s sexual assault force him to revisit a childhood experience, one of his earliest sexual encounters, which he comes to understand as more sinister than he had previously interpreted. Later, in a more bizarre element of the plot, Kwame (who is gay and not bisexual) goes on a date and has sex with a white woman. She fetishises him, and then positions herself as the ‘victim’ when he confronts her liberally using racist and homophobic slurs and she subsequently discovers he’s gay. Despite the sex surfacing harrowing flashbacks of having been assaulted, Kwame is immediately forced into an apologetic position as his victimhood as a Black, gay man is discounted. It does not matter that he was objectified on account of his race and, by his interpretation, effectively coerced into sex – victimhood and vulnerability remain the exclusive possession of white women, and never Black men, who are consistently typecast as the aggressors.
As Chanté Joseph writes of the series, “Black British millennial content is a rarity”, and this is even more true of Black British content featuring queer characters. Lance in Cucumber, or Eric in Sex Education are Black British gay men whose plots are oriented around white characters, but contrastingly, Kwame is used to evidence diversity within Black Britain, rather than portrayed as isolated outside of it. This is part of what makes the series such a cultural reset. It informs audiences that Black queer people are an integral part of Black communities – we are at the house parties, the block parties, the markets, and the churches alongside our hetero Black brothers and sisters. Importantly, Kwame entertains a number of romantic engagements from other Black men too. In upcoming episodes, Terry will begin to consider romance with a Black trans man. What I hope is that this inspires a revolution in Black British television and that sexual and gendered diversity within Black Britain is honoured – or even that entire dramas can be developed around Black British queer people. For Black gay men and boys, Kwame is an essential start, but there is still so much material that remains untouched.
I May Destroy You is now available on BBC iPlayer