Michaela Coel is the name on many people’s lips this week after her historic win at the 2021 Primetime Emmys. In recent years, the British actress has been making some power moves behind the scenes, ensuring that her creative integrity is properly protected and compensated. However, with her recent win, people are beginning to dig through her history to understand better who she is and just how she could walk away from a seven-figure deal with Netflix.
Born Michaela Ewuraba Boakye-Collinson, she goes professionally by Coel. She was born in 1987 to Ghanian parents. Coel was raised in East London, where she drew a lot of inspiration with her breakthrough debut project, Chewing Gum. The sitcom initially began as a poem by Coel called Chewing Gum Dreams. This evolved into a one-woman show. She performed the show locally to much acclaim, eventually scoring a television deal to develop it into an entire series.
Season 1 of Chewing Gum premiered on October 6th, 2015, on Channel 4/E4 in the UK and a year later on Netflix in the US. The series ran for two seasons before Coel decided to step away from the show indefinitely to pursue other opportunities. Her relationship with Netflix resulted in cameos in two Black Mirror Episodes, “Nosedive” & “USS Callister.” She also starred opposite John Goodman in 2018’s Black Earth Rising.
When it came time for her next written work, I May Destroy You, Coel went to Netflix to produce the show. They offered her seven figures to stay with them. However, while on the phone doing negotiations, she realized that this hefty fee came with a stipulation. She would lose all ownership of her work. She said she was met with silence when she asked if she could retain a small percentage of her rights. According to Coel, she requested 5% and was negotiated down to 2%, which turned into 1%, and then all the way down to .5% before walking completely away.
After being reaffirmed she was doing the right thing by Netflix executive, Coel immediately felt vindicated, realizing that she was not wrong at all. The ‘Chewing Gum’ star recalls feeling paranoid for a long time and even isolated in the industry because she did not know who to trust and why it was so geared towards removing the art from the artist. She recalls people treating her like she was “disturbed” and admitted that Netflix exploited her. But, she said in an interview, “It’s hard to say to people trust your gut or instinct…but that’s what I did in that situation, I’m glad I did because, in the end, I wasn’t a crazy woman who was acting wild and disturbed and unhinged, I was right to observe the industry and observe there was a lack of transparency because there was an exploitation occurring”.
Well, her paranoia paid off. Shortly after her call with Netflix, Coel reached out to the BBC. They offered her what she describes as ‘a seat at the table’ with full creative control, and the rights to the work. HBO came on board during production, and the rest was history.
On Sunday, she took home an Emmy for writing, and during her speech, decided to give hope to other writers who may be afraid to tell their stories. “Write the tale that scares you. That makes you feel uncertain. That is uncomfortable. I dare you.” She drew praise from several other prominent Hollywood figures. Viola Davis tweeted, “THIS right here! Your truth and your presence is a beacon, an elixir”. Trevor Noah said, “I came dressed to see Michaela Coel win an Emmy, and I wasn’t disappointed!” Shonda Rhimes said, “Yes!!!! @MichaelaCoel won! More than well-deserved!!!!!”