Michaela Coel: ‘All of my work comes from a desperation to speak out about something’

Michaela Coel: ‘All Of My Work Comes From A Desperation To Speak Out About Something’
Michaela Coel at BFI London Film Festival 2023
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By Abi Jackson, PA

Actor and screenwriter Michaela Coel said the inspiration for her work “comes from a desperation to speak out”.

The Bafta and Emmy award-winning talent – best known for creating and starring in TV shows Chewing Gum and I May Destroy You – acknowledged being “vulnerable” was also a necessary part of the process as a writer.


“Speaking for myself, there wasn’t a way of making work that wasn’t vulnerable. But all of my work comes from a desperation to speak out about something – that’s always been it, and for me, any way I could tell the story, I would,” Coel, 36, told the PA news agency.

“I would go into a bar and say, ‘I’ve got a poem, can I say it on the microphone please?’ I’d roll around London by myself doing that, because I was really desperate to say something.”

Michaela Coel at the Soho House Awards last year
Michaela Coel at the Soho House Awards last year (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)


Performing at open mic poetry nights was where it all started for Coel, who also began writing plays and eventually enrolled at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, before forging her path to TV success in her late 20s.

Her work has been deeply personal. Coel’s breakthrough E4 sitcom Chewing Gum took inspiration from her own life, growing up in a devout Christian household on an east London estate with her sister and Ghanaian mother (earning her two Baftas in 2016 for breakthrough talent and best female performance in a comedy), while 2020’s I May Destroy You explored the aftermath of sexual assault, again inspired by her own experiences (it saw Coel become the first black woman to win an Emmy for writing a limited series).

She said some of the best advice she’s ever received as a storyteller is to “always listen to your gut”.

“I’ve had the benefit of some fantastic mentors and producers, and received notes and developed ideas in ways that have made me a healthier-minded, confident artist,” Coel said.


“Phil Clarke, who was head of comedy at Channel 4 when I did Chewing Gum, was so instrumental to my development, believing in me and backing me at a time when nobody else did – as a result, I’ve followed him throughout my career.

“Writer and director Ché Walker [who wrote the screenplay for 2018 film Been So Long, starring Coel] gave me structure when I didn’t know what to do with creative expression, and Arinze Kene, one of my first acting friends, advised me: ‘No matter how many people are telling you it’s the wrong decision, always listen to your gut’.”

Recently, Coel had the opportunity to “pass on” these lessons when she stepped into her first official mentor role, as part of the BMW Filmmaking Challenge in partnership with the BFI.


Tasked with creating a 90-second short on the theme of ‘Evolving Perspectives’ and inspired by the all-electric BMW i7’s ultra-wide rear-passenger ‘theatre screen’, five shortlisted teams were awarded a £10,000 production budget, plus access to equipment and time with Coel (Sex Education and Dr Who star Ncuti Gatwa, journalist and editor Terri White, and filmmaker Asif Kapadia were the judges).

“A big part of taking on this role was to try and foster the same bravery and freedom in applicants that I’ve benefited from, and pass on what I’ve learnt,” said Coel.

“In the beginning, I was quite nervous about it, because I wanted to make sure I could offer something to [them]… It was a beautiful process, to be honest, and quite humbling to be able to offer what I had been offered so generously in my career – which is motivation, encouragement, a sounding board, support, someone that’s just your fan.”


The winning film, We Collide – an immersive and joyful queercore romance set in the alternative mosh pit scene (by writer/director Jason Bradbury and producer Cheri Darbon), which Coel described as an “intriguing” and “really gentle” introduction to a community many people know nothing about – was premiered on the closing night of the 67th BFI London Film Festival last week, alongside Kibwe Tavares and Daniel Kaluuya’s new film The Kitchen.

Michaela Coel with Cheri Darbon (L) and Jason Bradbury, winners of the BMW Filmmaking Challenge
Michaela Coel with Cheri Darbon (L) and Jason Bradbury, winners of the BMW Filmmaking Challenge (BMW/Dave Benett/PA)

All of the shortlisted titles showcased the power of authentic storytelling, she explained, exploring race, culture, gender and sexuality – and ultimately a quest to “find their place” in the world.

“These filmmakers all told stories that aren’t in the normal tapestry of filmmaking,” Coel said. “Although the storytelling was diverse, all five films featured a central character who has something unique and feels slightly misplaced, looking to find their place in the mainstream world. It’s the same for these filmmakers, who are trying to establish their own identity and have their authentic voice heard.”

Persevering as an aspiring creative is challenging. But Coel stands by her belief: “If you have a story to tell, and you don’t tell that story, then that story won’t be told.”

All five shortlisted films from the BMW Filmmaking Challenge in partnership with the BFI are available now for viewing on BFI Player player.bfi.org.uk.

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