Film / TVSex & Gender

in spike lee’s ‘she’s gotta have it’ reboot, black women are more than their sexuality.

November 22, 2017
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By George Johnson* / AFROPUNK Contributor

In 1986, Spike Lee’s film debut She’s Gotta Have It created an epic shift in Black culture, showcasing a Black woman’s fight for agency over her own body in what TV Guide described as “an unflinching look at modern sexuality — specifically black sexuality.” Netflix’s 2017 version doesn’t vary far from the original script, keeping most of the characters names and paying homage to a lot of the same imagery, but with a significant twist:

This time, the story is told through the lens of the Black woman rather than a man who observes her. By reframing the story as both by and about a Black woman, it highlights Black women’s quest for agency outside of just their sexuality, and presciently exemplifies the totality of Black womanhood today.

On Tuesday, November 7th, Netflix hosted an exclusive first look of Episode One followed by an all-star panel at the IFC movie theater on 6th Avenue in Manhattan. The sold-out event consisted of fans, filmmakers and journalists, and gave insight into the importance of She’s Gotta Have It’s protagonist Nola Darling to the Black woman’s condition, both now and historically.

Opening with a monologue that is repeated from the original nearly verbatim, we were instantly taken back to where it all started in 1986, absent the black and white aesthetic. The choice to shoot the show version in color indicates how full of life this Nola Darling will be. The power of her words intertwined with her femininity, beauty and down-to-earth realness is once again a breath of fresh air in the midst of what is still a pattern of so many un-layered characters offered up for Black women.

Delving into the complicated relationships sexually fluid women have with men, the tensions involved in friendships with women of various backgrounds and cultures and the never-ending problem women face from street harassment, the episode covered a lot of ground. But what is so significant is that we don’t just witness how the world views and treats Nola, but also how she views herself against the world’s perceptions of her.

She’s Gotta Have It reminds us the myriad ways that Black women face misogynoir from a society that denies their right to be sexual beings without the connotation of being a hoe or promiscuous.

Even when Black women are upfront and honest about who they are and what they want, men will still attempt to assert ownership over their bodies. This sense of entitlement is demonstrated in one of the more powerful scenes about street harassment, a far too common form of unwanted to advances that oftentimes leads to violence and death. The themes around this issue correlate to the work of Black women like Feminista Jones who created the #YouOkSis campaign as a pushback to this unfortunate truth most Black women are forced to live through in a male dominated society.

There has been a sudden burst of Black characters as leads over the past 5 years, which has showcased many sides and character dynamics through the lens of a Black woman. Mary Jane Paul, Olivia Pope, Annalise Keating, and Cookie Lyons have each given the world a view into a Black woman who is the central character, and is flawed yet powerful within her professional and family dynamics.

She’s Gotta Have It’s Nola Darling gives us yet another look at a Black woman, but one who isn’t the 9-5 businesswoman type, just a girl trying to find her way in a world not so accepting of one so carefree. Nola is a dog walker, a tutor, a sugar baby, and very proud of all of these things.

The panel session following Netflix’s screening was an extension of the expanding representation of Black women on the screen. Featuring DeWanda Wise (who plays Nola), series Executive Producer Tonya Lewis Lee, series writer/co-producer Radha Blank, series writer Eisa Davis, award-winning author and journalist Demetria Lucas D’Oyley, and media maven Kierna Mayo; and moderated by “Image Activist” Michaela Angela Davis, the discussion served to shed light on the writer’s room and direction of the series, and explain why Nola Darling is still an icon for Black Women.

All women started by sharing their story of where they were when they first saw the original movie. Their words were moving, and a masterclass of not only how to show up in a world that is not built for you, but to also ensure that your narrative is told by the people who have lived and shared in the intricacies of that experience. Tonya Lee spoke candidly about how this version of the tale was updated from the original to specifically embody the image of Black women in 2017. She highlighted the importance of Spike handing over the torch, so to speak, to a room full of Black women, and allowing for Nola to finally tell her own story from her perspective.

In a powerful moment, Radha Blank shared testimony of what it’s like being a Black woman in the television business. Almost in tears, she reminded the young women in the room—many of whom were students at NYU’s Tisch film school—that they had to be responsible for themselves first. Only Black women are taught to carry this burden of having to take care of everyone, and Blank reminded us that Black women taking care of themselves first would always lead to everyone else being taken care of anyway, because making space for others is what Black women do.

Her most impactful statement, however, was the confession that some days she has to choose between being a writer or a Black woman/the voice that is missing from the writer’s room that day. It brought me back to Nola, who played different versions of herself throughout the episode based on who was around, asserting her voice when needed, yet knowing when to pull back. Black people often carry the burdens of our own existence with the expectation to protect those who don’t have a seat at the table. Radha’s statement was a reminder of how much farther writing rooms and representation must go to ensure people of all identities are being recognized as fully human.

She’s Gotta Have It is a testament that Black women can be more than everything, but still not enough, and the reboot provides a necessary reflection on the struggles everyday Black girls still face just to make it in society.

Black women have been owned in their roles as the mothers, caretakers and saviors of the world. It’s finally their turn to take back their agency, and put themselves first for a change.

She’s Gotta Have It premieres Thanksgiving night on Netflix.

George M. Johnson is NY based Journalist and Activist. He has written for Entertainment Tonight, EBONY, TheGrio, TeenVogue, NBC News and several other major publications. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram