On the surface, Spike Lee appears to deliver a revolutionary protagonist in his Netflix series She’s Gotta Have It. Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise) is not only outspoken, intelligent, and artistically provocative, she’s brown-skinned. She isn’t even an Ashley Banks or Dionne Davenport type that intrigues the European gaze with a blackness that simultaneously appeases a European and African aesthetic. Though her eyes are hazel, Nola functions to symbolizes a purposeful blackness illuminated by enlightened artwork. Nola intentionally subscribes to a presumedly African aesthetic with her cocoa brown skin, braid extensions, and a struggle she makes beautiful with her art.
Despite her very intentional casting and characterization, Nola Darling failed to resonate with me. Simply put, I didn’t believe her. This incredulity speaks to the series’s conception, not the acting. Nola, a character resulting from a systemized gaze, deeply contemplates every aspect of life but her sexuality. Notably, in season 2, a seemingly resonant racial conversation with a black man about art and identity leads to casual sexual encounter that lacks the critical engagement of the conversation that preceded it. Though I do not mean to prescribe sexual chastity as an end goal for black women, I do I find it odd that Nola is so unique intellectually but exudes the same sexual behavior consistent with how the media consistently depicts black people. To be blunt, how is such an artistically and intellectually curious person so sexually basic?
I’ll return to these points later in this post.
I wrote a review of Spike Lee’s Netflix series She’s Gotta Have It almost two years ago. In the review, I mentioned Laura Nelson, a black woman hung over a bridge alongside her son in a public death largely erased by his story. Her murder, a spectacle and portrait of American horror, serves as a summation for black femininity. Interestingly, the second season of She’s Gotta Have It concludes with a provocative portrait painted by Nola Darling that channels Laura Nelson. Both woman inevitably hold hands in a shared narrative; however, their overt connection ends the series where it should have began.
Moreover, the final episode of the Netflix series revisits the query: Who owns black pain? Famed novelist Zadie Smith tackles this query in essay “Getting In and Out: Who Owns Black Pain” where she examines Jordan Peele’s film Get Out and Dana Shultz’s Open Casket portrait which recreates Emmett Till as he lay mutilated in his casket. In examining these examples, Zadie Smith inquires who, if anyone, has a right to black pain? Her argument meditates heavily on an identity she labels “biracial” and even intertwines her children who she references as historically “quadroons.” Her prose, though eloquent and resounding, like the final episode of Spike Lee’s Netflix series, illustrates the peristent query-conflicts surrounding representation, authority, and black pain.
Smith’s essay, addressing the peculiar pain that follows deriving from rape, evokes a common contemplation regarding what is means to be biracial. But, who is to articulate the pain of the woman forced to look into the face of a child who resembled her oppressor? I pose these questions to preface the following: It is hard if not impossible to take the contemplation of black pain seriously from someone who has made the oppressor her husband. Smith does not own black pain because she does not hone black pain; rather, Smith re-creates a specific black female pain in her conjugal choice. I say this not to reprimand Smith or castigate her choices, but to underscore that re-presentation remains a central yet under-discussed discourse with regards to black identity, the black experience, and black pain. Smith re-presents black pain in a contractual sexuality, as does She Gotta Have It through protagonist Nola Darling.
While Lee is not married to the man in a conventional sense, his “art” delineates an espousal to western ideals. Lee is unable to divorce western ideals due to an overt inability to acknoweldge their influence on him as director/creator. Specifically, Lee creates black characters whose sexuality and sexual behavior reflects a systemic trauma. Sexualized physically and mentally, black sexuality is not to be taken lightly. Black sexuality constitutes a performance that though seemingly rooted in pleasure, remains anchored in black pain.
She’s Gotta Have It, illustrates multiple black woman attempting to hone a sexualized pain: Nola as an artist, Clorinda as a young professional, and Mekka as a budding businesswoman. All the black women featured on the series have a dissonant relationship to sexuality. Clorinda, who sleeps with an older man who is also a leading force in gentrifying Brooklyn, realizes her sexual commerce actualizes professional and personal bankruptcy. Clorinda’s sexual performance delineates a black woman attempting to see herself on the other side of oppression. What happens, of course, is that she engenders a cold reminder that she is perhaps worse off then those in her collective. Clorida’s false belief that her position beside white men under the covers detaches her from societal oppression, deals a hard blow when she realizes her systemized subjugation is not only outside of her window but in her bed.
In season one, viewers witness Mekka opt for butt injections to enhance her occupational performance. The result proves catastrophic as Mekka’s injections fester her physical and psychological disfigurement. This depiction re-presents the black female mutilation that follows systemically induced pursuits to acquire what the black woman naturally possesses.
Nola depicts this shared pursuit in her portrait, where she paints herself as hanging by her braid extensions. These braids re-present the black female body and black female personhood as lynched by the beauty industry and on a larger scale, American culture. The hair industry, an industry built on black female emulation, strips the black woman of her beauty and creates black pain. She’s Gotta Have It re-creates said pain and re-presents she who is systemically raped. Re-presentation though, is not freedom; rather, representation functions as a re-manifestation of white hegemony.
Nola’s re-manifestation ruffles feathers in illustrating a pain Mekka views as private. Nola’s portrait resonates with Mekka because their pain is a shared pain; both women, however, individualize a collective pain. This indiviualized scope becomes obvious in Nola’s use of the word “my.” Individualized pain or trauma is a privelege, a shared pain mainfested seperately marks a systemic and cyclical disenfranchisement. Similarly, Mekka’s trauma marks a detachment from other black women who don’t share her physical scars. Mekka’s words illustrate that she fails to see her physical condition as reflecting a scarred mental state. Black people actualize the wounds of a colonized past physicality personified by our last names and our English proficiency. So when Mekka asks Nola why why she chose to sexualize black female pain, this query, while valid, separates the part from the whole. Black pain is inherently sexualized just as sexuality inherently connects to trauma. Re-presentation, as depicted through Nola and Mekka’s discussion, fails the black collective time and time again, because it dismembers a collective pain into a digestible form fit for entertainment.
To own black pain is to “present” black pain. To present is to endure decoloniation and seek to solve, not to re-present what the oppressed already know to be true. Re-presentation dominates She’s Gotta Have It. Nola represents Laura Nelson and all the other faceless black women subject to the horror their blackness imbues; she does not, however, progress this narrative. If anything, Nola’s characterization proves that though Nelson’s body was eventually cut down, she still phantasmocially sways in the wind; the disdain to black feminity a public sight consummated by re-presentation.
Nola, re-presentats a particular kind of black female pain that follows a cognitively free protagonist who performs a traumatized sexuality that functions as libratory. This trauma is perhaps best illustrated through Nola as a home wrecker to a black family; here, Lee re-presents a pervasive image that follows the black woman in her contemporary casting. The black woman of course is not a homewrecker but she who derives from a home wrecked by the very systemic issues to which her continual re-presentation places her on the wrong side.
What is perhaps most interesting about re-presentation as it appears in the series, is that it underscores Lee’s selective imagination. Particularly, Lee re-presents an idealized relationship between blacks and Puerto Ricans. This is an obvious play to insure the series appears “inclusive;” however, as a black woman born and raised in New York City, I have never felt a kinship with the Latinx community that did not attempt to exist on denigrating the black collective at large. This though, is not the point. The point is that Lee presents an idealized diasporic relationship between black people throughout the diaspora, but fails to imagine, or “present” a black woman as detached from systemized forces he overwrights to unite the displaced Africans in New York City and Puerto Rico. Or, and admittedly this is likely the truth, does Nola Darling embody this attempt to “present” the rebellious being of black female form in a contemporary frame?
Now, I return to Smith’s query: who owns black pain? Though the answers remain numerous, re-presentation surrenders ownership to he or she who gazes. Nevertheless, as Laura Nelson showed us 1911, black pain is not a pubic matter to interpret; black pain interprets a global demon strengthened in the re-presentations of its power.
Re-presentation casts the being of black female form as she who “gotta have it,” whether “it” is sex, power, or color-induced consequences. Futhermore, as long as these re-manifestations of the chains that shackle us remain the voice of a shared struggle, “she” will never have anything it all.