The fact that Spike Lee revisited his inaugural feature film She’s Gotta Have It in the form of a ten-episode Netflix series is a potent metaphor. The 1986 original, a black-and-white display of the young, beautiful Nola Darling, painted a progressive portrait of the “free Black woman.”
While challenging societal norms, sexism and misogynoir, the film maintained a comparable sense of delicacy. Its updated counterpart, a colorful, fragmented painting of the millennial “free Black woman,” leaves a lot less to the imagination. It’s long. It’s drawn out. It’s more dramatic. And the new Nola Darling is a hot ass mess.
This dichotomy is an accurate (albeit heavy-handed at times) representation of the evolution of Black womanhood. The 2017 Nola Darling SHOULD be a hot mess, because I’m a hot ass mess, and every Black woman I know who is trying to reclaim herself, is a hot ass mess too. But it’s because in 31 years, not much has changed.
She’s a hot ass mess because rape culture is real.
We all have one. A “this dude touched me without my permission” story. Too often, men invite themselves to our bodies and into our personal space with no regard for our desires. For Nola, an instance of street harassment (which is also a very real thing), escalated to the level of assault. Visibly shaken up, the event lingers with her character for the rest of the series, as Nola teeters on the line of desperation to regain her own control. This desperation, reveals itself in the form of Nola nearly blinding an innocent man who approaches her thereafter, when she panics and douses him in pepper spray.
She’s a hot ass mess because she has a lot to say, and is continuously silenced.
Nola, a talented and capable artist who paints illustrious portraits of the Black human form, is constantly reduced to her anatomy. Following her assault, during which she was called a “motherfucking Black bitch,” Nola begins an anonymous street art campaign. Featuring the faces of other Black women, she places the words “MY NAME ISN’T” across each of their faces, and proceeds to negate every substitute men use to refer to women: “Ay Yo Ma,” “Sweetie,” “Sexy,” “Bitch,” “Hoochie Mama” and the like. And, of course, what happens right after that? Another anonymous artist, a male artist, scribbles “THOT” and “HO” over her affirmations. In response to this, Nola makes yet another not-so-smart decision by spending her last red cent on a rather expensive, rather tight, rather short black dress. Why? Simply to subject her three suitors to slight torture, via her own autonomy. Traipsing about wearing her latest symbol of “I do what I want,” Nola literally goes for broke to preserve her own voice.
She’s a hot ass mess because Black men are more fragile than ever.
If this reboot of She’s Gotta Have It is to be taken at face value, the years that followed 1986 did very little to shrink the ever-fragile Black male ego. In fact, it has been magnified. As Nola Darling’s trifecta of men, Jamie Overstreet, Greer Childs and Mars Blackmon, are constantly confronted with her unabashed love of sex and self, it poses a threat to their masculinity. Each looking to possess Nola in their own way, the incessant elephant in each room remains: none of them are the coveted “only one.” Jamie, who is married for God’s sake, continues to swear off his adultery as a “complicated” situation, while vying for Nola’s affections with his money. Greer, whose metrosexual aesthetic and French upbringing do little to mask his toxic masculinity, pretends to go with the flow. That is, until he decides that he is ready to be one-woman man. Mars, in all his charming dyslexic glory, awaits the good deed that’s good enough to get Nola to drop her other companions. In the meantime, he refuses to stop calling her a “freak.” Drowning in all this Black male ego, Nola decides to rekindle an old flame with a woman she is not inherently ready (or mature enough) to be with. Not every escape leads to a better destination.
She’s a hot ass mess because #BlackLove is more than a hashtag.
One thing 1986 and 2017 have in common is that the beguiling idea of “Black love” is a dream that once realized, is proven to be an achievement that must be fought for. Black men and women do not exist in a vacuum; we are expected to love ourselves and one another in a world that does not love us. In an episode that highlights Donald Trump’s presidential election win, viewers are reminded that our protagonist’s love life is only one part of the story. As she is clawing her way through being silenced and shamed in her everyday life, she is also being silenced and shamed on the national stage. As is Jamie. As is Greer (who constantly reminds us that France is not as racist). As is Mars. Nola’s fight is twofold: against sexism and misogyny, and against institutional racism. While being stripped of her right to self by Black men, she must also fight for those very Black men. This is depicted when she willingly gets arrested to defend Papo, the homeless “mayor” of her Fort Greene, Brooklyn block.
She’s a hot ass mess because getting free is hard AF.
The most powerful scene in She’s Gotta Have It features Nola Darling visiting the grave sites of pioneers such as Florence Mills, Paul Robeson, James Baldwin and Duke Ellington. A tear-jerking reminder of those who fought the good fight before her, the scene also highlights Nola as her ancestor’s wildest dreams. Being a champion of her own “Black female form,” deciding how and when she wants to wield her sexuality and denouncing monogamy for monogamy’s sake, are all strenuous strokes Nola Darling takes to swim against the current. Sometimes she gasps for air, sometimes the current pushes her backward, sometimes too much water gets in her nose. But the fact that she still swims is what makes the hot ass mess, beautiful.