Michaela Coel: Actress, Director and Game Changer

Since British-Ghanaian actress, screenwriter, director, producer and singer Michaela Coel first came to the public eye in 2012, she has become the foremost example of Black female success. Perhaps more so than any other actor or singer working right now, the 33-year-old truly is a jack of all trades, and her recent haul of acting, writing and directing awards at this year’s BAFTAs will only serve to strengthen her hold on the creative industries.

Growing up in East London, Coel always had a deep-rooted passion for performing, reading and writing. In 2007, she decided to take her passion further by studying English Literature and Theology at the University of Birmingham, where she began writing her own poetry. Studying these creative subjects at university was enjoyable for the young writer, but still, she had an urge to push her poetry even further.

In the same year, Coel took a leap of the faith and began performing at poetry open-mic nights in Ealing, where her immense talent didn’t go unnoticed. Actor, playwright and director Ché Walker – who saw her performing at Hackney Empire and was blown away by her work – encouraged her to apply for a position at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where she was later accepted and in so doing became the first Black female to be admitted to the school in five years. Alongside her education, Coel’s performing career stemmed from the attention around her expressive poetry, which continued to hit exceptional heights. She performed her work at the London Bush Theatre, and even on the Wembley Arena stage.

In 2012, Coel delved into a completely new realm and began working on screenwriting. As a part of her graduation project at Guildhall, she wrote, starred and directed her now-iconic play Chewing Gum Dreams, which was first produced at the Yard Theatre in Hackney Wick. The premise of Chewing Gum Dreams is based on it being a one-woman show, that woman being Michaela herself, acting as a hilarious and dramatic character called Tracey. Unknown to Coel at the time, Chewing Gum Dreams would become one of the biggest wins in her career. In 2014, Channel 4 announced that it would commission TV episodes of Chewing Gum with Coel as the lead role, and the sitcom would go on to be released on Netflix in the UK. From a simple graduation project to Channel 4 and Netflix deals, the emerging creative had truly made a name for herself.

In June 2020, Coel took her screenwriting, directing and acting talents even further when she created her BBC Three series I May Destroy You, based on the story of her own experience of sexual assault in a nightclub. The short series gained a lot of attention from critics and was praised for the widespread awareness it brought to sex crimes in the UK, as well as its high levels of personal vulnerability. Netflix made an offer to secure the show for $1 Million, which Coel ended up declining because the platform would strip the star of her intellectual property ownership. It’s clear, then, that full credibility and ownership over her work is extremely important to Coel, despite how much money is being offered for her talents.

Aside from her own screenwriting productions, she has also been a familiar face on some of the world’s most loved TV series. Appearing in Top Boy, Law & Order, Black Mirror, Black Earth Rising and much more popular series and movies, Coel’s made a name for herself as a capable actor in her own right – is there anything she can’t do?

In 2020, she was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. From university student and regular open-mic night performer to globally-recognised actress, screenwriter, director and producer, Michaela Cole is a great inspiration to fellow Black females. She is proof that talent has no boundaries, and that others, too, can excel in multiple domains. We can only expect more greatness from the star for years to come.

Written by Chanelle Goddard for The Urban Journal

This article was a guest feature from our partner platform: The Urban Journal.
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