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On Shes Gotta Have It Spike Lee Uses Archetypes To Show The Fluidity Of Blackness

   by Emerald Pellot




When I heard Shes Gotta Have It was getting a modern reboot I was curious but mostly meh on it. I am decidedly not a fan of Spike Lee. Which isn’t to say that despite Lee’s body of work’s many problems (many woman problems — ahem), his projects have no merit or value. Rather, it’s that Lee is an auteur and I am just not into his point-of-view all that much. Not everything is for everyone.

My interest peaked when I saw Pulitzer-prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage was a producer. In fact, half the writers room is made up of women. Lee also rightfully disavowed the film version’s rape scene.

In 2017, Shes Gotta Have It shifts from the male gaze of its 1986 counterpart to its subject’s: Nola Darling. We get to see the self-described “sex positive polyamorous, pansexual” artist advocate for herself instead of just hearing about what her male lovers think of her. Nola has four lovers: an older hood to riches entrepreneur type, Jamie Overstreet, a narcissistic, biracial photographer, Greer Childs, an eccentric, Afro-latinx with dyslexia, Mars Blackmon, and a mature, business-owning woman, Opal. None of her lovers are happy about their relationship being open — but each of the men believes they can seduce Nola into a commitment. They want to possess her.

The show is far from perfect but that doesn’t mean it’s not good. There are some flaws. Lee, like Aaron Sorkin, writes dialogue that is often a mouthpiece for his own views or heavily stylized which can sound contrived or feel preachy. We want to read thinkpieces about TV we don’t want our TV to be thinkpieces, right? Some of the characters are cartoonish, some of the choices like splicing in album covers between scenes are cheesy, and some of the pacing is off. It’s up to you if you want to deal with the sometimes shoddy execution. Ultimately, I felt like it was worth it to see the show navigate its theme of self-actualizing while black.

Some (racists) would argue that networks like BET, magazines like Ebony, or television series like Shes Gotta Have It which put mostly black individuals front and center are institutions of reverse-racism. Others (who are also racists) might even prefer this “separate but equal” approach to creative industries. While it is obvious to anyone with several braincells that these institutions serve to create spaces for black folk due to our exclusion from others, an all-black cast also serves a unique purpose: to demonstrate that not all black people are the same.

This is where Shes Gotta Have It both prevails and fails. Each character is a bit broad serving as a vessel to debate the merits and flaws of an Issue. For example, Nola’s friend, Clo, believes a black woman shouldn’t modify her body to appeal to capitalism’s beauty standards. Shemeka, who is more insecure, doesn’t have the same confidence in her blackness because she doesn’t have the same access to education and class privilege as Clo. Thus, Shemeka finds the idea of plastic surgery enticing. Nola’s personal preference is to remain natural but doesn’t judge Shemeka for her choice to get butt injections. Ultimately, Shemeka pays the price when her back alley butt injections burst. In this storyline the characters aren’t people, they’re ideas to be reconciled. Writing with archetypes isn’t inherently bad, it is simply an approach to writing. However, it’s an approach that is best suited for films that serve to explore grand ideas with little time and space to do so. Television gives writers all the time in the world to develop characters. Either you will like this about the show or you won’t. That’s fine. Do you.

Here’s why I like it. It is easy to read Shemeka’s story as a cautionary tale, as Lee’s own premise about what black women ought to be. Yet, there is more ambiguity in how these archetypes are dealt with. Clo’s point of view is not demonstrated to be the “right” one. Her overzealousness and rigid definitions of blackness make her judgmental and ultimately cause her to betray Nola in a way that violates her personhood and autonomy. However, Clo’s self-assuredness and stubbornness is why she’s so damn successful. Nola’s free love and fluid attitude toward life is what makes her charming but also what makes her immature, unreliable, and sometimes self-centered.

Mars’ boisterousness makes him joyfully affectionate and annoying. Jamie’s success allows him to be both nurturing and patronizing. Greer’s narcissism makes him entitled but it also empowers him to be unapologetically flamboyant. Opal is focused but closed off in her efforts to set boundaries. Yes, all the characters are “types” and “ideas of people” but none is premised to be the right kind of person, the right kind of woman, the right kind of black. Or the wrong one for that matter.

Nola says she is a Rorschach test for her lovers who project their mores and desires onto her. This is demonstrated when she wears a short dress (as a coping mechanism to feel joy after a violent encounter with a street harasser). Each of her lovers are aroused by the dress but is repulsed by her pleasure in showing off her body. After a (white) art critic views her work as not black enough and lacking a point of view, she cuts up the very same dress and uses it to create a portrait of herself with the words: “If I didn’t define myself, for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies of me and eaten alive.”

The question Shes Gotta Have It asks is what happens when we let others define us (as black people)? The answer is: a loss of agency. Thus, in the finale Nola chooses herself not any of her lovers. Still, while the story is Nola’s, like everything Lee does, it is also about black people. It’s about black people rejecting the notion that we are a monolith. That we can be pinned down and corralled into a box. Blackness makes room for monogamy, for polyamory, for women in short dresses and men in purple velvet, lacy blouses, for weaves and afros, for pleasure and pain, for light skin and dark skin, for mixed races and mixed up people, for multitudes and subjective preferences. The irony is that Lee uses black archetypes to show that there are none.

Emerald Pellot studied cultural criticism at NYU. She has been blogging professionally for 6 years and founder of the accessories brand GRL TRBL. She is a self-taught illustrator, Libra, and shamelessly addicted to moody television dramas that subvert trope and norm.