Gotta watch it? 7 Black female artists review She's Gotta Have It
A series about something you've never seen on TV: a Black woman unapologetically exploring her sexuality
A lot's changed since 1986. It's the year that Spike Lee released his debut feature, She's Gotta Have It, and now, a new Netflix series based on the film is transplanting the story to 2017.
Over 10 episodes, we get to know Brooklyn painter Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise). The series is couched in today's ever-changing political context, but Nola is always at the centre of the story. She is sensual and determined, desirable and desirous. To have a complex Black female character at the centre of the story is rare in the current TV (and Netflix) landscape.
After watching the series, I was curious to know the thoughts of Black women today. What was their take on this new depiction of Nola Darling?
Lee directs every episode, and though there are several women in key roles on the project — including Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, Tonya Lee Lewis (executive producer) and actress/writer Joie Lee — his work is often the subject of debate among Black feminist cultural critics, especially when it comes to the depiction of female characters.
I asked seven Black Canadian female artists to share what they thought of the series. Participating in this conversation are Sonia Godding Togobo, Audrey Hudson, Motion, Marsha Greene, Alicia Bunyan-Sampson, Bahia Watson and Dre Ngozi.
Whether the topic was sexuality or cinematography, everyone has a different take on the series (and apparently no one was as bothered as I was by the terrible representation of Caribbean culture throughout). But what remains clear is that from the large screen to the small screen, Spike Lee continues to provoke strong debate.
Spoilers ahead! You'll want to watch the series before reading anything more.
In the series Nola Darling describes herself as a "sex-positive, polyamorous, pansexual." These are not terms often heard or portrayed on a television series. Tell me what you thought about the depiction of these ideas.
Alicia Bunyan-Sampson: "As a sex-positive, polyamorous, pansexual woman myself I made the decision to watch the show only because I heard Nola Darling describing herself as such in the trailer for the series."
"I was highly disappointed in the depiction of these identities."
"I can comfortably classify Nola Darling as sexually fluid, but I saw nothing in the show that would enable me to identify her as being sex-positive, pansexual or polyamorous."
"Viewers of the show who probably have never heard of these identities or had direct interaction with people living with these identities are going to walk away from the show with very dangerous misconceptions that will have real-life consequences on all three communities."
"I already find it difficult enough to navigate through the world with identities that are so far outside of the mainstream narrative on what love and romance and sex should look like. I really don't appreciate a well-known, highly experienced creator failing to do the proper research to accurately represent my communities."
Dre Ngozi: "Is seeing a woman be unapologetic about what she wants sexually and romantically exciting? Absolutely."
"However, in this adaptation, Nola's approach is at times problematic. She seems to spend a lot her time proclaiming her sexual freedom without actually engaging in some of the hard work involved in the complexities of polyamory. At times, Nola comes off as self-absorbed and careless, not having real conversations about the emotional nuances that can and do come up in these 'non-conventional' relationships."
"On the other hand, why should she 'have it together?' She's a young Black woman in this world and that alone is an arduous feat, so it is understandable that she doesn't have it all figured out."
I think Nola Darling is a cis male's idea of what a sexually liberated Black woman looks like.- Alicia Bunyan-Sampson, artist
"On a macro level, what her character offers is a decent starting point for a discussion on sexual liberation in modern times where the notion of monogamy, human sexuality spectrum and marriage are being increasingly dissected and challenged."
The New York Times has called this 2017 iteration of Nola Darling Lee's "most feminist heroine yet." Do you agree? What do you think of Nola Darling?
Alicia Bunyan-Sampson: "I disagree completely. I think Nola Darling is a cis male's idea of what a sexually liberated Black woman looks like. Spike Lee still has many things to unpack."
Sonia Godding Togobo: "I love Nola Darling."
"She represents a brand of feminism that has [not yet] been occupied by a Black woman in pop culture. She's free and transparent, messy and self-determined. She is unapologetic about her desire for pleasure. She is committed to her own happiness and evolution by any means necessary. She is ruthlessly authentic in her inner explorations. I think for Black women, this commitment to self-determination is revolutionary. Nola feels relatable and I attribute that to the women writers who were in the writing room entirely!"
What was it like to see the issue of sexual harassment and assault explored on the screen with a Black woman at the centre?
Dre Ngozi: "When Nola got grabbed, we all got grabbed. With the recycled narrative of Black and Brown bodies being hyper-sexualized and disposable in our society, this is not the first time we've seen this on the screen. However [this time] we finally got to witness the aftermath of a sexual attack."
"The fact that Nola even agreed to seek help from a therapist about the incident is forward-looking, as unfortunately seeking therapy (of various kinds) has not often been encouraged or taught in the Black community. Actually seeing a Black woman move through the various emotions [after a] traumatic event and using artistic expression to work through it, made it all more relatable and poignant especially in the current wake of rape culture dismantling."
Marsha Greene: "I'm really impressed by how well the series handled this issue. I loved the evolution of Nola's reaction. She's angry, and expresses that through her art, but there's still a shame around the incident."
"It culminates in the end with Nola finding her voice as so many women are doing today. This issue has become an almost daily occurrence in the news but the face of it is often white. And even when a Black woman does share her experience, the story is more likely questioned or disputed because of its author [e.g. Lupita Nyong'o]. So it's important and powerful to have a Black woman be at the centre of this story and therefore included in the larger narrative about harassment and assault that can and does happen to women, regardless of race."
I LOVE Nola Darling.- Sonia Godding Togobo, artist
It's rare to see Black people and people of colour loving and making love to each other on the screen. How did you feel witnessing those scenes?
Bahia Watson: "I felt turned on. Those scenes were hot and beautiful and passionate. I was truly inspired."
Alicia Bunyan-Sampson: "I have mixed feelings about the love-making scenes in the series and I use the word love very loosely."
"As a filmmaker and just a lover of film in general, I am happy to see naked Black bodies on camera experiencing one another in a myriad of ways and I think it's important to continue to do that more and shift things from being rare to just being real honest storytelling. However, I do feel that the way it was done was simply a device to push the overall narrative of the show: [that] Nola Darling [is] a Black woman obsessively fuelled by sex in all her choices rather than just a Black woman having sex because sex is awesome for everyone."
The series is cinematic in a way that is often reserved for movies. What was it like to watch a series for the small screen (with a Black woman at its centre) that was so aesthetically bold?
Bahia Watson: "Uplifting. All the bright colours, all the artistry — it was dreamy to take in and imagine myself in those places. I did that a lot throughout the show: imagined myself having that apartment, those clothes, those lovers, being all carefree in that colourful world, which was fun."
Audrey Hudson: "As a mixed-race female artist, I never saw myself represented in the art world. In all the art films, Black and Brown roles were relegated to voiceless 'others,' or as [the] 'exotic friend,' an ethnic store keeper, [someone] behind bars or in janitorial roles. There is an honest spectacular-ness in seeing a Black female artist as the protagonist. I felt like she was my homegirl and that I was there in her stunning brownstone engaged in conversation."
Marsha Greene: "For me, the cable half-hour is the most interesting space in television right now. From Insecure, Master of None, Atlanta, Transparent, we are seeing so many risks in form and structure, and there's a diversity in cast and voice that rarely exists in mainstream television. So it's exciting and gratifying to have the life of a Black woman join the ranks of these series on Netflix."
"And cinematically speaking, it's the perfect playground for a filmmaker like Spike Lee. Where else but in the cable half-hour could you have a gravestone montage, mixed with '90s hip-hop album covers, alongside one of Spike Lee's signature dolly shots?"
Motion: "Watching the series was like a master class in the Spike Lee school of filmmaking, witnessing the interweaving of his signature styles over the 10 episodes. As a viewer, it made me reflect on his legacy as a filmmaker, and his impact on film and culture in a contemporary context."
Sonia Godding-Togobo: "The journey I took while watching She's Gotta Have It felt parallel to Nola's journey to her self-empowerment. At the beginning of the series, I [was] frustrated with its theatrical tone and with the male characters who were caricatures. But I had to ask myself: why was I so focused on the men in the series? As Nola became clearer on how she wanted to navigate through her world, I too became clearer on how to receive the series. Nola is the centre of her universe and I was finally able to settle into how her fierceness was captured."
Music plays a huge role in the series. Why do you think it was such an integral component to the exploration of Nola Darling's story?
Motion: "Music is a character in the series, many characters. And the way Spike Lee integrates music, each episode plays like a master mix — sound, still and moving image, dialogue and lyrics."
"What I loved is that Spike not only underscores with atmospheric instrumentals [but] overlaps vocals with dialogue, and at times highlights the lyrics as text across the screen, so the interplay and conflict between voice, lyrics and music become part of the meaning."
The journey I took while watching She's Gotta Have It felt parallel to Nola's journey to her self-empowerment.- Sonia Godding-Togobo, artist
Audrey Hudson: "Music is a part of Black history. It has played a role in shaping our way of communication, artistically, politically, historically and socially. The music allows you to pause and deeply listen to the lives of the characters."
Anything else that you want to mention about the series?
Audrey Hudson: "Oh...that palette. I am enamoured with the life in that palette, the story it tells, the depth it holds and how much it represents the glorious hues of Blackness. The untouched chestnut browns, the burnt sienna, the towering yellow ochre and sweet and salty caramel made our melanin dance on the screen. This palette is a representation of Black portraiture. I imagined running my fingers over the dried up splotches of browns, and the faint smell of acrylic paint. The camera is directed on it intentionally stopping, but I wanted to see more of the details in the rainbow of browns and have a shot of the luscious lines left from the paintbrushes, which resemble the tantalizing textures of our hair. The palette is yet another character in the series."
Bahia Watson: "Personally, I can't get over the size of her apartment."