In the pilot of “David Makes Man,” Dr. Woods-Trap (Phylicia Rashad) is speaking to her gifted middle school class about history and family origins. She talks about the complexities and unanswered questions of the past, then turns the focus to her students: “What is your story? Will there be one?”
These are the eternal questions of coming-of-age stories, in which characters from Stephen Dedalus to Angela Chase figure out where they came from and where they’re going. But in pop culture, they are only rarely asked of 14-year-old Black boys like David (Akili McDowell).
“David Makes Man,” whose first season recently arrived on HBO Max, is remarkable for its lyricism, its visual richness and its magic-realist imagination. But above all, it’s remarkable for presenting its protagonist not simply as a tragic or troubled figure but also as someone with undetermined promise, an open book just starting to be filled in.
The drama, which premiered on OWN last summer, comes from Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote the story for Barry Jenkins’s “Moonlight.” Like that film, “David” focuses on a boy growing up in the projects of South Florida, navigating a twisty path to manhood.
In many teen dramas about white kids, school is simply a setting and social crucible. For David, it’s a key part of reaching his future. His magnet school, founded in the 1930s to serve the families of Black laborers, is a steppingstone toward a scholarship to an exclusive prep school — if he can impress gatekeepers like Dr. Woods-Trap.
The stakes for David are evident in her gifted class, the only one in the school in which David is surrounded by mostly white students. One of the other Black students, Seren (Nathaniel Logan McIntyre), is David’s best friend, confidant and ally — but also, by circumstance, his competitor. Each comes to school with baggage: David cares for a younger brother while his mother, Gloria (Alana Arenas), puts in extra hours at work; Seren, from a more prosperous family, is being abused by his stepfather.
McDowell is astounding, playing David as childlike but guarded, suspicious but capable of wonder. He poses different faces to teachers, friends and neighborhood rivals, partly as an adaptation mechanism, partly because he is learning who he is, what sort of man he wants to be, what worlds he wants to thrive in.
In his scenes with authorities at school, he works to stay calm and deferential on the surface while his legs jitter below desk level — he’s like a synchronized swimmer, keeping it steady above the surface, churning and straining below the waterline. (Besides the established character actors like Rashad and Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the young actors are uniformly excellent in difficult roles.)
As striking as the show’s portrait of David is the community it draws around him: working parents, church leaders, educators, sex workers, all fully imagined. This is not a story of life in the projects where children are left by feckless adults to fend for themselves. There are support systems, if imperfect ones, all around David — his mother, teachers, administrators, all doing their best with what they’ve got.
Even the drug dealers who work the projects where David lives are more than one-dimensional threats. Some of them harass David or try to recruit him, a powerful temptation as his mother struggles to make the rent. Others have a more complicated relationship with him, especially Sky (Isaiah Johnson), a mysterious, erudite father figure who materializes to push David in his school ambitions and occasionally quote Robert Hayden poetry.
Again, this theme of community and interdependence isn’t new on TV — think “Friday Night Lights” — but it’s much rarer to see it in a series about mostly Black characters.
“David” arrived in August 2019, building buzz and praise (I didn’t review its premiere but put it on my best episodes of the year list) and eventually winning a Peabody Award. But it didn’t develop a big cultural profile, and it didn’t help that it was unavailable to stream after the show’s original run.
So if you missed “David” as one of the best new series of 2019, consider its HBO Max return a chance to experience it as one of the best series of 2020.
It would be disingenuous to ignore that the show has special resonance now, in a season of protests over the devaluing of young Black lives like David’s. The cry “Black Lives Matter,” after all, is not just a plea for mere existence. It is a demand for Black people to be recognized, by the state and the culture, as full, complex, varied individuals. “David Makes Man” does this while also exploring issues, like colorism and respectability politics, that series with a few Black faces among mostly white casts can’t.
But it would also underestimate “David” to say that it’s worthwhile simply because it’s filling a void. This would be a remarkable series even if there were a hundred others like it. For one thing, it’s visually stunning, not just in the cinematic pilot but in images like the final shot of Episode 7, which closes on David sitting in a drug den, wearing a Halloween-costume crown on his head.
For all its stark material, this is also a hopeful series, artful without being pretentious, with a sense of poetry and play. Fantasy sequences can be a visual crutch, but the ones in “David” are ingenious and stealthy — in the fifth episode, he gets romantic advice from Sky in the form of a glittery lip-sync of New Edition’s “If It Isn’t Love” — and they serve as an extension of the protagonist’s consciousness.
The show’s imagery is fluid and magical because that’s how David, for everything weighing on him, sees the world. When David and Seren sit in the hallway after a fight in the first episode, their internal dialogue — “GOD!” “He can’t hear us” — is communicated through looks and words scrawled onscreen like doodles in a notebook.
There’s a lot going on in the first season; like many teen dramas, “David” sometimes spins into melodrama in order to fuel the plot. But ultimately the plot is less the draw here than the show’s incandescent rendering of its protagonist, and its ability to place you wholly in his perspective.
This is the story of his life. And his life matters.