By Kathelijne Schoonackers
Michaela Coel’s star has been rising ever since she arrived on the television scene in 2015 with Chewing Gum, a show she wrote and starred in. After this, she landed roles in Black Earth Rising and Been So Long, before writing and starring in the impactful I May Destroy You in 2020. In between winning BAFTA’s and an Emmy for Chewing Gum and I May Destroy You something important of a different order happened to her. She was invited to give the 43rd MacTaggart Lecture at the 2018 Edinburgh TV Festival, before 4000 industry professionals. While Coel delivered the lecture with calm and poise, the content was called “ground breaking”, “business shaking”, and a “hand grenade” by the media (Wright, Sejean). Misfits: A Personal Manifesto is the remediation of her lecture on paper, to which Coel’s reflection on its writing process and what it revealed to her is added. As she addresses her personal experiences as a beginning writer and actress in the often overwhelming TV industry, it is a shocking and eye opening book, but nonetheless filled with uplifting confidence, hope and honesty.
The book opens with Coel rather flippantly describing her hatred of moths and her habit of killing them. Whenever she encounters one, she sprays it with moth-killer until it falls dead to the floor. Coel writes: “Moths disturb me, my peace and my flow, with their incessant fluttering. Their erratic, unpredictable movements get me the hell anxious – I hate them” (3). There is something a little off about opening a book centered around a lecture on empathy and care for those around you with a scene of the destruction of an animal, but it soon turns out that moths have come to carry a special meaning for Coel. When she is asked to give the prestigious MacTaggart Lecture she wonders what she will talk about to industry insiders, what her place in that industry is, whether she is an insider too, or still ‘outside’. Puzzled by a strange dream she has during the writing of the lecture, featuring her sitting on a bench outside a house, Uber drivers and a moth, she asks her friends what it could mean. According to her friends the house is the industry, and the Uber drivers are the producers. Another friend suggests that the moth represents her spirit, “that doesn’t want to be part of any of this” (14). The idea moves her to tears, and so a love story of sorts begins. The notes of the book reveal that she has consulted a moth expert and for four pages Coel tells us what she now knows about moths and what they symbolise in different cultures. The death’s-head hawkmoth is singled out as her favorite. We learn that this moth can produce sound: a tiny squeak, and this squeak is the moth’s only defense mechanism when it enters beehives. It is easy to picture Coel as the death’s-head hawkmoth entering the 4000 strong TV industry beehive on the day of the lecture and the lecture as her squeak in defense of “misfits”. She wears a death’s-head hawkmoth necklace underneath her dress, a gift to herself.
Coel’s initial revulsion towards moths, that slowly turns into investigation and acceptance, is symbolic of her personal growth over the time that Misfits: A Personal Manifesto spans. It is the book’s most important theme and biggest strength: trying to understand unpleasantness, pain and injustice instead of outright rejecting it. Throughout the pages, Coel illuminates the many difficult and confusing situations she has encountered during her life as a Black woman in a white society, specifically during her career in television. After laying out painful or infuriating moments before the reader, she moves closer, asks questions and investigates others’ and her own part in it. During the first season of Chewing Gum Coel discovered that all the Black actors on set shared one trailer while the only White actress had a trailer to herself. Coel remembers showing her anger and disappointment to the producer of the show and demanding change, but also asking everyone involved, including the Black actors, how this situation had come about. The Black actors were afraid of losing their jobs if they spoke up for themselves, while the producer insisted she wasn’t racist or thoughtless when she put them in that trailer. “But if you aren’t racist or thoughtless about race, what other thing can you be?” Coel asks her MacTaggart audience and leaves them, and the readers of her book, to mull that over (66).
Coel commits to transparency and deep self-reflection while preparing for her lecture. She stays at a friend’s Somerset house to work on it and notices how its tone keeps morphing while she writes and endlessly edits it. She begins to understand that she is dissociated from her own pain. If she wants to invite her listeners along with her in her experiences she first needs to be able to sit with the pain she is about to share with them. She likens this process to her relationship with moths: “Considering my initial revulsion, the mysteries of the moth slowly lure me in, eventually offering me reassurance” (20). How well she eventually succeeds at inhabiting her pain becomes clear when she recalls practising her lecture and having to repeat her sentences until she can get through them without crying.
While the MacTaggart Lecture makes up the book’s body and is the part that packs the punches, it is the origin story of the lecture that offers beautiful and clear language full of symbolism, metaphors, inquisitiveness and vulnerability. It invites you along with Coel while she tries to figure it all out right in front of you. She is honest and realistic about “never really finish[ing] the lecture – does anything ever finish?” (20). It is almost as if that ongoing and never finished process of pursuing transparency worked on her even years after she completed her task of delivering the lecture, and the book’s introduction is the result. It adds even more personal context, another layer to the words of the lecture itself.
The blurb on Misfits: A Personal Manifesto calls it a timely and necessary book. It happens that another prize-winning, London youth theatre alum also had her manifesto published in October: Manifesto: On Never Giving Up by Bernardine Evaristo. In the promotion for her new book Evaristo is called a trailblazer. Both Coel and Evaristo’s manifestos come in the wake of winning important prizes for their work and each being the first Black woman to do so in their respective fields. These are no doubt impactful moments in their lives, and also illuminate the need for trailblazers and manifestos. Coel explains: “This isn’t about me. Luckily, I’ve learnt. This is for the new writers coming after me, so the process of learning isn’t harder than it should be. Why not be transparent […]? As they enlighten you, with TV stories you can’t film or write without them, enlighten them […]” (77). She is speaking here of “misfits”, the ones who look at life differently, or who life looks at differently. “The UK’s Black, Asian, and ginger communities, for example” (54). Later on she equals a lack of misfits producing television to a lack of varied perspectives and argues that this can have catastrophic consequences for the acceptance and safety of misfits. In a time where misfits make for popular and lucrative TV productions she asks, “[w]hy are we platforming misfits, heralding them as newly rich successes, whilst they balance on creaking ladders with little chance of social mobility? I can’t help usher them into this house if there are doors within it they can’t open. It feels complicit. What I can do is be transparent about my experiences, because transparency helps” (88).
This need to be transparent about experiences in the TV industry is something Susan Wokoma, who played Michaela Coel’s character’s sister in Chewing Gum, also feels. She recently highlighted and reposted Instagram stories of Black actors who revealed the careless treatment they face in show business, and the disturbing and dangerous things they are asked – and feel compelled – to do in order to carve out a place for themselves. Wokoma related her own experiences: she was for example once asked to ride a scooter against traffic for a scene. She also recalled being invited to audition for roles and having to go through time-consuming script reads and rehearsals to finally audition through Zoom or self-tape, only to never hear back again. Trade union Equity’s Code of Best Practice for Self-Tape and Zoom Auditions for Scripted Drama came into effect earlier this year and for weeks was posted in Wokoma’s Instagram bio, as a resource for other actors. Similarly, John Boyega announced on his Instagram in October that he partnered with Converse and is launching the Create Next Film Project, “to help nurture a new generation of rising Black filmmakers – each will receive mentoring as well as support & funding over the next 6- months to tell the stories they’ve always dreamed of”. Like Coel, these are young Black actors and writers from London who feel the need and urgency to make the industry easier and safer for the ones who come after them, to spare others their own struggle.
In the aptly titled “Aftermoth”, Coel reflects on the lessons she has learned from writing her lecture. She notes how rare it is to be able to speak for an hour without the threat of challenge or retort, something she also touches upon in the lecture itself: “[i]s it important that voices used to interruption get the experience of writing something without interference at least once?” (55). Yet she encourages the reader to speak, even when interruption or challenge looms or is inevitable. “Speaking can be a terrifying action. Our words – even spoken from a position that is so powerless that all that’s produced is a moth-like squeak – can be loud enough to wake the house […]” (99). Fittingly, in the last lines of the book, we learn that the idea of moth-killer spray is now utterly unbearable to Coel.
This is a small and short book, a little over a hundred pages, but every page contains clear and moving language, every page makes an important point. It is, indeed, a word grenade to shake up your bookshelf and return to whenever you need to be reminded of the power of vulnerability and transparency.
Kathelijne Schoonackers is an M.A. Literature Today student at Utrecht University and a member of the editorial team of RevUU.
- Boyega, John. “The next thing isn’t out there.” Instagram, 15 Oct. 2021, instagram.com/
johnboyega/Coel, Michaela, creator. Chewing Gum. Retort, 6 Oct. 2015.
- Coel, Michaela. Misfits: A Personal Manifesto. London, Ebury Press, 2021.
- Coel, Michaela, creator. I May Destroy You. FALKNA Productions, 7 June 2020.
- Evaristo, Bernardine. Manifesto: On Never Giving Up. London, Penguin Books, 2021.
- Sejean, Nathalie. “Michaela Coel Knocks You Down With Her James Mactaggart Lecture.” Mentorless. Mentorless, 7 Sep. 2020, mentorless.com/2020/09/07/michaela-coel-knocksyou-down-with-her-james-mactaggartlecture/. Accessed 3 Nov. 2021.
- Wokoma, Susan. Instagram, instagram.com/susiewoosie12/.
- Wright, Catherine. “The Speech Michaela Coel Made That Was a ‘Hand Grenade’ to British Television.” Showbiz Cheatsheet. Show Biz Cheat Sheet, 28 Sept. 2020. Web. 3 Nov. 2021.