Film / TV

she’s gotta have it, unless “it” is black and british

May 30, 2019
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She’s Gotta Have It’s first season was a tricky exercise in transitioning Nola’s character into the 21st century. What happened was that Millennial Nola, so full of promise, ended up becoming a Black female version of a Twitter bot set to “woke.” Her adornment of identities felt forced but we sat and binged because it was a Spike Lee joint in the great white sea of Netflix films and shows. Also, everyone wants to get lost in the absolute fallacy that a struggling artist Nola could live in a loft that big this side of, well, capitalism. Essentially, we were all aware that she was never going to be everything to everyone but audiences returning to Nola’s story never expected anything more than someone more grounded. Season 2 has given us no chance to even pretend that no one, not even the writer’s room, is sure what “it” is that Nola has got to have this time around, turning a once infamous Black female character into a mouthpiece for a disgruntled Black male creator.

#ShesGottaHaveIt2 just dropped on Netflix and one scene is dominating any and all conversations surrounding this season. In episode 5, Nola sits with a strapping Nigerian gentleman called Olumide ‘Olu’ Owoye — portrayed by Hamilton performer Michael Luwoye — who sported a questionable British accent while clad in Kente cloth that looks like it came from an African-inspired Fashionovva Man drop. Let’s just say, the minefields were abundant even before anyone opened their mouths. Nola began her tirade by telling Olu, ”I agree with my brother Samuel. L. You London blokes need to fall back and fall away from taking our roles.” She then went ahead to mispronounce the names of Chiwetel Ejiofor and John Boyega as a cute way of depicting annoyance at Hollywood’s propensity for importing Black actors from Britain.

Because it’s obvious that this was a statement and not a conversation, Olu’s reply to Nola’s “teasing” amounted to nothing more than arguing that Black Britons don’t have the “baggage” that Black Americans have. In Olu’s words: “Black British actors are better suited than Black American actors for Stateside roles because they don’t carry the burden of fucked up Black American history, of lynching, slavery, Jim Crow, all that.” That shallow assessment gave Nola the opportunity to teach a Black British man about his own history. Nola told Olu, “British ships were the dominant force in the Atlantic slave trade. Almost two million kidnapped Africans died during the Middle Passage so you and your mans and your fellow black British blokes didn’t come out of the shit unscathed.” Oh, and let us not forget Nola’s unceremonious conclusion that Black Brits “fell in love” with their captors and have “Stockholm Syndrome.”

I’m so glad someone like Spike Lee would spend 40 years building a career where he can control and tailor his message, just to go and tell another group of Black people about their own experience. Like Nola mentioned, the catalyst for this powder keg of a discussion was an interview done by his long-time collaborator and the Patron Saint of ‘Motherfucker,” Samuel L Jackson. The Avengers actor criticized the hiring of British actors for American roles — a take spurred by the casting of British actress Cynthia Erivo and Black historical giant, Harriet Tubman. In his words, “They don’t cost as much,” Jackson said. “Unless you’re an unknown brother that they’re finding somewhere. They think they’re better trained, for some reason, than we are because they’re classically trained. I don’t know what the love affair is with all that. It’s all good.” Safe to say Jackson and Lee have discussed this topic in depth if Nola’s “You London blokes” comment is anything to go by.

Black Britons know about Britain running the slave trade. Black Britons experience racism covered by a PR machine much better than the United States’. Do you know who doesn’t know all this — almost everyone else in the entire world because, thanks to white supremacy in the UK, the world doesn’t learn about the experience of Black people in Britain. To be clear, that is not to say that it is a point of privilege to have your oppression have the most visibility. The point is that having revered Black figures push a “They’re taking our jobs” narrative, right now, is just irresponsible. Words mean things and in 2019, we are not going to pretend that Black people are exempt from that. We cannot entertain the erasure of any part of the Black community.

It’s not like we don’t see it. Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in 12 Years A Slave. David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma. Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out. Idris Elba as Beyonce’s husband in Obsessed. Black British actors are taking Hollywood by storm but can we honestly entertain the argument of “they’re telling our stories” when narratives across the diaspora have been adapted by artists that don’t adhere to the notion of stories being confined to nationality? For instance, Nelson Mandela, a South African political legend, has never been depicted by a South African actor in a major motion picture. Forest Whitaker won an Oscar for playing former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. When Black actors from the West depict African stalwarts, the understanding is that the best person was hired for the jobs, so can Africans start taking being excluded from their narratives personally? Can we start telling Black American actors to leave African stories alone? No, because it’s not that simple.

DeWanda Wise deserves better. Chiwetel Ejiofor deserves better. John Boyega deserves better. Uncle Spike’s eccentricities have gone from bearable to dancing along the edge of xenophobia and as much as the intent may not reflect that, we have all been witnesses to the kind of damage those kinds of ideas can cause. This isn’t a game and using “shade” to sanitize a badly written, bad-faith argument is so far below the caliber of art that Lee has gifted the world and it’s disappointing that he would compromise his creation to allow his writers to make Nola a human pulpit for his more messier ideas.

Olu concludes the entire exchange by saying, “That’s why I love you Nola — your fearlessness in an era of fear.” This is perhaps the most aggravating line in the entire scene because the entire sentiment is not fearless — it is the definition of fear, accompanied by the misdirection of the frustration linked to that fear. There is nothing fearless about an artistic giant erecting figurative walls between Black people within the film/tv industry when the walls to keep all Black people out are being taken down, brick-by-brick. That is fearless. If she’s gotta have anything, let her have a little bit of that energy.