Michaela Coel on Creativity, Romance, and the Path to ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’
Michaela Coel doesn’t like to sit still; she describes herself as a mover, the type who runs a half marathon in the middle of the night for fun. So I’m not at all surprised when the 35-year-old actor-writer-director offers to meet for a Sunday morning rollerblading session in Accra, the capital of Ghana. “Totally down for that, looks like fun!!!” I respond via WhatsApp, adding one exclamation mark too many out of apprehension. To be honest, it’s a terrifying idea. The day before, in Accra’s historic Jamestown, I had seen Coel flying through traffic on her skates, her polka-dot Burberry cape flapping wildly behind her, photographer Malick Bodian and his team in hot pursuit. It was a daredevil stunt that suited an action movie more than a vogue cover shoot.
Looking every inch the athlete, Coel shows up early for our meet, lean but strong in black running shorts and a sports bra, a purple baseball cap thrown over her cropped haircut. She shows me her skates – white with gigantic lilac wheels – and tells me that big wheels mean high speed. “The balance is difficult, but the pleasure is maximum,” she says, smiling. We are in the parking lot of Decathlon, a large French sporting goods store where she persuaded me to buy my first blades. The pair I chose have small wheels – to keep me grounded better I think. With wrist and elbow pads and knee pads strapped over my baggy jeans, I look like an oversized teenager. Still, safety first – Coel insists on it. “If my skate teacher saw you, he’d say, ‘Where’s the helmet?’ ” she says. For now though, the bob is a fair compromise.
Luckily, Rashaq, one of the many skater types on the store team, agreed to give me a crash course before we hit the streets. As someone who has only ever ridden old school quads, I quickly realize that inline skating is an entirely different beast. Coel likens it to moving from Android to the iPhone. And she’s not wrong. I have trouble controlling my limbs and I sweat quickly in the relentless heat. Aside from a few trees flanking the entrance to the pitch, there’s little shelter from the sun, but Coel is basically pirouetting and barely breaking a sweat. “There’s a kind of slow feeling of euphoria that I get when I skate. It’s just my time,” she said as she walked past. “I feel like the skaters are never stressed or agitated. They are on good vibes.
As a little girl, Coel skated around the East London council estate where she grew up with her mother and older sister. But it wasn’t until March last year, while visiting her grandmother in Accra and inspired by a group of children learning to rollerblade, that she took up the sport again. Before getting on the impressive custom gear she wears today, she bought her first pair of adult skates from Decathlon. “That’s what happens when you’re not afraid of risk,” she says impassively, pointing to the scars on her knees, the result of a fall she suffered last spring shortly before returning home. in London for the BAFTA Awards.
Coel was always a quick learner, the type to throw herself headlong into new challenges: as a teenager, she took up Irish dancing, the only black girl in the history of her London high school to join the team, performing in the talent show in the same way. year. Skating is more than that, it gives her a mind-body connection, a sense of liberation, especially here in Ghana, she says, where she moves with particular ease. “I had been to Africa before, Kenya and Uganda, but when I came here, I really saw people who looked like me,” says Coel, who came to the East African country for the first time. West to film Rising black earth, Hugo Blick’s searing 2018 drama series about the Rwandan genocide. “A friend of mine was with me, and he remembers us getting off the plane and walking around like I knew where I was going.” On this journey, she traveled far and wide across the country, discovering places that even her mother and father, who emigrated to London before she was born, did not know. “I remember watching all the kids play and it hit me, like, Wow, that could have been me and I think I would have really enjoyed that,” she says. “Yes, there are many sad things; poverty, unemployment, struggle. There is also a lot of calm, friendliness. There is a lack of anxiety. »
By noon, I feel less wobbly and my teacher Rashaq thinks we’re ready to hit the road. Coel knows all the best routes in town and suggests we head to the cantonments, an affluent neighborhood with smooth tarmac perfect for rollerblades. She navigates the streets like a local because she practically is one; last year she lived here for six months. I do my best to keep up as we skate past the organic grocery store where she buys all her vegan supplies, an upscale restaurant called Bistro 22, and an Irish pub popular with expats. Fortunately, there are very few cars on the road and we soon find ourselves on a practically deserted residential street. I can’t manage a steep enough drop – and before I know it I’ve lost control of my skates and, arms flailing, I’m hurtling on a direct collision course with a garden fence . Somehow, Coel manages to save me, grabbing both of my elbows just in time to stop me. “Learning to break is the hardest part,” she says as I giggle in embarrassment. “You know, every time I think about this, I think about my career. Resting, learning to do this— learn to break,” she says. “It means something on every level.”