Michaela Coel: The True Superhero of Misfits

Celebrating society’s misfits is central to Michaela Coel’s work as an actress, playwright, screenwriter, poet, and activist. She counts herself as a “misfit”, and much of her success has come from comical accounts of the many ways in which she has failed to fit in with her peers, but Michaela also strives to elevate other misfits around her, frequently highlighting the experiences of those undergoing racial and sexual abuse in both her community and her industry. Now she’s bringing her unique skills as a performer to the Marvel Universe, and hoping that her role as Aneka in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever can help to alleviate homophobic prejudice. 

Michaela Coel: The True Superhero of Misfits

Bullying the bullies

Michaela was born in 1987 in London to Ghanain parents who had settled in an unusual housing project, nestled on the outskirts of the Square Mile, London’s financial district. In amongst The City’s mixture of historic marble banks and towering glass skyscrapers, the Coels and their neighbors lived - as Michaela would later describe it - “right there, in plain sight, yet somehow unseen”, misfits right from the start of Michaela’s life. As one of just a handful of black families in the area, the Coels were misfits among their neighbors as well. They were subjected to constant racist abuse including having excrement put through their door, and as a child Michaela experienced similar bigotry at her largely white Catholic elementary school. She fought back as best as she was able, and even by her own account became a bully herself, seeing offense as the best form of defense in the violent environment of inner London schools. 

Michaela Coel: The True Superhero of Misfits

BY
SPYSCAPE
5
MINUTE READ
Share with Twitter
@SPYSCAPE
Share
Share to Facebook
Share to Twitter
Share with email

Celebrating society’s misfits is central to Michaela Coel’s work as an actress, playwright, screenwriter, poet, and activist. She counts herself as a “misfit”, and much of her success has come from comical accounts of the many ways in which she has failed to fit in with her peers, but Michaela also strives to elevate other misfits around her, frequently highlighting the experiences of those undergoing racial and sexual abuse in both her community and her industry. Now she’s bringing her unique skills as a performer to the Marvel Universe, and hoping that her role as Aneka in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever can help to alleviate homophobic prejudice. 

Michaela Coel: The True Superhero of Misfits

Bullying the bullies

Michaela was born in 1987 in London to Ghanain parents who had settled in an unusual housing project, nestled on the outskirts of the Square Mile, London’s financial district. In amongst The City’s mixture of historic marble banks and towering glass skyscrapers, the Coels and their neighbors lived - as Michaela would later describe it - “right there, in plain sight, yet somehow unseen”, misfits right from the start of Michaela’s life. As one of just a handful of black families in the area, the Coels were misfits among their neighbors as well. They were subjected to constant racist abuse including having excrement put through their door, and as a child Michaela experienced similar bigotry at her largely white Catholic elementary school. She fought back as best as she was able, and even by her own account became a bully herself, seeing offense as the best form of defense in the violent environment of inner London schools. 

Article Ad

Her high school was also riddled with bullies, but the school’s intake was more diverse and   she was no longer the only misfit, and this helped her to develop the self-confidence to defend herself in more subtle ways. Michaela describes a key encounter that changed her approach; “One day I saw the main bully and she said, ‘I bet the hardest part of your mum’s pregnancy was pushing out your lips.’ And I replied, ‘Yeah, it was a really intense labor.’“And that was the day I was, like, ‘I’m just going to take the piss out of myself. I quite like this!’ 

The bullies moved on to victims who were easier to intimidate, and Michaela continued to use her own backstory as a springboard. Her mother had sent her to a local charitable drama class - “it was free, which meant it was cheaper than childcare” - and once Michaela had graduated high school, she turned to both acting and writing. She won a bursary award that enabled her to attend London’s prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where she was the first black woman to enroll in a drama course for five years. She encountered frequent racism from both the faculty and the students, including one teacher who would refer to her as “the elephant in the room”, but she was able to channel these experiences into both her acting and writing, leading to her senior graduation project, the semi-autobiographical comedic play Chewing Gum Dreams in 2012. This was an enormous success, and the play moved from the Guildhall to a succession of bigger and more prestigious stages, culminating in a run at the National Theater in 2014. 

Michaela Coel: The True Superhero of Misfits
Michaela in character as Chewing Gum's lead character, Tracey

Lecturing the industry

British TV’s Channel 4 commissioned Coel to adapt her play for television, and in 2015 Chewing Gum - now dreamless - aired on the E4 channel to rapturous reviews, and she won a BAFTA - the UK’s most prestigious entertainment industry award - as that year’s Breakthrough Talent. A second series followed, and also an invitation to present the 2018 MacTaggart Lecture, a keynote address given by one of the year’s most prominent or noteworthy figures in the UK television industry at the Edinburgh International Television Festival. Not only was she the first black person to give this lecture in its 42 year history, but previous speakers had included figures such as Rupert Murdoch and Google CEO Eric Schimdt. A playwright with one moderately successful sitcom writing credit under her belt seemed like an obscure choice to many, but once again this merely placed Michaela in the role of the misfit that she valued so highly.  

Her speech sent shockwaves through the industry, as she described her experiences as a black woman contending with casual - and not so casual - racism on and off set, and then closed the lecture by describing her experiences of sexual harrassment and assault within the industry. The speech was as funny as it was shocking, but it ended with an impassioned  plea for transparency and support within what she described as a “faulty system”, and a plea for help in bringing other misfits like herself into the industry. Two years later, her next show, I May Destroy You aired, a co-production between HBO and the BBC, and once again the subject matter was semi-autobiographical, with Michalea playing a young writer who is drugged and raped while on a night out in London; the exact circumstances that she described happening to herself in the MacTaggart lecture. It became the best-reviewed show of 2020 on Metacritic, and garnered a raft of BAFTAs and Emmy awards, including an Outstanding Writing Emmy for Coel.

Michaela Coel: The True Superhero of Misfits
Michaela with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever co-star Winston Duke

The True Superhero of Wakandan Misfits

There is little question that such a remarkable and accomplished actress will make an excellent addition to the cast of Black Panther, and Coel’s role - as Aneka, the queer combat instructor of the Dora Milaje - seems to be the perfect fit, as Aneka is another misfit, forced to hide her sexuality from her peers. As she explained in an interview with Vogue: “Huge franchises are not necessarily my desires as a creator, but Ryan (Coogler) called me and explained the character to me, and I had a visceral reaction to her being a queer Black woman in the Marvel Universe. It meant a lot to me…. I thought, ‘I like that, I want to show that to Ghana.’” Coel retains close ties with the country that her parents emigrated from, and while there is a growing movement for LGBT+ rights within Ghana, as of 2022 there are still repressive laws and widespread prejudice against gay communities. Once again, Michaela is using her voice as a performer to help elevate misfits and highlight the problems they face, something which this True Superhero seems to do with every new project she takes on.

Read mORE

RELATED aRTICLES

Gadgets & Gifts

Put your spy skills to work with these fabulous choices from secret notepads & invisible inks to Hacker hoodies & high-tech handbags. We also have an exceptional range of rare spy books, including many signed first editions.

Shop Now

Your Spy SKILLS

We all have valuable spy skills - your mission is to discover yours. See if you have what it takes to be a secret agent, with our authentic spy skills evaluation* developed by a former Head of Training at British Intelligence. It's FREE so share & compare with friends now!

dISCOVER Your Spy SKILLS

* Find more information about the scientific methods behind the evaluation here.