“She’s Gotta Have It” made me angry ― a reaction I hadn’t expected, but was ultimately thrilled with.
In 1986, when Spike Lee made his film debut with “She’s Gotta Have It,” the concept of a black woman dating three men at the same time was an edgy one. The novelty of the conceit, empowering though it may be, has worn off in the 2017 Netflix reboot of the film.
There’s a tendency to praise black art for the sake of being black. Most black people can identify with Issa Rae famously declaring, “I’m rooting for everybody black.” Authentic representations of black people created by black people have had to be exceptional to receive even the slightest praise in the film and television industries. Sometimes, any form of representation feels like a win, and criticism of that representation feels like a betrayal. But maybe now’s a good time to sit with, consider and process how we praise and how we criticize black art.
Because for all its glorious blackness, and for all its good intentions, “She’s Gotta Have It” is not necessarily a good show. And that’s OK.
In this update, set in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, Nola Darling is a black millennial with a capital B, and the series will remind you of that every chance it gets.
“I’m a sex-positive, polyamorous pansexual,” Nola tells us from her iconic Loving Bed, the only place she has sex with her rotation of partners. “I consider myself abnormal. But who wants to be like anybody else?”
This is a show about black female sexuality, but only nominally. It actually has little to say about black female sexuality, and hardly anything to say about queerness. Nola is not so much a sex-positive, polyamorous, pansexual, black feminist 20-something artist living in Brooklyn as she is the idea of one. In this sense, “She’s Gotta Have It” is an intense exercise in suspension of disbelief. We need to believe, for instance, that Nola Darling would actually enjoy the company of any of the wack dudes she’s dating (with the exception, perhaps, of Mars Blackmon).
And we need to believe that Nola’s art, while perfectly fine, is as incendiary and groundbreaking as it’s presented in the world of the show. (The best of her work comes in the form of a #MyNameIsnt street campaign based on Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s 2012 “Stop Telling Women To Smile.”)
Nola ― and, indeed, everyone around her ― talks in hashtags, dresses like an Afropunk attendee, and makes constant pop culture and film references that are supposed to seem worldly and cultured but just read as random and superfluous. (At two different points in the show, she chastises her lovers for having never heard of the hardly obscure movies “Terms of Endearment” and “Dirty Pretty Things.”)
But Nola, played by the effervescent and stunning DeWanda Wise, has a lot of heart and a lot of genuine goodness, which makes up for her characterization in a show that sometimes feels as though it’s coming from a world and a time that young, independent black women aren’t actually living in. Nola declares herself to be proudly sex-positive, polyamorous and queer, and yet the lack of transparency between herself and her lovers throughout the series suggests that not only Nola, but the show’s creators, aren’t quite sure what to make of these concepts.
Each episode is, for better or worse, dominated by Lee’s very distinctly old-school point of view. (He wrote several episodes and directed the entire series.) Perhaps that’s why the show feels out of step. Or perhaps it’s the fact that many of the writers on the series, including Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, are older, with backgrounds steeped more heavily in theater than in television.
Whatever the reason, the result is a show that wants so badly to be au courant and relatable but that, with its monologues and problem-of-the-week episode structure, feels anything but.
In episode two, ”#Bootyful,” Nola’s friend Shemekka grapples with the decision to get butt injections. Despite the show’s pretense of being all about empowering black women, the narrative ultimately humiliates and shames Shemekka ― who decides to go through with the procedure and turns out an amazing performance at the burlesque club where she works, only to end up in the hospital when her ass shots grotesquely pop open. She’s bedridden for most of the rest of the series. This is the type of ankh-and-ashy moralism that taints the otherwise great parts of the show.
Nola is an archetype, a beautiful enigma, rather than a person. The problem here is that the entire series is about Nola pushing back against labels, against other people’s definitions of who she is, against ownership and expectations. In the show’s finale, a Thanksgiving episode, Nola invites her three lovers to dinner and has a breakthrough: She is actually the man of her dreams. But Nola is too flat a character for the epiphany to feel at all earned. It’s just the show assigning her another arbitrary label.
“She’s Gotta Have It” has moments of genuine brilliance: Anthony Ramos’ weird, hilarious performance as one of Nola’s lovers; the excellent soundtrack of entirely of black music; the commentary on gentrification in Fort Greene, police brutality and Donald Trump; DeWanda Wise’s everything.
But the show’s flaws are numerous, and it has rightly been called out for them ― for its limited representation of queer black female sexuality, for its unconscious misogyny, for its shallow radicalism.
These critiques are the most valuable thing about “She’s Gotta Have It.” The imperfect show, at times infuriating in its tone and point of view, marks an important point in the conversation about diversity and representation: It is a lackluster work of black art that is free to be lackluster, that doesn’t have to bear the full weight of the culture from which it has emerged. It need not represent anything but its own ambitions.
There is room for mediocre black art. There is room for black art that not all black people have to love. There is room for black art that falls short of its potential. Nola is a prime example of this: Her beautiful, realistic portraits of black woman are just OK until she pushes herself to move past archetypal representations and toward something more personal and difficult.
Some black art will poignantly capture us in a way that truly resonates; some black art may totally miss the mark; some works, like “She’s Gotta Have It,” will be a frustrating mixture of the two. This is an important thing to acknowledge, especially in the case of a creator and a cultural leader like Lee, who for years has enjoyed a kind of critical immunity among black audiences.
It is a lackluster work of black art that is free to be lackluster, that doesn’t have to bear the full weight of the culture from which it has emerged. It need not represent anything but its own ambitions.
There’s no denying the importance of Lee’s past works, from “Do the Right Thing” to “School Daze” to “Malcolm X.” He made films for the culture and about the culture that entered the zeitgeist without ever pandering to white audiences.
Lee has also made less-than-stellar movies. But his presence and prominence in the mainstream was such a hard-won victory, both for himself and for black folks, and his worst critics so often confirmed the urgency and necessity of his work, that he seemed to get a pass from the people best equipped to engage with his movies. As his filmography grew, his weaknesses as a storyteller became more pronounced — the outdated racial and gender politics of “Chi-Raq,” the erratic overstylization of “Red Hook Summer” — and his work seemed to lose touch with what had made him vital in the first place.
“She’s Gotta Have It,” after all, is as much a piece of deep nostalgia for a time when Lee’s voice was fresh and singular as it is an exploration of black female sexuality and autonomy. Season 1 of the show ends with Nola finally establishing control of her relationships with her lovers and sending them on their way, thankfully avoiding the original film’s jarring rape. It shows growth, but so much of this show otherwise feels awkwardly tethered to the past. What has changed since the original “She’s Gotta Have It” is that Lee is now one of a number of great black filmmakers. He is not the great black filmmaker, and neither his work nor his stature is too fragile to withstand critique and debate.
This is how art, how representation, how conversations about the ways we reflect back to ourselves get stronger, better, more authentic. No, “She’s Gotta Have It” isn’t great. But it’s great that it exists.