Pitching a television show to Oprah Winfrey sounds exciting yet intimidating.
But nervous butterflies didn’t stop Oscar winner Tarell Alvin McCraney. He pitched “David Makes Man” to her OWN Network in hopes for finding a platform that understood his vision.
He now brings that vision to a massive audience.
“David Makes Man” explores the complex growth process of Black boyhood. The drama series centers on a 14-year-old prodigy named David, played by actor Akili McDowell. He’s from the projects but must choose between the streets or striving for higher education.
McCraney serves as one of the executive producers for the show. The Los Angeles Sentinel Newspaper spoke to McCraney about creating the series and Black representation in Hollywood.
LOS ANGELES SENTINEL NEWSPAPER (LS): You’ve said ‘David Makes Man’ parallels some aspects of your own upbringing in Miami. How did the idea come to light?
TARELL ALVIN MCCRANEY: Well, I grew up fortunate enough to get into acting and writing early in life. I started in the magnet programs throughout the Miami area. However, the original idea for ‘David Makes Man’ started about four years ago.
A friend of mine told me I should write something I’m interested in for television.
LS: How did the process start? How did you eventually end up at the OWN Network?
MCCRANEY: One of the first things I wrote down was about this young man who was in a gifted magnet program. I wanted to explore what the process is like when you come from a community that has less access and then go to a program with students with more access. That’s because you’re expected to stay competitive while being on the same level as them. I then brought it to producers Mike Kelley and Melissa Loy. We together shopped it to Michael B. Jordan who then asked us to shop it around town.
LS: What was going through your mind when you pitched the show?
MCCRANEY: The pitch for OWN was incredible. We shopped it around several places before OWN. Most places didn’t have the executives in the room but Oprah attended our meeting. It was pretty amazing and nerve racking.
LS: I can only imagine! How did you incorporate your own life into the show?
MCCRANEY: The show has some experiences from my life but at the end of the day it’s a collection. Episode two and three, I wrote with some writers from Miami with our showrunner. A lot of the show is really about finding how we all have similar experiences and how those experiences look like David’s life. In the writing, it was fascinating to find out how other people endured the same moments.
Sometimes watching scenes can be heavy but you are still thrilled to see these young actors do amazing work.
LS: Speaking of those actors, what was working on the set like especially with legends like Phylicia Rashad?
MCCRANEY: She is a phenomenal actress and an amazing mentor. She keeps the environment open on set so that the young actors can gravitate towards her. Ruben Santiago-Hudson is also a great leader on set. These young actors are learning in an environment where they feel free to ask questions. It was family-like which was amazing for me.
LS: ‘David Makes Man’ has beautiful cinematography. Can you talk about how important cinematography drives the story?
MCCRANEY: One of the things we did early on was hiring a Black cinematographer. We were very specific. We didn’t want to over light folks.
LS: Over light?
MCCRANEY: Yes, we didn’t want to saturate everything with light. We didn’t’ want it to look like we are putting the actors under inspection. That is something that people do especially when photographing dark skin. Our skin reflects light very well. You just have to make sure there is enough light that bounces off that makes us glow.
LS: That’s great your team is diverse. That seems to be lacking on movie and television sets. How did that impact production?
MCCRANEY: It was an incredible experience for some actors because they walk on set where the directors, writers, and makeup artists were all Black. They got a sense of what’s it like working behind and in front with people who look like them. That allowed a sense of ease and your able to explore deeper rather than explain who you are. You are now working with someone who understands you, which allows us more creative time to focus on other things.