A New ‘She’s Gotta Have It’: Spike Lee’s Feminist Breakthrough

A New ‘She’s Gotta Have It’: Spike Lee’s Feminist Breakthrough


In the past, Mr. Lee often challenged such characterizations of his work. In my interview with him about “Chi-Raq,” his 2015 adaptation of Aristophanes’ classic satire “Lysistrata,” he asked me if I actually watched the movie when I posed the question of how women could stage a sex strike without the threat of assault.

In an interview earlier this month, Mr. Lee was less defensive. “I’m 30 years older, and the world has changed,” Mr. Lee said. “I think that Nola’s character is such a strong character. She is a woman who is juggling three men, and I think there are more women like that now. But the way those women are judged hasn’t necessarily changed as far as men go.”

The move to television — and having 10 30-minute episodes to play with — has also contributed to the evolution, allowing Mr. Lee to flesh out Nola (played by DeWanda Wise with an alluring mix of charisma, vulnerability and confidence). “We shot ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ in 12 days in summer of 1985, and it was 86 minutes,” he said. “This thing cost millions and was a 63-day shoot. We have a much bigger canvas, and a bigger canvas gave us more time and more resources to show Nola Darling, a struggling artist today in gentrified Fort Greene.”

And with television came a writer’s room, one that Mr. Lee filled with African-American female artists and writers, including his wife, Tonya Lewis Lee, whom Mr. Lee credited for conceiving the film as a series. (Besides several children’s books, including “Please, Baby, Please,” which recast Mars Blackmon’s humorously desperate plea to Nola as a parental appeal to an inexhaustible toddler, this is the couple’s first major project together.)

“Nola is a female character created by a man. In the process of making a show, that became even more apparent,” said Ms. Lewis Lee, who is an executive producer on the show. “So we added female voices to put the meat on the bones of this female character, and there would be moments where Spike was like, ‘I don’t understand what you guys are talking about.’ ‘That’s because you’re a man, and there are things you can’t see as a man, as open as you try to be. So listen to us, and let us help you.’ And he did.”

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In the TV version of “She’s Gotta Have It,” Nola (played by DeWanda Wise) has become Mr. Lee’s most feminist heroine yet.

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David Lee/Netflix

One conversation in particular stood out to her. It involved the scene in which a slightly inebriated Nola, after spending the evening hanging and drinking with her best friend, Clorinda, stumbles down the street to her home. “As a woman looking at that, it’s very different, you recognize that real vulnerability that you feel,” Ms. Lewis Lee said. “And sometimes men don’t see that.”

Of the eight writers credited, four are women — Radha Blank, Eisa Davis, Joie Lee (Mr. Lee’s sister) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage (“Ruined” and “Sweat”). And their involvement has altered the depiction of Opal, a lesbian character who Ms. Hooks previously described as “predatory.”

“Times have changed,” Ms. Nottage said. “And Opal appears in a very different way now. Opal offers Nola stability and love in a way she struggles with some of the men.”

Ms. Nottage added that Nola is “a woman who is polyamorous with fluid sexuality” and is incredibly attracted to Opal as a lover as well.

The show does not only expand Nola’s sexual universe, it also pays attention to the ways in which her and other black female characters’ bodies are constantly under surveillance (by white shopkeepers), exploited (at a local burlesque club or on reality TV), threatened (by police officers) and even assaulted (by everyday men on the street).

“The original film ends with this very violent attack against Nola, which wasn’t adequately addressed,” Ms. Nottage said, referring to the highly criticized scene in which Jaime rapes Nola. “I think now we have the tools to have that conversation, particularly in the African-American community, in a really open way.”

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Nola’s sexuality no longer feels comedic or unconventional, thanks to strong African-American women depicted on shows like “Scandal” (starring Kerry Washington).

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Eric McCandless/ABC

Though Mr. Lee has expressed regret about that scene, he said addressing those criticisms was not his motivation in engaging the topic more forthrightly in the TV series. “People forget, I’ve been in the game for 30 years,” Mr. Lee said, modifying the number of years with an expletive. “That stuff just slides down my back, and I keep doing what I’m doing, keep trying to perfect my craft.”

(This comment came immediately after he listed a range of critics of his early work, including Ms. Hooks and David Denby and Joe Klein’s prophesies in New York magazine that “Do the Right Thing” would cause uproar or a race riot.)

The rape scene does not appear in the TV version of “She’s Gotta Have It.” Instead, in the first episode, Nola is assaulted on the street by a stranger, serving as a catalyst for her to find her voice as an artist and activist.

As an oil painter of African-American portraits and a guerrilla-style artist who anonymously begins an anti-street harassment campaign, Nola represents Mr. Lee’s native Brooklyn, the frequent setting and subject of most of his films, at a crossroads.

Tatyana Fazlalizadeh is the creator of the “Stop Telling Me to Smile” public art campaign, which was the inspiration for Nola’s art in the series. “I moved to Brooklyn five years ago, and when I got here, I immediately started doing my project,” she said. “So for me, being a woman, being an artist, being harassed on the street, experiencing the public space as a woman is my experience here.”

While “She’s Gotta Have It” seems attuned to the complexities of these of women’s stories, the show also grapples — in a more sustained way than in the movie — with the tensions and traumas of gentrification. In this way, Nola is a far more radical artist and, for that matter, character than her contemporary Brooklynites on “Girls,” “Search Party” and even the racially diverse “Master of None.” For her, struggle as an artist is heightened by rising rents; cultural disagreements with her new, affluent white neighbors; and the displacement of black residents who, like her, have lived in Brooklyn their entire lives.

“With gentrification, no one talks about people who get moved out — that’s never the conversation,” Mr. Lee said. “God bless, if we get two more seasons, we can explore these things, the good and the bad, about the Republic of Brooklyn.”



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