At first blush, Nola Darling, the lead of She’s Gotta Have It, Spike Lee’s reimagining of his 1986 film of the same name, seems like the perfect black female character for this point in history. She’s unapologetically queer, describing herself as “pansexual polyamorous” to her therapist while saying in the same breath she doesn’t believe in labels. She’s an artist who is emotionally messy and self-absorbed in ways black women rarely have the space to be in public or private. She boldly communicates political musings in fourth-wall breaking monologues about Black Lives Matter and the gentrification of Fort Greene, the Brooklyn neighborhood she’s called home since birth.
Yet despite all the promise Nola (played by the gorgeous and effervescent DeWanda Wise) holds on paper, she grates more than she entertains. Many of the issues I had with the series — the insincere handling of female friendship, the questionable framing of Nola’s sexual life and identity, and the jarring stylistic quirk of displaying album covers after a song ends — were easy to identify early on. But it took until the finale, which centers on a particularly fraught Thanksgiving dinner Nola hosts, for the root of my umbrage with the series become clear: its sloppy characterization and shallow radicalism.
She’s Gotta Have It, which Lee directs and is written primarily by black women, including playwright Eisa Davis, allows the auteur to reimagine his earlier work for a new generation whose vernacular and sexual politics are dramatically different than the people its first iteration was speaking to. The loose, colorful ten-episode series follows Nola as she navigates trying to make a living as an artist and her casual relationships with three very distinct men: the married professional with a bit of a knight-in-shining armor complex, Jamie Overstreet (Lyriq Bent); the profoundly narcissistic photographer who has the gall to call himself the “Biracial Adonis” with a straight face, Greer Childs (Cleo Anthony); and the fast-talking, forever-joking Mars Blackmon (Anthony Ramos). Each man offers Nola a different energy and sexual dimension to her life. She has a long list of rules in order to keep these dalliances on her terms (sex only happens in her apartment, and she always use protection for starters). But despite Nola’s ability to go on and on about who she is is and what she wants, she has an aimless quality and startling lack of self-awareness, which is blatantly apparent in the finale.
“#NolasChoice,” which is written and directed by Spike Lee, sees Nola come to a decision about the men in her life which, at best, doesn’t seem all that different from how she’s operated since the first episode, and at worst, feels like a parody of the sort of identities strewn across social media by women who attend Afropunk and self-identify as “carefree black girls.” The Thanksgiving dinner exemplifies the most profound failures of the series: its inability to understand the generation it depicts, or black female desire, with any nuance.
In “#NolasChoice,” Nola cooks a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner, inviting each of the men in her life over with none of them aware beforehand that the others would be there. The fact that they didn’t bolt when it becomes apparent what exactly is going on already strains credulity. This is a symptom of the larger issue within the show. She’s Gotta Have It is a blunt rendering of the emotional and intellectual terrain of its characters, most of whom feel little more than thinly drawn archetypes. The costuming of the characters during the dinner only highlights this. Jamie’s finely tailored suit underscores his professionalism and traditionalism. Mars’s casual attire punctuated by a bevy of patches and oversized accessories touches on his brash, juvenile nature. Greer unsurprisingly slinks into the apartment wearing a deep purple suit with a mesh back, lace sleeves and a tight cut because he needs to be the center of attention in any room he walks into. That Nola isn’t dressed yet, wearing a silk scarf on her head, highlights her desire for transparency and acceptance. The costuming choices in the finale only bring to mind how these characters are exactly what you expect them to be at first glance. Of course, Nola’s desire for transparency isn’t the bold, feminist act Lee frames it as, either.
Nola has spent the series defiantly proclaiming she won’t let any of these men box her in, that her desires alone will dictate the parameters of these relationships. Despite what she extols, none of these relationships are all that casual given how they dictate her art, mood, occasionally support her financially, and feel like the center of her life. In the fourth-wall-breaking monologue that frames our understanding of the Thanksgiving dinner, Nola proclaims she’s all about “truth” and “candor” right now, that she’s graduated to a higher level of understanding. But inviting all these men over while keeping them in the dark isn’t an act of honesty, but an extension of the selfishness that has defined Nola since her introduction. This selfishness seeps into every corner of Nola’s life, from her relationships with friends to the rekindled, albeit brief, romance she has with Opal (Ilfenesh Hadera), a single mother drawn to Nola despite recognizing their incompatibility. When Jamie asks, “What’s the real purpose of inviting all of us here?”, Nola insists she wants to be transparent while chastising her guests for not having any idea of who she is. Throughout the show, Nola mentions that she has a Rashomon effect on her lovers, name-checking the 1950 Akira Kurosawa film in which each character has wildly different interpretations of the same event they witnessed. But I don’t think that’s quite true. Mars, Jamie, and Greer all see Nola as a sexually adventurous, seductive figure they want to protect and even save to various degrees. I think the real truth is that she sees herself differently depending on who she’s with, and is so unsure of who she wants to be she blames this conundrum on the men in her life.
I have always been drawn to female characters that hew toward selfishness and indulge in their darker impulses, from the femme fatale played with tawdry malevolence by Gloria Grahame in the 1950s to more recent inventions like high-heeled fashion icon Carrie Bradshaw, the always stylish, sharp-tongued Toni from Girlfriends, and the The Good Wife’s Alicia Florrick in the final seasons of the show. These women can be bold, entrancing, and instructive toward the ways modern women wrestle with constraints placed on femininity. And I’d love to see more black female characters of this ilk. But Nola doesn’t live up to the complexities of her predecessors. When she answers her paramours’ questions about the what the hell is going on by saying, “I am the man of my dreams,” it’s positioned as a potent moment of a woman choosing herself rather than the men in her life who try to sway her. But there’s also nothing about their actions that suggest they’re threatened by her sexuality despite what she’s mentioned to her therapist. This proclamation crystallizes why the show’s handling of sexuality and late 20-something identity isn’t only shallow, but infuriating: The writers co-opt easily digestible feminist rhetoric to mask and support the selfish toxicity of an aimless character. She takes no responsibility for her actions or how uncomfortable she makes these men feel by placing them in this Thanksgiving dinner situation. She preemptively ends any chance for them to speak their grievances, saying, “That’s for you to deal with.”
The Thanksgiving dinner culminates with Nola showing her paramours a painting titled “The Three Headed Monster,” a realistic, overlapping portrait of each man completely nude and anatomically correct. They’re shocked and a bit pissed off, rightfully. (Although Greer is delighted to know he has the biggest dick, of course.) “Objectification is a bitch,” Nola notes. But this painting isn’t the action of a woman making a feminist statement or taking hold of the reins of her life to comment on being mistreated by her romantic partners. It’s an act of emotional cruelty and remarkable callousness. Have these men really objectified her? Couldn’t Nola have found a better way to let them know she wasn’t interested in dating them anymore? Is she really no longer interested in them, or is this a redux of her “man cleanse” from earlier in the season?
In an interview with Vulture, Spike Lee explained that he didn’t write the entire series because “I didn’t have the time to write ten episodes. Also, there was no need for me to write ten episodes because this was a story that didn’t need to be told entirely through a male gaze.” She’s Gotta Have It may have a writers room dominated by women, but its conception of Nola belies an inability to understand sexual freedom and desire for black women of her generation beyond buzzy terminology like “self-care” and explicit sex scenes, suggesting that the issues of the series aren’t just a matter of the male gaze, but a generational divide.
She’s Gotta Have It is undercut by several concerns I’ve been having with modern television, particularly those geared toward young black folks like myself, including Insecure and Dear White People, to varying degrees: feminist rhetoric as a shorthand for actual, layered characterization; an interest in crafting moments perfected to create conversation on Twitter but little else; the inability for even good shows to revel in and respect the desires of its black female leads; and the commodification of black-girl cool. In the past few years, particularly since Scandal introduced us to Olivia Pope in 2012, black women have slowly gained more visibility within the television landscape, even though we’ve always been paragons in pop culture, setting trends and sparking movements. But this rise in visibility has felt profoundly empty in some respects. Black feminist rhetoric and a very specific sort of aesthetic, which Nola Darling exemplifies, has become a brand identity rather than a natural extension of the character’s interior life.
By the closing moments of the finale, I was left wondering, do Lee and his collaborators even like Nola Darling, or is she a vehicle to critique and parody a generation that has been widely considered as selfish as it is politically progressive? It’s easy to glance at She’s Gotta Have It and see it as radical for placing a self-identified artistic, queer black woman at the center of this milieu. But admirable intentions don’t distract from the artistic and political failures of this series. While She’s Gotta Have It represents progress in its most basic form, Nola isn’t granted the interiority I’m still yearning to see portrayed onscreen.