afropunk interview: spike lee on ‘she’s gotta have it’
May 20, 2019
When She’s Gotta Have It, the film written and directed by Spike Lee, was released in 1986, it was not only a breakthrough for Black culture, but was also a new way of creating and producing movies. It was the mid-1980s, and, much like today, a time of social, political and economic shifts in world. The ‘80s were about Wall Street, when money and power were at the epicenter of global political war, financial crisis, the development of technology and space travel. Remember: Ronald Reagan was President. There was also a Renaissance of Black culture happening in New York City’s Downtown. Whitney Houston and Prince were topping the pop charts. And there was also a burgeoning new sound in the underground called rap that was literally giving young people a platform and a soundtrack to voice their political perspectives.
She’s Gotta Have It was part of this counter-culture movement. The film poetically begins with a quote from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, which speaks about women, their dreams and their truth. The critically acclaimed, independently produced feature was artistically shot in black and white, and part of the Afrocentric movement of the time. The story — about a young Black woman named Nola Darling who deconstructs patriarchy by unapologetically having three lovers — featured a gender role-reversal ahead of its time. Spike, who hails from Brooklyn and graduated from Morehouse College, was at the vanguard of shifting storytelling in Hollywood to be more inclusive of Black voices, Black characters and Black narratives. The writer Trey Ellis later called this era “The New Black Aesthetic.”
You see, Spike was the face of — and force behind — this new emergence of Black creatives who wanted to transform the art of movie-making. At the same time, he helped build a legacy of professionals who would work behind the scenes in all aspects of the film industry — as cinematographers, music composers, screenwriters, costume designers, all of it — creating opportunities for other people of color and women in Hollywood’s often white-male power structure. When you look back at 1986, Spike’s vision and determination were groundbreaking and radical. Spike wanted to revolutionize and reimagine the way we see ourselves on the silver screen (and now streaming platforms). And while Spike’s been creating films for more than 30 years, he was never nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director until this year for BlacKKKlansman, which also garnered nods for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay — the last of which finally won him an Oscar.
In 2017, She’s Gotta Have It and its main character Nola Darling (played by DeWanda Wise) were revived and reborn for a new generation as a series on Netflix — and Season Two is set to launch on May 24th. The series follows the bohemian Nola Darling as she moves through a gentrified Brooklyn, exploring her art, her love life, and herself. AFROPUNK sat down with Lee at his 40 Acres and A Mule Filmworks headquarters in Fort Greene, Brooklyn to talk about the significance of She’s Gotta Have It and the importance of education in creating our Black future.
So, Nola’s growing up.
SPIKE LEE: Well…
I remember these Hertz Rent-a-Car commercials, they’re my favorite commercials… Ask me that question again: did Nola grow up?
Did Nola grow up?
Not exactly. You remember that commercial?
Not exactly. But, for me, that’s what makes her interesting. One of the themes I’ve thought about that keeps recurring in my films: the choices people make, and the ramifications of those choices. Because the wrong choice could set you back, or you end up being dead. Some serious consequences with the choices people make. And Nola’s just trying to make it work, but… This is the best way I could say it. Nola Darling is a work-in-progress. She’s not finished yet.
How did you develop Nola’s character in this Millennial, social media, creative, angsty world we now live in?
Well, I had great writers. I mean, you get the credits, but the majority of the writers in the room were African-American women [Joie Lee, Rhada Blank and Lynn Nottage]. We got a great, great staff there. Much younger than me. And then I have two children. Jacks and Satchel. Especially Satchel’s working in the room, as assistant. She’ll be very quiet, but something will come up, that has to do with Millennials and technology and stuff, she would say, “Uh-uh, this is how it goes.” Because I don’t know. I mean, I need them to turn on the television.
So back to She’s Gotta Have It in the ’80s.
Came out ’86. We shot it the summer of 1985. July 1 to July 14. Two six-day weeks. We had Sundays off. Twelve days we shot that film. It cost a hundred seventy-five thousand dollars, and ended up making eight and a half million dollars. So that’s how I got to do School Daze. A lot of people don’t know this. The script of School Daze was written before She’s Gotta Have It.
Did you know, at the time, when you were making She’s Gotta Have It, that it would be revolutionary?
No. I knew there’s an audience for the film, but I wasn’t thinking about it being revolutionary. I knew that there was a young, Black, hip audience for this film. But it’s funny, because people don’t remember: not everybody was on board. There was a strong group of women who did not like that film.
Because she was too sexualized?
Yeah, but then on the other hand: “We love Nola.” So it was split 50/50.
She’s very, kind of, feminist in her own way.
Well, nah, the feminists didn’t think that. And another thing is that: people forget, that film is only 86 minutes. We have a series now. Season One, we had five and a half hours. So it’s a much bigger canvas to paint on. And it’s not just from a Black male viewpoint, because I was not the sole writer. I only wrote two episodes of the 10. This season, we have nine episodes. I couldn’t have had 10 episodes and shoot in Puerto Rico and Martha’s Vineyard, so I had to…I mean, budget-wise. This season, I really wanted to get out of Brooklyn. So we go to Puerto Rico and Martha’s Vineyard. And, in fact, Martha’s Vineyard is an artist’s retreat there. So that really came out good. Carrie Mae Weems is in it — and a whole bunch of cameos.
I love the cameos. The cameos are great. So how hard was it to bring Nola from ’86 to the present?
It wasn’t hard. We just had to realize: the world had changed. Nola has to be of the present world, and not ’86. There’s still some qualities, but we had to really deal with what’s happening today. And it wasn’t really that hard, because many people in the writer’s room had not seen, or weren’t allowed to see She’s Gotta Have It.
I was going to say: weren’t even born.
Yeah, weren’t born, or weren’t allowed to see it when it came out. So they’re not coming from the perspective of a 1985, really, when we shot it.
But there’s also a lot of, kind of, political and social similarities in these times as it was in the ‘80s, right?
Yes, exactly. Black folks still catching hell. That ain’t changed.
In fact, that’s why I’m wearing this hat. Because, you know, this year’s the 400th Anniversary of our ancestors being stolen from Africa and brought to Jamestown. How far is Hampton [University] from Jamestown?
I don’t exactly, but not that far.
400 years ago. People gotta know about this. 1619. 400 years. Jamestown, Virginia.
So how do you think that you are helping to move Black liberation forward with your art?
Well, I mean, you can have debate on that, whether people think that. I think what gets overlooked is how many people come out of 40 Acres, how it acts like a launching pad. A lot of people come up, do 40 Acres, who work in the industry now. So that’s a big part of the legacy. Because this thing is not set up for us to win. That’s also why I teach at NYU. I’ve been there 16 years or so, and I’m an attending professor there. A lot of people come out of there too. [Composer/trumpeter] Terence Blanchard been doing this since Jungle Fever. It’s the first time he’s ever been nominated. [Ed. Blachard was finally nominated for Best Score for BlacKKKlansman.] My long-time editor, Barry Brown. He’s been my editor since School Daze. He’s never been nominated. And we’ve never nominated for Best Picture or myself for Best Director.
How do you feel about all these firsts? It’s 2019, and there’s still all these Black firsts.
As an artist, I’ve felt that you lose your power when you give anybody, or any group, or any individual, the power to validate your work. And I really understood that after… People talk about Do The Right Thing getting nominations, but Malcolm X, Denzel got nominated. He should’ve won. Ruth got nominated, she should’ve won. And I didn’t get any nominations. So after Malcolm X, I was, “All right, fuck it. I don’t need anybody’s validation, I’m just going to keep doing the work.”
What do you want people to take away from She’s Gotta Have It, and specifically Nola?
Well, I tend not to answer those questions — about takeaways — because I really respect the audience’s intelligence, and they don’t need me to tell them what to think. That’s the great thing about art. I mean, me and you could look at… that album poster there, that was the original album cover of Bad. And record company said, “Uh-uh, we’re not doing that.” Because the veil over his face. But any piece of art. We all have different opinions. It depends what your background is, and influences. We react to shit differently. So I try not to poison their minds: “Well, Spike said this, so I should approach that …” And that’s another thing. I go to movies all the time. It’s getting to a point that I want to come late so I miss the the trailers. Because they put the whole motherfucking movie in the trailer. Some of these trailers, I seen the movie already. I’m not going back. I saw the movie already. You gave everything away. And these marketing companies are so unsure what they got. “That a comedy?” They’re going to put the best laughs, the best jokes in the whole thing, or the best stunts… What’s to discover? You seen it all in the trailer.
Last question. So you talked about all these amazing people that have come out of 40 Acres and a Mule, and your students at NYU. Why is important to continue to teach and share and bring up a new generation?
Well, I come from a long time of edumacated Negroes. My great, great grandfather was a disciple of Booker T. Washington in Alabama. My father’s side of the family is from Alabama. My mother’s side is from Georgia. So I’m a third-generation Morehouse man. When my father was a freshman at Morehouse, Dr. King was a senior. And his son, Martin Luther King III and I, we were in the same class at Morehouse. ’79. My grandpa went to Morehouse. My mother went to Spelman. My grandmother went to Spelman. My grandmother was an art teacher, and she taught art in Jim Crow Georgia. So for 50 years, white students missed out on a great teacher. Great teacher. Because of, really, apartheid. That’s what you got to call it. My mother taught your boss at AFROPUNK [Jocelyn Cooper] — my mother taught at St. Ann’s.
So education’s just been a very important part of my heritage. And education is key. It’s criminal now, that whatever the number is…what? 35 percent of young Black men don’t graduate high school? You have to check the figure. But whatever it is, it’s too high. And there’s a direct pipeline from dropout to being incarcerated.
We got to change that around. This all comes back to this 1619 thing. We must remember: at one time it was against the law for our ancestors to read and write. It was against the law. And you get caught, a master caught your Black ass doing that: whip, beat, castrated, hung, and burnt. And if he was having a bad day, it might be everything I just said.
But on Sundays, under the guise of going to church and singing, and hollering and hooting, we were learning how to read and write. So our ancestors risked their lives to get an education. Because they had the wisdom to see that would be one of the ways to help us to get out of bondage.
So if we don’t educate ourselves, that’s like spitting in our ancestors’ face. That’s the way I feel. And I’m not speaking for anybody else but me, and I understood that this shit is set up. We’re in the worst schools, the worst books. I understand that. I understand. I’m not saying it’s all our fault.
But I’ve also seen where if you’re a young Black kid, and you’re getting A’s, and you speak correct English, you get ridiculed. You get bullied. You’re getting A’s. A young Black kid’s getting A’s. How do they become a “white boy,” or a “white girl,” or a “sellout”? That’s just genocide. Where the culture gets turned around, and ignorance is championed. So you’re getting A’s, you “talk white.” But if you’re on the corner hanging out, then you’re keeping it real. The hood. Gangsta. That value system has to be turned around. Education can’t be a bad thing.
And what’s really perverse is that these young kids… and, look, I got love for them. I understand that shit’s hard. But what’s perverse is that they attach education with being white, and if you’re on the corner, or whatever it is, and you’ve dropped out and hanging out, then you can say “that’s Black.” That’s not it.
I don’t know what the answer is, but we have to make our young Black children understand that education is hip. Education is cool. To be educated is dope. It’s not corny. Being educated is not wack. We got turn that. I mean, that’s the key. Education’s not whack. Being miseducated, uneducated, is wack. Got to flip that shit.
And I think that people like myself, even more people than me, we got to get that message out. They ain’t listen to me, but they’re going to listen to some other younger people. And yo, they need to start talking about that shit. Education is key.
She’s Gotta Have It Season 2 premieres on Netflix on May 24, 2019.
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