OWN’s ‘David Makes Man’ melds surrealism with the everyday oddities of Florida A new drama from ‘Moonlight’ scribe Tarell Alvin McCraney remixes poverty, danger and adolescence with a setting that seasons it all with a little strange

A new OWN drama from the playwright behind Moonlight and Choir Boy has the potential to grow into a compelling work of television — once it develops some consistency.

David Makes Man, which premieres Aug. 14 at 10 p.m. EDT on OWN, stars Akili McDowell as David, a 14-year-old middle schooler from the projects who plays guardian to his precocious 9-year-old brother when their mother, Gloria (Alana Arenas), is too weary to be roused. Every morning, David gets Jonathan Greg, or JG (Cayden Williams), out the door to school, then sprints to catch a bus to a predominantly white magnet school across town. He and his mother have high hopes that David can earn entrance into an exclusive prep school called Hurston.

Akili McDowell as David (left) meets with his teacher, Dr. Woods-Trap, played by Phylicia Rashad (right), in David Makes Man.

Rod Millington/Warner Bros Entertainment

There are plenty of unconventional supporting characters, from a drug dealer named Sky (Isaiah Johnson), who urges David to do right with a never-ending supply of riddles and poetry, to Mx. Elijah (Travis Coles), a kindly, shade-throwing drag queen who lives next door, to David’s best friend Seren (Nathaniel McIntyre), a mixed-race, middle-class kid who to David appears to have it made. David’s teacher (Phylicia Rashad) and counselor (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) provide a combination of tough love and constancy in his life.

The OWN drama faces a challenge in marrying the demands of serialized television with an impressionistic style more common in film.

This is the first time McCraney has brought his meditative style to television. He’s working with Dee Harris-Lawrence (Shots Fired, Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G.), who serves as showrunner. OWN labels David Makes Man, co-produced by Oprah Winfrey and Michael B. Jordan, a “lyrical drama,” but the results are mixed. Themes from McCraney’s previous work, such as poverty, adolescence and dubious mentors, show up in David Makes Man. A chorus of purples and blues punctuates the visual style of director Michael Francis Williams. But the South Florida setting is what keeps David Makes Man from turning into a collection of clichés about a poor black kid growing up in the projects with a single mom who’s a recovering addict.

Watching the characters of David Makes Man can sometimes feel like a visit to Bon Temps, the fictional setting for True Blood, minus the vampires and werewolves and with significantly more black people. The OWN drama faces a challenge in marrying the demands of serialized television with an impressionistic style more common in film. Its pilot is immersive, focused more on viewer experience than plot. For instance, a needed clarification about where the show and David’s life will go comes in the final minutes of the first episode.

Akili McDowell’s character, David, is a 14-year-old middle schooler from the projects who plays guardian to his precocious 9-year-old brother.

Rod Millington/Warner Bros Entertainment

The search for balance between styles is evident in subsequent episodes, as the surrealism of ghosts, internal voices and flashbacks creeps into the daily drama of David’s life in The Ville, a housing project officially known as Homestead Gardens. Not unlike the cheery purple of the motel in The Florida Project, the apartments of The Ville are coated in a candy cane pink stucco that’s frequently at odds with the realities of life for most of its residents. As if he doesn’t have enough to contend with, David is also trying to stay out of the clutches of Raynan (Ade Chike Torbert), a menacing teenage dealer who is bent on conscripting David into serving him and his boss, Raynan’s fearsome uncle.

A scene at the house of Seren’s white mother and black stepfather veers into soap opera territory, and so does a confrontation between David’s mother and father. That’s not unusual for OWN’s other prestige dramas, Greenleaf and Queen Sugar, but it feels out of place in a show that’s set its ambitions rather high. That’s especially true given the abuse that Seren appears to be enduring from both parents.

Still, David Makes Man grows more comfortable and confident in itself by episode five. With engaging performances from Arenas, Coles, Johnson and especially McDowell, who colors David with a potent mix of sweetness and anxiety, it’s ripe to blossom into something special. When Gloria joins Mx. Elijah to dress up as Janelle Monáe, she comes alive for a momentary spark of joy in a show that’s often characterized by the heaviness of lack — lack of food, lack of money, lack of safety — and the tension that comes with the possibility of violence.

It’s intriguing to see a variety of shows find different ways to wrestle with the strangeness that emanates from Florida. There’s Claws, starring Niecy Nash, which recently concluded its second season, and the upcoming On Becoming a God in Central Florida, a dark comedy premiering on Showtime later this month that follows a woman trying to exact revenge on the pyramid scheme that bankrupted her family. Claws and On Becoming a God offer more levity than David Makes Man, but they’re all panels of a patchwork quilt making sense of Florida. It’s the only thing, really, that can explain the presence of a group of tough but amiable trans sex workers who help David get home one night, like he’s Dorothy in a modern-day Oz.

That balance of earnestness and oddities could make for compelling television, so long as its makers keep tweaking.

Oprah and ‘Moonlight’s’ McCraney on the inspiration of Toni Morrison New OWN series ‘David Makes Man’ strives to carry on her legacy 

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — After the news spread Tuesday that famed author Toni Morrison had died, Oprah Winfrey and Oscar-winning writer Tarell Alvin McCraney were scheduled to meet with a small group of journalists to discuss their new series David Makes Man, which debuts on OWN next week.

Before they dived into the drama, which focuses on an academically gifted black boy who must balance a challenging home life with the world’s expectations, they reflected on the brilliance of Morrison.

“What she represented for me is this idea that where we’ve come from and everything that came before us lives in each of us in such a way that we have a responsibility to carry it forward,” said Winfrey, who starred in the 1998 film adaptation of Morrison’s Beloved.

“I remember one of my first conversations with her — and I don’t remember what the question was — but she said, ‘I’ve always known I was gallant.’ The word gallant. Her assuredness about the way she could tell stories, and her ability to use the language to affect us all, is what I loved about her.”

Oprah Winfrey (left) and Tarell Alvin McCraney (right) attend the after-party for OWN’s David Makes Man premiere at NeueHouse Hollywood in Los Angeles on Aug. 6.

Photo by Rachel Luna/Getty Images

McCraney, too, was powerfully influenced by Morrison’s language and stories.

“I was in grad school … and was the assistant of Mr. August Wilson. … The Bluest Eye production that we did in Chicago … toured around the country,” McCraney said, fighting back tears. “It was very difficult for me to think that my job was to follow in those folks’ footsteps. So rather, I sort of thought, I’m reaping the benefits. Does that make sense? Rather than trying to repeat or to try to forge anything like them, I would take what they gave and sort of try to expand it, or not even expand but just filter it through me.

“When I read Tar Baby, it was one of those moments where I was like, ‘I know this Southern boy. Ooh, I know him so bad.’ I know wanting after a person so wonderfully, and then to sort of turn around and see Florida life in that way that I hadn’t seen since Zora Neale Hurston … I thought to myself: Well, that’s what I’ll do. I will engage, I will reach into my pocket of my corner of the world and show it as best I can.

“And so I’m grateful for that legacy. I’m terrified of it in ways that you would of your grandparents, of your aunts, your uncles, your mother and your father. You want to be noble, you want to stand up in front of it. But you also know that in order to truly do it, you have to bare yourself, flaws and all. There is no way to really be a part of that legacy, to really add to it, unless you show your full self, and that means the warts and all. And that’s the terrifying part of it.”

David Makes Man is the first TV project from McCraney, who won the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay for 2016’s Moonlight. Winfrey said the pitch for the show was the strongest she’d ever heard. She said she was emotional hearing it and fought back tears because she feared it’d be unprofessional.

McCraney’s storytelling is reminiscent of Morrison’s work, she said. The series, which also is produced by Michael B. Jordan, tells a story of black boys that we rarely see.

“I knew that if he was able to do just a portion of what the pitch represented that we would have something that would be in its own way a phenomenon,” Winfrey said. “Most of the stories I’ve read growing up were always about black girls, beginning with [Maya Angelou’s] Caged Bird. I’m always looking at coming-of-age black girl stories.

“So sitting in the room with Tarell was the first time I thought, Wow, I really don’t know very much about black boys, nor have I ever actually thought very much about black boys. … So I thought that the series in the way that he pitched and presented it would offer the rest of the world an opportunity to see inside a world that we rarely get to see.”

“I remember one of my first conversations with her — and I don’t remember what the question was — but she said, ‘I’ve always known I was gallant.’ ” – Oprah Winfrey

This new series is in the line of projects that Winfrey is most interested in bringing to her network, she said. Like Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar, this is yet another layered, rich story about black life.

“I’m looking for people to see themselves, because I think that’s where the ultimate validation comes from. One of the lessons that The Oprah Show taught me, one of actually the greatest lessons that The Oprah Show taught me, is that everybody has a story, and that everyone in every experience of their life is just looking to be heard, and that what they really want to know is, do you see me? Do you hear me? And does what I say mean anything to you?

“And so, having this audience of predominantly African American women who supported me and came to the network in droves, I just want to offer stories that allow them to see themselves and every facet of their lives. I want to continue to do more of that with artists and creators who inspire me, and thereby inspiring the rest of our community to see themselves in a way that lifts them up and that is meaningful.

“I don’t want to create anything that wastes people’s time. I’m not looking for Pollyanna stories. I’m looking for stories that say, ‘This is what life is, and this is how it is, and this is how you get through it.’ “

‘High Flying Bird’ dares to imagine an NBA divorced from the plantation Tarell Alvin McCraney and Steven Soderbergh deliver a clever film about who does, and doesn’t, have power in pro basketball

In the imagined world of High Flying Bird, the most dangerous man in basketball isn’t LeBron James or Steph Curry.

It’s an agent named Ray Burke.

Burke represents the No. 1 NBA draft pick in this new tale from Moonlight scribe Tarell Alvin McCraney and director Steven Soderbergh, which is available on Netflix on Friday.

Portrayed with wit and warmth by André Holland, Burke is a man who plays chess while everyone else is waiting their turn at Monopoly. Burke’s client, Erick Scott, is played by Melvin Gregg, who bears a small resemblance to Lonzo Ball. Scott and the rest of the freshman NBA class have been twiddling their thumbs through a 25-week stalemate between team owners and players seeking a bigger cut of league revenue.

The inaction doesn’t bode well for anyone, but especially not Scott, a newly crowned prince of New York who took out a short-term loan with bad terms to float him through the lockout. Annoyed and inspired, Burke puts a plot in motion akin to Billy Crystal’s machinations in America’s Sweethearts. The difference is that Burke is far, far more cunning. He knows a lockout can’t last forever. “In order to move merch and inspire rap lyrics, they need your services,” Burke tells Scott.

Kyle MacLachlan as team owner David Seton and Sonja Sohn as Myra in High Flying Bird.

Peter Andrews

Spurred by an unshakable love of both basketball and black people, and a moral center instilled by his childhood basketball coach Spence (Bill Duke), Burke gets his clients what they need. In doing so, he also takes power from the gentry class of owners and gives it to the proletariat players.

“They invented a game on top of a game,” Spence says, explaining how the NBA finally integrated and black players traded control for money. “The question is, what you gon’ do?”

Burke decides to tap into his inner Shirley Chisholm: “I’m ’bout to pull up a chair,” he says. He does so by leveraging a Twitter beef between two rookies into a situation that leaves even the Voldemort of team owners, David Seton (played by Kyle MacLachlan), in a panic.

After Burke’s plan begins to take shape, a fellow owner confronts Seton. “You know what I hate about this?” the owner hisses. “It’s exactly what I would do!”

To avoid spoilers, I’ll hold my tongue on the rest of High Flying Bird’s deliciously crafty plot.

High Flying Bird director Steven Soderbergh shoots footage on an iPhone with actors Bill Duke and André Holland (right).

Joseph Malloch

Soderbergh drops his audience into the business of pro basketball, one that is characterized almost entirely by meetings on the tippy-top floors of New York skyscrapers, where the lords of marketing, capitalism and law dwell among the clouds. Adopting the same wide-angle glances and fish-eye perspectives that he used in his last film, Unsane, Soderbergh melds narrative feature with cinéma vérité. Like Unsane, High Flying Bird was shot on iPhones. Documentary-style interviews with real-life NBA players Reggie Jackson, Karl-Anthony Towns and Donovan Mitchell, shot in black-and-white, punctuate the fictional story of Burke and Scott while adding a subtle callback to Spike Lee’s He Got Game.

The film takes its name from the 1963 folk song “High Flying Bird,” sung by Richie Havens, with plot twists that recall the clever satisfactions of Ocean’s 11. Soderbergh and McCraney give their audience just enough to piece together what’s happening and no more, trusting that they’ll have fun puzzling together Burke’s moves on their own.

Still, by its end, watchers of High Flying Bird will be left wondering: Does Burke know, as poet Audre Lorde once said, that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”? Or is he really a true believer?

As Spence intones, “You either care all the way or you don’t care at all.” A third-act cameo by the author of a book Burke refers to simply as “a bible” offers an answer to just how dangerous Ray Burke really is.

What if the NBA were player-owned? ‘High Flying Bird’ imagines the ultimate disruption In director Steven Soderbergh’s new film, the power struggle and activism across sports comes into focus

André Holland’s eyes were wide open.

A lifelong sports fan — college hoops and professional basketball strike his fancy — Holland enjoyed the game. Loved basketball. The mechanics of seeing larger-than-life players running the ball up and down the court, leaping in the sky and landing an on-the-mark hook shot, alley-oop, slam dunk, you name it, was the ultimate payoff.

Then came the recent college basketball protests. Then he picked up Harry Edwards’ 1968 The Revolt of the Black Athlete. And then, as they might say, Holland woke up. “The inequities in sports made me re-evaluate,” said the Alabama native, a transformative actor who has been in some of the best films of the past few years: 2013’s 42 (the Jackie Robinson biopic that introduced the world to Chadwick Boseman), Selma (Ava DuVernay’s 2014 Martin Luther King Jr. biopic) and Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning Moonlight.

“[I] realized that there’s been a long history of athletic athlete activism,” said Holland, who had a nugget of a film idea. “I wanted to explore that and … do my part in pushing conversations forward.”

How he’s hoping to do that is with his new High Flying Bird, directed by Academy Award winner Steven Soderbergh and written by Oscar winner Tarell Alvin McCraney. The two men brought his nugget to life. The film is about a sports agent who, during a lockout, pitches his rookie basketball client an intriguing and controversial business opportunity: taking the power out of NBA owners’ hands by selling a one-on-one game to a streaming outlet — rather like what we see in the boxing world.

“Why don’t these guys own a bigger piece of this, if not own the game outright?” — Steven Soderbergh

“I’ve always been interested in the business of sports,” said Soderbergh. “And when it came to the NBA in particular, I always wondered … [when] they go through contract negotiations … why don’t these guys own a bigger piece of this, if not own the game outright? As technology developed, especially in the last five to 10 years, and streaming for a wide audience became viable, I returned to the idea of, wow, you really could start a league and finance it by selling all of the streaming by subscription or by advertising revenue. … That was the popping-off point. Can we come up with … a what-if story in which somebody decides, let’s stick our toe in the water of what it would be like to set up a player-based entity … apart from the NBA? What kind of forces would mobilize to keep that from happening?”

High Flying Bird, which is set to stream on Netflix on Friday, is a disrupter. It’s the kind of film that sparks conversation, and maybe some change. Holland also is the film’s executive producer, and in a way the film’s throughline of taking control mirrors his own career in Hollywood. Holland is a leading man. And this is his shot. And like the crafty sports agent he plays in High Flying Bird, he created his own opportunity.

“Just wanting more out of my career,” said Holland, “wanting more than acting, I’m having to take a cold, hard look at the landscape, and … it didn’t look so hopeful. I felt this need to create my own opportunities, and that’s probably what we all have been doing … and need to do more of. Not wait on people to open doors for us, but find those doors, create those doors ourselves.”

In this what-if narrative that Soderbergh pauses at key moments to intersplice real-life NBA players — Donovan Mitchell, Karl-Anthony Towns, Reggie Jackson — talking through their own truths, Holland’s character has recently discovered that his client, who happens to be No. 1 draft pick Erick Scott (played by Melvin Gregg), has taken out a high-interest loan and, because of the lockout, he can’t pay it back now that there aren’t any checks coming in. Much of the film feels very thriller-heist — an Ocean’s Eleven-, Crash-, Magic Mike-style Soderbergh staple — but set in the fast-paced world of organized professional sports.

McCraney began working on the script amid the NFL/Colin Kaepernick controversy, protests and the sex abuse scandal in USA Gymnastics. “It was … a strange time,” said McCraney. “There [were] moments where black athletes were looking at the way they were being treated. And then this book, Harry Edwards’ … the 50th anniversary edition of the book was coming out. … It was definitely in the air, and we wanted to make sure that we were talking about it.”

“The NBA is the system we looked at for this film, but … it’s just an examination of systems that we take for granted.”
— André Holland

So much of what we’re seeing unfold in real sports storylines centers on power struggle — whether that be social injustices and/or players vs. owner infrastructure. Both are in play in Soderbergh’s fictional world of basketball and make for a compelling story that, even with mixed early reviews, holds beautifully.

“Look, you love the game,” McCraney said. “You love going down the court, you love screaming at people to catch the ball, run the block out. But those people have to get up the court with all the victories that they made [or didn’t make]. That may affect them financially, may affect them in their interpersonal relationships … the fact that there’s a team owner and that they’re called ‘owners’ — that has implications. That has interpersonal implications. We need to continue to look at that.”

The film feels like activism in a lot of ways. The slavery comparisons between professional basketball are overarching. No way did they want that message to be subtle.

“The majority of the folks who [are] on the court are black in the NBA. The majority of the owners who are making surmountable living are white, older men. I think between myself and André and Soderbergh … we want to bring [about that] conversation,” McCraney said. “Also, just to have questions. André, I believe, asked a question like ‘What if all the black players decided they weren’t gonna play? What does that do?’ ”

“What it would be like to set up a player-based entity … apart from the NBA? What kind of forces would mobilize to keep that from happening?” — Steven Soderbergh

What it’s doing for now is being a compelling film that also co-stars Sonja Sohn as the attorney representing the head of the players’ association. “Athletes bring a story of competition and someone’s rise into fame in the world of sports. It’s the ultimate hero’s journey,” Sohn said. “Everybody can relate to that dream, and I think in particular a lot of young men without opportunities … latch on to that dream.”

That’s what Holland is hoping for: that people latch on and listen. And if change is evoked? “I hope it inspires people to exercise their own interest in whatever field or situation is in front of them. The NBA is the system we looked at for this particular film, but … it’s just an examination of systems that we sometimes take for granted,” Holland said. “At the center of it is, what if we did control [our] own s—? What if we just controlled all our own stuff? What might that look like? Regardless of the industry.”