I first came to Michaela Coel with the Channel 4/E4 sitcom Chewing Gum based on her one-woman stand up/play/performance Chewing Gum Dreams. Consider it a working-class broader comedy Fleabag, she even wrote the theme tune and sung the theme tune (though I was convinced it was Lily Allen). With an incredibly expressive face that reminds me of Billy Piper, every tic was exaggerated, every mannerism a construct, she was a cartoon in a world that made the other bizarre characters look semi-sane.
It lasted a couple of series as all good things do, and then she had turned up in… other people’s things. She played Lilyhot in the Channel 4 immigration analogy Aliens, she took a couple of roles in Black Mirror, an air stewardness in Nosedive and Shania in the more recent USS Callister. She even got a brief appearance in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
I think enough time has passed for me to say publicly that my spouse and I were f-cking high on the Michaela Coel cameo in Star Wars. He gasped, “Chewing Gum!” and was totally distracted the whole movie, wondering how she was coming back to the narrative.
— April Wolfe (@AWolfeful) January 1, 2018
But it is the new BBC 2 and Netflix show from Hugo Blick, Black Earth Rising where she may be able to reach a much larger audience. Because she gives this international drama about modern-day war crimes in Africa, and the reaction of the world decades on as the slow cogs of international justice turn, something no one else does and something least expected. A sense of fun. She is far from her exaggerated Chewing Gum character here but watching her character Kate Asby run down the street after her foster mother, it seems like something of the streets of the Andover Estate hasn’t left her.
And this is a show that also stars John Goodman. But his laconic, lugubrious dry wit isn’t what’s needed for you to stop yourself from slitting your wrists watching this show, but Michaela as someone who as a young child was rescued from a massive tragedy she has no memory of but knows all about and wears the scars, and now has a new, far smaller, but far more impactful tragedy to deal with. And yet the light in her eyes refuses to go out. She’s the one that gives you hope.
She’s utterly brilliant in this and hopefully it will be the making of her as a star on the international stage in the way that The Night Of did for Riz Ahmed, Get Out did for Daniel Kaluuya, The Wire did for Idris Elba, Two Men One Guvnor did for James Corden, Star Trek: The Next Generation did for Patrick Stewart, House did for Hugh Laurie – and maybe, just maybe, Stan And Ollie will finally do for Steve Coogan.
Decades of work going into crafting and honing their skills, to suddenly burst fully formed into a project, where much of its audience will not be aware of their previous work. If it’s Michaela’s turn now, it’s utterly deserved.
Black Earth Rising currently airs on BBC 2 on Monday nights and is available on in iPlayer. It will be available internationally on Netflix in the coming months. Chewing Gum is available on All4 in the UK and on Netflix in the US.