Award–winning writer, actress, director, producer, and singer Michaela Coel is nothing short of talented. The Ghanian–British star made history as the first Black woman to win the Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie, or Dramatic Special at the 73rd Primetime Emmy Awards. Coel’s win served as a huge exception for the Emmys—despite having a record number of 49 underrepresented artists, all major acting awards were given to white actors. This caused #Emmyssowhite to trend on social media.
Despite being celebrated throughout the night with a moving speech that went viral, Michaela’s journey to the Emmys wasn’t always smooth sailing. Like many Black artists before her, Coel’s work was constantly undervalued and ignored. In the past, Coel has faced trouble owning the rights to her own work, some of which incorporate her personal experiences and trauma. A clear example is the series she won her Emmy for, I May Destroy You. The show tells the story of Arabella (played by Coel), a writer dealing with the aftermath of being drugged and sexually assaulted by strangers.
The story was loosely based off of her own experience with sexual assault, and Coel was set on owning the rights to this deeply personal story. She recounts the difficulty of shopping the series around to networks in an interview with Vulture, saying, “I remember thinking, ‘I’ve been going down rabbit holes in my head, like people thinking I’m paranoid, I’m acting sketchy, I’m killing off all my agents.’ and I finally realized—I’m not crazy. This is crazy.” Coel ended up turning down a $1 million Netflix deal when they refused to allow her to own any of the show's copyright—a tale seen far too often with Black creatives in the entertainment industry. Furthermore, Coel fired her agency for pushing her towards the lucrative Netflix deal even when she was told she wouldn’t be able to own the rights to her story.
Coel made the scary decision, and some may even say a crazy decision: she said no. The move was risky. Coel, who was still relatively unknown at the time, had a strong relationship with Netflix because the streaming giant introduced her breakthrough project, Chewing Gum, to the U.S., and she appeared in an Emmy–winning episode of Netflix’s Black Mirror.
Despite being incredibly popular with fans and viewers all over the world, I May Destroy You was snubbed for a nomination by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association during the 2020 Golden Globes awards. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association received plenty of criticism during the 2020 Golden Globes Ceremony for their lack of Black members and for not acknowledging many artists of color.
During her Emmy speech, Michaela included her formula to success by daring writers to “write the tale that scares you, that makes you feel uncertain, that isn’t comfortable.” By including experiences from her own encounter with sexual assault and rape, I May Destroy You proved to be an eye–opening and deeply rewarding show that not only touched survivors of sexual assault but also everyone who watched it.
Michaela Coel’s Emmy win was a long overdue recognition of her hard work and talent. Her story reminds us to know our worth even when others may doubt it. The main takeaway comes straight from Coel herself: “do not be afraid to disappear from it, from us for a while and see what comes to you in the silence.”