The day after Thanksgiving, I stayed up until 4 a.m. watching the Netflix reboot of Spike Lee’s 1986 movie, She’s Gotta Have It. I met Nola Darling between glasses of eggnog and plates of my sister’s reheated Thanksgiving jambalaya. After the first episode, I realized that Nola was familiar to me. I’d seen her around before: in Brooklyn, at art galleries, at parties, in my own uptown neighborhood and, in some ways, in myself.
Nola is a 28-year-old sex positive, polyamorous pansexual artist living in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. She is caught in a love pentagon — stuck between three distinctly flawed male partners (Jamie Overstreet, Greer Childs and Mars Blackmon) and a female partner (Opal Gilstrap) she struggles committing to. Just like so many women I know, Nola faces street harassment and assault, money troubles, the challenge of self-love in a time when body modification is increasingly popular, subtle racism and the gentrification of her neighborhood — problems that are uniquely affected by the fact that she is a black woman.
The furious treading Nola performs simply to navigate her life in this country felt relatable to me even before I watched her navigate her relationships. The more I watched, the more I felt a kinship to Nola and the lessons she learned in real-time. Soon I realized exactly why she felt so familiar.
Love yourself as you are.
I remember when I first started doing my eyebrows, my father would walk into the bathroom where I was standing with tweezers aimed at my forehead and jokingly try to knock them out of my hand. “Be as you are! That’s your personality,” he would laugh, gesturing to all of the errant hairs.
While I’m not sure I would grow in my wacky eyebrows even now, or showcase the “personality” that grows all around them, my father’s message was right. True love is accepting that you are exactly as you’re supposed to be, just as you are. The more I cherish my face, my body, my personality and my life, without modifications, the closer I become to loving it all, for real.
Though she may not be able to pay her rent on time or remember where she misplaced her keys, Nola is very, very clear about self-love. Not only does she accept her own sexual identity and desires completely and unapologetically, which is still uncommon for on-screen female leads, she also loves her body and her art. Nola exists in complete contrast to her friend Shemekka, a woman who slowly begins to give in to the pressures of the critical world around her and modifies her body. I’m not sure that Shemekka’s choice to change her appearance is indicative of a lack of self-love, but it does illustrate how impressive it is that Nola remains true to herself in this culture.
Ownership is not love.
A few years ago, a man who had just moved into the building in which I grew up tried to kick me out of my own lobby. I was standing there with my sister and a friend, waiting for that friend’s mother, when he told me, “This isn’t Port Authority. You can’t just stand here.” He scoffed when I told him I lived there, rolling his eyes at me. “Yeah, right.” He didn’t leave until I repeated myself as I pulled my keys out of my pocket and shook them in the air.
Suffice it to say, when Nola deals with gentrification in She’s Gotta Have It, I relate. I’ve experienced the feeling of someone telling you that you don’t belong, even though you belonged before they arrived. New neighbors have called the police on me, just like they called the police on Spike Lee’s father, a renowned jazz musician, because his music was too loud. I’m sure that experience informed the way gentrification is presented in She’s Gotta Have It.
Gentrification isn’t simply presented to Nola as a next door neighbor who tries to evict the neighborhood’s homeless “mayor,” either. It’s presented in all of the men she dates. Gentrification is like a partner who chooses you for your potential or public appeal, rather than for love. Just like a partner who believes you’d be perfect if you only changed your hair, or your interests, or the way you laugh, choosing a neighborhood that will be perfect once the neighbors stop playing their music or chatting in the lobby, once the bodegas and the diners are replaced with high-end grocery stores and clothing stores is wrong.
Sexual freedom is threatening because it threatens patriarchy.
Somewhere in the middle of the series, Nola’s therapist suggests she do something that makes her feel confident, so she buys a little black dress. She looks and feels great in it, but her positive attitude is diminished when each of the men she is dating tries to tamp down her sexiness when she wears it. Even though each of them enjoys Nola’s sexuality personally, when she chooses to be sexy in a way that has nothing to do with them, they try to get her “under control.”
When I first began to talk about abstinence openly, male opinions flooded in. I accepted that talking about my personal life would open it up for commentary. It was the nature of the comments that bothered me.
Sure, there were men who understood that I was choosing abstinence because I was trying to fight against misogyny in a culture that didn’t seem to understand any other way that I tried to assert myself. Some guys understood that I was exhausted and wanted to take time for myself. Some men understood that I decided to be abstinent because too many of them still equate sex with power.
But there were also men who asked me about how I was able to stay abstinent, who seemed to think abstinence increased my moral value, who pursued me in order to best the other men I’d written about who’d tried and failed; there was one man who asked me over and over again if I wanted explicit pictures of him.
The problem in my life, and in Nola’s, has less to do with the act of being sexual or abstaining from it and more to do with the act of using a female body without the consent of the patriarchy.
How society handles sexual assault must keep evolving.
Tarana Burke created the #MeToo campaign in 2007 and, even though it took ten years for it to go viral, nearly 60 powerful men have been accused of sexual assault or harassment since it did in October. In my own life, the effect of #MeToo wasn’t just the dozens of hashtags on my timelines, it was women I know approaching me to share their stories of workplace harassment, assault and rape.
Toward the end of Spike Lee’s original She’s Gotta Have It, Nola Darling is raped by Jamie Overstreet, who is frustrated because there’s nothing he can do to make her commit to him. Even though she mentions the rape in the next scene they share, it’s treated as a minor issue, and she still chooses him over her other lovers. The relationship doesn’t end up working out, not because of the glaring incident that took place just a few scenes earlier, but because Nola says that he’s too controlling, flippantly, in her final monologue.
In 1988, feminist scholar bell hooks critiqued the movie. She wrote that Nola was simply a stereotype of female liberation and, through the rape scene and the submissive treatment that followed, the patriarchy won.
Spike Lee has been quoted as saying the handling of the rape scene in the original She’s Gotta Have It is his only regret as a director and, according to a New York Times article about Lee’s “feminist awakening,” this time, there are far more women who worked on the project, including his wife, Tonya Lewis Lee, who was an Executive Producer.
The rape was removed from this version of She’s Gotta Have It, and when the new version of Nola is assaulted by a cat-caller as she walks home one night, she starts a guerrilla street campaign inspired by a real-life artist, she has conversations with friends, and she experiences PTSD. Her character’s response is finally congruent with the trauma she experiences.
I hope that the evolution of Nola’s character represents the type of change we will go through as a culture, from reinforcing patriarchal attitudes through our treatment of women, to truly respecting and honoring female voices and experiences. The lesson here is that our society has a pervasive problem, but we can fix it. We need to.
And, yes, #MeToo.