The creator is Tarell Alvin McCraney, the Oscar-winning co-screenwriter of “Moonlight.” And Episode 1, though only an hour, feels like a movie in its own right, with its deep themes and gorgeous cinematography. The premiere is full of twists and turns and sublime moments. David’s mom (Alana Arenas) is a shift worker at a truck stop, often absent from the scene as she tries to earn enough money to get the family out of the run-down pink motel-turned-apartment where they live. David must get his younger brother (Cayden Williams) up and off to one school, then dash for the school bus to the magnet program he attends, only to miss it every day and board a public bus.
On one ride, he converses with a man who seems familiar to him and yet somehow mysterious. From behind his sunglasses, the man dispenses advice: “People need to see your eyes.” Is he real … or a ghost from David’s past?
Magical realism is as much a part of the series as the grit of poverty. In one scene, David and a classmate (Nathaniel Logan McIntyre) sit in the antiseptic school hallway, waiting the principal’s decision on how to discipline them after they’ve brawled in class. The youngsters express their anger via scribbled text that appears on-screen. Are they really talking or just thinking to themselves? As with many mysterious moments, the show leaves it up to the viewer.
Their enmity is rooted in race — a topic that the show considers with remarkable candor. David believes his lighter-skinned, biracial classmate is embracing an African American legacy that is not truly his. David’s teacher explains to the principal that, in this diverse but mainly white class for gifted students, David’s dark skin means that “he’s the only one that looks like him.”
The teacher is portrayed by the biggest name in the cast, Phylicia Rashad. But it is young actor Akili McDowell who is the shining star of “David Makes Man.” The man on the bus is right. You do need to see his eyes, which show us David’s dreams and fears, his anger and innocence. They reveal how the journey from childhood to manhood can be both harsh and exhilarating in one of the most original and riveting TV shows this year.