The rhapsodic and dreamy timbre of Moonlight, the film that won the Best Picture Oscar in 2017, comes to life again in David Makes Man, a gorgeous, attention-grabbing new series on the OWN Network. Created by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the MacArthur "Genius" grant winner who co-wrote Moonlight based on one of his plays and serves as the chair of the Yale School of Drama, David Makes Man explores some of the same themes as the film for which he's best known — most notably the coming-of-age of a black boy in a rough town. Produced by Michael B. Jordan and Oprah Winfrey, David Makes Man is a lush, poetic lullaby about a community of working-class African-Americans in Miami, leaning on each other as they paw their way out of hardships external and emotional.
A type of singular, almost mystical artistic vision informs the story — and the stunning first episode bears traces of the same kind of mythical, surrealist overtures seen in Atlanta. David Makes Man is told mostly from the point-of-view of 14-year-old David (Akili McDowell) a smart, dark-skinned black boy in a gifted school who's from a "troubled" home. His skin color matters, because, as his no-nonsense teacher Dr. Woods-Trap (played wonderfully by Phylicia Rashad) notes when David acts out, he doesn't see other students who look like him in his prestigious school, even if a few of his classmates are also black. David's lighter, bi-racial schoolmate and best friend Seren (Nathaniel Logan McIntyre) lives in a nicer home than David — David lives with his recovering addict mother Gloria (Alana Arenas) and a little brother being lured by the streets — but Seren harbors a dark secret that binds him and David through their mutual understanding of each others' suffering.
More characters, like the trans, moppa-like figure Ms. Elijah who keeps watch over everyone in the neighborhood, come and go like phantoms in the episodes screened to critics, taking the viewer on a meandering journey that literally goes through the woods and parts of Miami other shows never tread. Although David Makes Man sets an impressive standard in its its otherworldly first episode, it's clear that it's a sort of narrative stew driven by character development and emotional arcs rather than plot. Similarly, its early reliance on marvelous technical tricks and surprise revelations fades over time, a possible red flag that David Makes Man could lose oomph during its run. For now though, it's well-crafted and engaging.
David Makes Man, like Moonlight, delights in showing African Americans in stunning, vivid color: blues, violets and the pale pastels of Miami juxtaposed against light and shadow techniques that add a texture and depth so pretty it almost hurts. But the surface beauty is just one way David Makes Man paints its subjects romantically. David's struggle to find himself and flourish in an environment where his family is fractured, his friendships are complicated, and his future looks murky makes it a deeply resonant and emotive program. Through them, David Makes Man earns empathy for all its well-defined characters, and offers illuminating insights on the working-class blues, sexism, transphobia, and what it's like to become a man when there aren't many men around. David Makes Man starts strong and remains consistently unpredictable; should it stay on the edge it's created for itself, it'll remain a standout on a network with no shortage of prestige dramas.
TV Guide Rating: 4/5
David Makes Man premieres Wednesday Aug. 14 on OWN at 10/9c.