Among the new series screening at South by Southwest is “David Makes Man,” presenting its first episode before a bow on OWN this August. While the episode represents only a glimpse of the show to come, it’s promising — both for OWN and for the South by Southwest confab — that this show is, from its first moments, quite so lived-in and credible. It joins, on Oprah Winfrey’s dedicated network, a suite of accomplished dramas including “Queen Sugar”; at the Austin festival, it’s a welcome step outside pure genre, and into a world in which the concerns of young black boys are paramount.
The first TV project from playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, an Oscar-winner for “Moonlight,” tracks the code-switching life of David (the gifted young actor Akili McDowell), a young man who works hard in school and harder at trying to balance the many requirements of his life, including a sort of street apprenticeship with dealer Sky (Isaiah Johnson). David’s home life is challenging, both on its merits (his mother, played by Alana Arenas, isn’t using anymore, but has to work too hard and be away for too long) and for the contrast it provides to his life at an elite magnet school. In the show’s pilot, David deals with things he’s long known — his family’s somewhat precarious situation, the fact that he can’t triangulate between school and the streets forever — with new revelations about just how much even the most comfortably situated of his classmates are hiding, too.
McCraney is working within a familiar milieu — here, as in “Moonlight,” we are plunged into a section of the Miami metro area in which black and brown faces predominate. And here, again, we watch the battle for a young man’s soul, one in which a drug dealer is on the side of the angels. But TV presents the opportunity to build a world, and — though stilted in moments — interactions with a teacher played by Phylicia Rashad suggest a universe that “Moonlight,” with its focus on its protagonist’s tightly bound inner life, wasn’t trying to find. This viewer, at least, remains curious and eager to see more of David’s story, one that is told with élan and confidence and played with preternatural skill. South by Southwest is lucky to have “David Makes Man”; should the series continue on the path its pilot sets, viewers seeking a well-told story about life among economically struggling people of color, one still too rarely told, will soon enough be able to count themselves lucky too.
‘David Makes Man.’ OWN. One episode screened for review.
Cast: Akili McDowell, Alana Arenas, Isaiah Johnson, Travis Coles, Phylicia Rashad, Nathaniel McIntyre, Cayden Williams, Ade Chike Torbert, Jordan Bolger
Executive Producers: Tarell Alvin McCraney, Dee Harris-Lawrence, Mike Kelley, Melissa Loy, Michael B. Jordan, Oprah Winfrey