On the anniversary of the Native American Holocaust, popular film director Spike Lee debuted the series version of his 1986 film She Gotta Have It. Deviating from the black and white coloring that encased the original feature, Spike Lee reflects his contemporary gaze in living color. Casting a black female lead who is a Hershey chocolate, deviates from the norm of the racially ambiguous lead who has fair skin, light eyes and and or “long” hair, Lee resumes the contemporary narrative seen in series Scandal, Being Mary Jane, and How to Get Away with Murder that assert brown is the “new” black. She Gotta Have It introduces viewers to a twenty-seven year old Nola Darling, an aspiring artist based in Fort Greene Building. Viewers quickly meet Nola’s three loves, Jamie, the well-to-do married man who deviates from the privilege of his porcelain skin wife to the black magic sexuality of Nola Darling, Darling also sees Grier, a fair-skinned offspring of a black panther father and French mother. Grier is a playboy with numerous lovers, but drawn to Nola’s indifference to monogamy. Mars, the offspring of a Black dad and Puerto Rican mother (played by a Puerto Rican actor), is the most theatrical and youthful of all Nola’s lovers. What he lacks in finances he makes for in spirit, and a promise of masculinity he can’t quote own. All suitors offer something different to Nola, but lack a completeness to contest her free-spirited nature. The only one of Nola’s sex partners that prompts a desire for more is her lesbian lover Opal, who while fun, intelligent, beautiful and responsible (she is a single mom as well), is turned off by Nola’s flakiness–the same trait that foments desire from her male love interests.
The series does little to deviate from the caricatured black female image where the black women is vilified and limited to a body sexualized by the oppositional gaze. Given that the series derives from the gaze of a black man, She Gotta Have It resumes the hurt experienced by the conscious gaze that expected more but received less from those subject to the same abjection as the characters they both romanticize and reduce to the master’s tools.
This review details the enjoyable parts of the series, and why it fails to evolve the
image of who the late Malcolm X called ” the most disrespected person in America” –the black woman.
What works about She Gotta Have It
The homage to black musicians with a full plug
The series features a plethora of black music which precedes a full feature of the album artwork. The Song “Melanin” played during episode “#LBD” was a personal favorite.
The placement of a brown-skinned leading lady
Homage to black leaders past. I personally felt chills and shed a few tears when shown James Baldwin, and Malcolm X’s (and the late Betty Shabazz’s) grave.
Things that Troubled Me….
The brown skinned black woman who tries to own her narrative through sexual liberation
Seen in Scandal protagonist Olivia Pope, Being Mary Jane’s Mary Jane, How to Get Away with Murder’s Annalise Keating and most recently Issa Rae’s Insecure, contemporary culture appears fixated on reasserting the black female body in a Carrie Bradshaw-esque image incompatible with the complexities of black femininity. She Gotta Have It, resumes this contemporary attempt to offset the black female body to womanhood to which she violently fails to consummate in reasons beyond the scope of a series seeking to entertain not enlighten the world with black female complexity.
The placement of sex at the center of the black female narrative not only hyper sexualizes the black female body, but implies that sex is an identifying feature of black female identity. She Gotta Have It protagonist, Nola— a talented artist, treats her body as a paintbrush, using her sexuality as a means to own her canvass. Her attempt to objectify her male lovers, as illustrated in the “Three headed prince” portrait that phallically places her three lovers besides one another, offsets a prominent lesson. The lesson is that a black male or female cannot objectify one another without objectifying themselves. Namely, the part reflects the whole– inevitably and indefinitely.
As an artist, or someone of suggested depth, it is a preoccupation with black female sexuality that makes black bodily objectification the core component of a series that shallowly depicts the black female as one-dimensional.
Nola buying a $500+ dress from an overtly racist establishment
The episode entitled #LBD, features series protagonist Nola Darling seeking an external means to yield an internal makeover. The premise is a troubling as it sounds, yet eerily accurate to the materialism, or retail therapy so many within the oppressed faction seek to ease systemic wounds that feel self-inflicted. The depiction of Nola’s route to the obtain material to mend internal wounds is also troublingly accurate.
Nola sets out to buy a dress to showcase her external beauty and internal confidence, at a small boutique. In the boutique, Nola and her friend Clo encounter an overtly racist white woman who hovers over her two black clients from their entry, to trying on the clothes, to check out. The white female sales clerk does not even attempt to veil her prejudice, a prejudice which fails to deter Nola from spending over five hundred dollars with a small business who thinks more of a stray dog than of her as a black woman.
Scenarios like these continue to frequent the black narrative, where the black female body seeks to overcome subjugation by succumbing to it. So whether the black celebrity combats an under-estimated self-worth by buying the most expensive item in the store, or the black resident in a black neighborhood who patronizes non-blacks business despite experiencing condescending or antagonistic behavior, these actions illustrate an internalized inferiority often reduced to “choosing your battles.”
The Black Dress, The Emasculator
Interestingly, the little black dress proves an emasculating tool for all three suitors. Jamie, places his blazer over the dress to avoid excess attention, Mars cowers in a confrontation that emerges because of the dress, and Grier abrasively tries to freeze the moment in time with his camera. Thus, the dress functions to display the great lengths the internally damaged black female body will go to showcase its exteriorized black female form, and how their male counterparts simply cannot endure its awful beauty.
The othered woman as the other woman
The series also resumes the hyper sexual narrative seen in Olivia Pope, Annalise Keating, and Mary Jane Paul where the beautiful, ambitious, and seemingly sexually liberated black female form is a mistress to a married man. This recurring theme exposes Scandal’s Pope as opening the door not for the black female body, but the black female body as a conventional whore, resuming her presumed plantation placement as literally and figuratively beneath her master’s bed.
The Price of Prostitution
One of the most disturbing components of the series is when Nola sounds off on lover Jamie, after his $10,000 purchase does not come fruition. Now, admittedly Nola is under a tremendous amount of pressure at this point. I am particularly referencing the pressure of having to pay rent in New York City, despite splurging on a $500+ dress without batting an eyelash. However, things come crashing down when Jaime’s purchase of Nola’s self portrait leaves Nola short on her rent. Despite the cringeworthy feeling that comes with Jaime putting and paying a price for Nola’s portrait of herself, which seems eerily like an auction block purchase, this depiction exposed Nola as a co-dependant being. Moreover, while the series seemingly portrays Nola as autonomous to her sexual partners and sexuality as a whole, all it takes is a single scene for Nola to seem disturbingly similar to a prostitute throwing a fit over lack of payment. Yes, the money is for her “work,” but given the symbolism of the work being “her,” Nola’s fit appears upset over a man’s failure to pay for her, namely to monetarily compensate for the use of her body.
I choose the “me” in “you”
In the film, Nola chooses Jaime when he sheds his nice exterior and becomes as romantically callous as she was in the film’s beginning. Although surfacely oppositional from the series, both the film and movie convey a similar message in their endings. The series ends with Nola’s three lovers leaving one at a time. She then responds to the doorbell sounded by lesbian lover, Opal. In both films Nola chooses herself, in a veiled manifestation of lovers who mirror her in action or form. In the film, Nola desires monogamy with Jamie, when he becomes like her and is unwilling to be what she desires. In the series, Nola seemingly chooses her lesbian lover Opal—her only lover that shares the black female form she spends the entirety of the film seeking to define.
I seemed rather disruptive to include body distortion in the contemporary black female narrative without a critical context to decipher its pervasiveness. Specifically, the series showcases Shemeeka Epps, Nola’s friend who desires a fuller derriere. Shemeeka, an exotic dancer, resorts to a a backdoor operation to attain butt injections which produce her desired result, at an almost fatal cost. In a moment that seems more comical than critical, Shemeeka’s injections liquefy when she lands too roughly on her behind during her set at the strip club. Now, my critique is not to say that black women do not face body issues, but as a black female who navigates the real world applied to fictive characters in this series, there appears to be far more emphasis on hair than body—negative body image, as substantiated by statics is far more aligned with white than black femininity. If the series did decide to tackle bodily insecurities birthed from media pressures, a proper context is needed to eschew cruelty and evoke a critical engagement of the subject. Thus, to include this page in a narrative about the black female form, produces a narrative noticeably absent in the abundant displays of white femininity, despite the physically enhanced white women that dominate popular culture from Kylie Jenner and her surgically enhanced sisters to the array of white females who have altered their noses, breasts, stomachs and backsides to maintain their fictive placement at the top of the aesthetical pyramid.
Spike Lee’s PR alter ego
I won’t go into this extensively, but for anyone who has seen the movie She Gotta Have It, there is a noticeable gap in casting in which Spike Lee’s role of Mars is now played by a Puerto Rican actor who refers to himself as a “half-n*gga” in the series. My comment certainly does not function as a means to critique Lee’s restricted presence to behind the camera, but the disturbing reality that this seemingly innocuous casting call illustrates how roles for blacks are easily occupied by racially ambiguous bodies. To see such overt anti-blackness take place in a so-called black series, is especially troubling, and calls to question this project and its composition as a whole.
Cognitive Dissonant Depiction
Before I conclude this article, I wish to draw your attention to the cognitive dissonance, that proves a recurring feature in the series. In the first episode a portrait of Malcolm becomes a topic of conversation between Nola and Mars which shifts from the legendary leader to the Spike Lee file— distorting the image of one of the most prominent black leaders with a caricature. This scene alludes to narcissus, exposing director Spike Lee as fatally indulging in his own reflection that results in the murder of a legacy integral to black esteem and consciousness. The fatality is two fold, as it simultaneously sullies Lee’s credibility- his intentions, and gaze unveiled as self-indulgent, narcissistic and therefore not be trusted.
This portrait of Malcolm X is also present in the film’s final screen behind Nola’s “loving bed” in a cognitive dissonant act that dominates contemporary series starring black people. In Scandal, the cognitive dissonance comes in the form of music where songs and artists prominent during their time become distorted features on a soundtrack to an anti-black series. In She Gotta Have It, the cognitive dissonance is perhaps even more symbolically violent. Juxtaposing a prominent figure of black nationalism, or black independence with a physically black figure sullied in a white supremacist dependency is both inaccurate and insulting. Thus, even if the series were not inundated with troublesome images, this image would be enough to sour the series in its singularity.
In a recent interview, renowned scholar Cornell West referenced neoliberalism and the
recurring selection of black bodies to execute their agenda. West assertion deeming Ta-nehisi Coates the current “neoliberalism darling,” prompted me to think of Spike Lee’s Nola Darling.
Centered in her de-centered societal structure, Nola and the hyper sexualized black female form seen in Olivia Pope (Scandal), Mary Jane (Being Mary Jane), and Annalise Keating (How to Get Away With Murder) are all darlings of neoliberalism—providing comfort to those dependent on black female exclusion from womanhood and festered societal abjection. Their neo-liberal status overtly seems liberal in their overt visibility, yet series like She Gotta Have It illustrates the casual ability to “see” the black female form as a violent form of invisibility where the black female remains engulfed in distortion. With with regard to the seen black body, my mind shifts to a photo taken of Sara Nelson’s murder, which captures her lifeless black female body hanging off a branch blowing gracefully in the wind—she too is physically seen, but utterly invisible in the face of injustice-an injustice manifested and furthered in this seemingly innocuous Netflix series.
She Gotta Have What?
She Gotta Have It–in title and depiction–showcases the black female form as needing sex and as a figure of race and sex abjection it does. Sex is the pervasive means to other the black female body–to place sexuality where her non-black counterparts place femininity, piety, chastity, submissiveness and domesticity. What she “gotta have”is a strong sense of self cultivated in encompassing a conscious collective gaze that rejects the individualism evoked in Spike Lee’s project. Thus, what she–the black female form “gotta have” is not presented in this series and is utterly absent from a world established and maintained on her abjection.
The white world needs images like these to foment their heightened sense of self and ensure what we as a collective “Gotta have,” we never receive. So to any black person watching this series or any other seemingly black series and drawn to laughter, know that for every smile and chuckle you give–the white collective always laughs last and hardest.
Black Power ❤