But the question for us Black women is: do we still want it?
SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT premiering on Netflix on November 23. Rating: NN
In 1986, Spike Lee stepped over second-wave feminism. To the movement’s assertion that women could “have it all”– marriage, kids and career – he got on the bullhorn with an even bolder statement: She’s Gotta Have It.
But as the director is set to premiere a 10-episode Netflix series based on his breakthrough feature film debut, the question for us Black women is: do we still want it?
The “It” of Lee’s black-and-white feature fancied itself to be non-normative. The movie focused on Nola Darling, a young, sexually liberated Brooklynite juggling three men without apology: the buttoned-up Jamie Overstreet, the vainglorious Greer Childs and the man-child Mars Blackmon.
In a plot development that Lee himself later regretted, Nola is raped by one of her suitors. We see her self-assured sexuality violently stripped away, and she responds by vowing monogamy and entering into a celibacy pact with her rapist, a type of power dynamic (which, in the film’s closing moments, she, too, regrets) that rests on the very patriarchal power structure the film set itself up to subvert.
Throughout his career, Lee has been criticized for treating his female characters as mere props to elucidate his major themes, and She’s Gotta Have It is a prime example. The film didn’t do Black women, already starved for multi-faceted film and TV representation, any favours.
Fast-forward to 2017. Black women are still starved for representation, but now we’ve got a few more options. There are TV series that centralize Black women’s experience, such as Issa Rae’s Insecure or Michaela Coel’s Chewing Gum. They are shows that not only affirm our complex ways of thinking and being, but do so within a society that constantly relegates us to one-dimension.
Within this context, Spike Lee’s revamped Nola, played by newcomer DeWanda Wise, asserts herself as a “sex-positive, polyamorous, pansexual.” She’s set clear boundaries between the three men, and one woman, who want her exclusively, but Nola’s desire is to make her professional ambitions as an artist her number-one priority.
In the first episode, a stranger sexually harasses Nola while she’s walking home at night, leading her to artistically explore the ways in which women of colour are devalued. The assault’s impact on her, however, trails off after one episode. The show’s main concern continues to be the romantic juggling act.
Nola is an artist, though her struggle to pay the rent in her massive brownstone apartment in the racially and economically diverse – but not gentrification-adverse – Brooklyn neighbourhood Fort Greene never seems real.
There’s little about She’s Gotta Have It that actually appears real. Lee, who directed the entire first season, endows his characters with an exaggerated realism, the kind of self-conscious auteur style that characterizes a lot of his oeuvre. On display are many of his signatures: the floating dolly shot, montages of Brooklyn and its residents, and characters talking into the camera.
Lee has used those style elements successfully in past films, most notably in the 2000 satire Bamboozled. Taking his audience beyond the filmic fourth wall invites reflection on the issues he’s interrogating: movies are not a form of escapism under his lens.
Over an entire series, though, the emphasis on style winds up turning his characters into caricatures.
It does make for a beautiful and vibrantly shot series, one as bold as the artwork Nola makes. But it comes at the sacrifice of character development.
Wise does what she can to make Nola relatable the actor is magnetic in the role. But the character is flat, Lee’s mouthpiece for larger social and cultural commentary (one self-indulgent scene finds her arguing that Denzel Washington should have won the Oscar for Lee’s 1992 film Malcolm X).
When she does talk about herself – either to the camera or to her therapist (played by The Bodyguard stage actor and singer Heather Headley) – Nola can’t seem to think past her own needs or the effect her actions have on those she hurts (which she does – often).
The latter comes to matter very little though, since the supporting characters are also cutouts. Their over-over-exaggerated mannerisms miss the mark on the satire Lee is clearly aiming for. Instead, he lands them into the realm of buffoonery.
A subplot with Nola’s friend, Shemekka Epps (Chyna Layne), an aspiring nightclub dancer who resorts to back-alley butt injections to further her career, offers a promise of complexity. Shemekka calls out her friends, including Nola, for body-shaming her while simultaneously finding herself vulnerable to the commodification of Black women’s bodies. (Enter Lee’s references to Nicki Minaj and the fictional reality game show She A$$ed For It.)
But the butt she winds up with, and the process she goes through to get it, is played for comedy, undermining the character’s journey.
In a shocking scene mid-season, Shemekka has a grotesque accident (or a$$ident – to give you an idea of what it involves without giving it away) that lands her in the hospital. It’s confusing as to whether Lee is painting an empathic character or simply using her to make a point about the dangers of butt augmentation, because up until that moment she had been the literal and figurative butt of a joke.
In many ways, She’s Gotta Have It is making the case that you can’t pin down Black womanhood. Yes, we Black women know this to be true. There’s nothing new there.
But the series’ vision of Black womanhood is so barely developed. Moreover, among the new crop of Black women-led series, it’s not even necessary.
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