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She’s Gotta Have It: Sexuality, spirituality and #metoo

13 Jun 2018

 

 

(Spoiler alert)

 

 

Supreme God. I give thanks. God of earth, father, baba [1] of the crossroads, may your blessings reach upon my life. May you remove all negative obstacles from my path with your divine wisdom. May it be so. Mother, goddess of sweet river water, of abundance, love, light and creativity, may the sweetness of your honey flow in my life. I give praise to you Oshun [2], who descends from heaven as a messenger of God on Earth. Ase o [3]. 

 

This prayer is uttered by the beautiful and charismatic artist Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise), the main character in Spike Lee’s series She's Gotta Have It (2017) - now in it’s first season on Netflix. A second season has been confirmed, but the launch date has yet to be released. 

 

The urban, and rather superficial cultivation of West African traditional goddesses has arguably been widely popularized and established in the diaspora, for example, after Beyoncé's Grammy performance in 2017.  Gods like Oshun (water and gold) and Oya (wind and fire) have become common in pop culture, partly because they appeal to independent black women who lack empowered female references in Western Christianity, and partly because the goddesses’ liberated characters are so easily digestible – read sellable - when the visually appealing symbolism is detached from the complexities of mythology and cult.

 

Apart from the above, I see other reasons why Spike Lee has chosen to use these elements in the series, even though in a rather subtle way.  I’ll come back to that.  

 

She's Gotta Have It originated from the movie of same name, released in 1986. It was Lee’s first feature-film project, or “joint”, as he refers to his audiovisual works. The film unfolds in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and tells the story of Nola (Tracy Camilla Johns), a libertarian visual artist who struggles to get accept for her polyamorous sexuality. At the time, twenty-eight-year-old Lee displayed an explosive creative power and craftsmanship, acting as writer, producer, and director, in addition to playing one of the main parts, as Nola's probably youngest lover, the jabbering and peculiar Mars Blackmon. The film is widely regarded as a watershed in the American entertainment and film industries when it comes to the representation of Afro-American characters.

 

In addition to Mars, Nola shares her “loving bed” - a double bed installation with a high headlight, illuminated by tens of crown lights - with the mature and serious Jamie Overstreet (Tommy Redmond Hicks), and the snappy and full-of-himself Greer Childs (John Canada Terrell).  She is also interested in a woman, Opal Gilstrap (Raye Dowell), but their story is not developed further.  The original Nola of 1986 is a beautiful, intelligent, artistic and urban black woman, an innovation in American film.  Unlike stereotypical blaxploitation icons such as Foxy Brown (1974), Nola is a breath of fresh air on the film scene.  

 

Despite her independent and uncompromising nature, our anti-heroine is exposed to a series of misogynist aggressions, culminating in rape,  causing her to doubt herself and question her own power. The rape scene and the way it was (not) treated dramaturgically has been the subject of strong criticism and, in a way, has stigmatized Spike Lee as a female-hostile filmmaker.  In multiple contexts, he has stated that he regrets this choice.

 

The misogyny present in the film, which permeates the words as well as actions of all three male characters, is not very prominent in She's Gotta Have It 2017. Indeed, Mars (Anthony Ramos), Jamie (Lyriq Bent) and Greer (Cleo Anthony) never really understand Nola – who does? - and all of them want to own her; they react like typical, trivializing victim-blamers when she is assaulted on the street in the first episode, but they are later given more depth and complexity as characters.  As the season goes on, the audience is introduced to several layers of their lives.

 

After the assault, Nola looks for spiritual guidance, but both her consultation with a psychic fortune teller and the session with a strange new age masseur turn out to be rather deceptive. Nevertheless, Mars, now a Cuban-American, happens to have a sister, Lourdes (Santana Caress Benitez). Although not a major character, she is central to develop the plot from a perspective of the spectator's dramaturgy, as a spiritual guide, a woman dedicated to the mysteries of the Afro-Cuban gods.  Lourdes is the one who shows Nola that she herself is the only one who can ultimately be responsible for her own energy. Likewise Dr. Jamison (Heather Headley), the psychotherapist who appears in the same episode, Lourdes does not try to convince people of the truth of what she says.  Her character elucidates that the meeting of tradition and science potentializes true power, the key to female empowerment and strength.


The two episodes in which the Yoruba tradition appears are about sexuality and healing after sexual trauma. They deal directly with the power of art from a feminist-resistance perspective, and with an almost eerie timeliness, indirectly connect with the #metoo movement - the series was recorded one year before the movement took off and was launched almost simultaneously as the famous New York Times article about Harvey Weinstein.  

 

Lee’s choice in adding a spiritual dimension to Nola Darling, which was not present in the film, may also be attributed to the fact that the multi-faceted character has been approached by a dream-team of female dramatists, who were chosen to write four of the ten episodes: Empire writer Radha Blank, Columbia professor Lynn Nottage, Pulitzer nominee (and Angela Davis' niece) Eisa Davis, as well as actor, producer and dramatist Joie Lee (Spike Lee's sister), who played Nola's friend Clorinda Bradford in 1986 and is Nola's mother in the series. The original idea for ​​the series comes from Lee’s wife and producer Tonya Lewis Lee.

 

I've been totally hooked on She's Gotta Have It, and binge-watched the series several times. I’m aware of the problems and critical remarks about the show. But despite Nola's fragmented personality, her apparent carelessness for her friends Clorinda (Margot Bingham) and Shemekka (Chyna Layne), and not least for her fourth lover Opal (Ilfenesh Hadera), Spike Lee seems to have dived deep into the mindset and universe of an African American millennial woman. And he placed it all into such a fascinating and complex context that I can’t help looking forward to season two. Perhaps he will even ease his grip on the director’s chair and let a female film maker take the seat?

 

Translated from Norwegian by Iva Gavanski

 

Sources: Wikipedia, IMDb, Netflix, She’s Gotta Have It Facebook-side

 

 

[1] Language: Yoruba. Means «father»

 

[2] Yoruba mythology: goddess of the fresh waters, love, creativity and  motherhood. Elements of her cult include honey and gold.

 

[3] In Yoruba tradition, Ase is the force of life, the vital energy that must be present in all creation, both on Earth (Aye) and Beyond (Orun). The term is often used as a spiritual encouragement expression.

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