The Messy Politics of Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It

The second season of the Do the Right Thing director’s Netflix adaptation dials back the romantic drama, but leans into tonally confused social commentary.

"She’s Gotta Have It" consistently allows Nola Darling’s insular worldview, which sounds suspiciously more like that of a middle-aged man than that of a young Brooklyn woman, to go unchallenged. (David Lee / Netflix)

By the end of She’s Gotta Have It’s first season, back in 2017, the show’s effervescent protagonist chose to abandon the three men she’d been dating. Nola Darling, the fictional Brooklyn-based artist who animated Spike Lee’s 1986 film of the same name, had found a new love worth pursuing: the principle of honesty. “That’s why I painted The Three-Headed Monster,” she said in one of her many fourth-wall breaking monologues, referencing the collagelike painting she’d shown the men during a surprise group dinner. “It’s about the truth, and I understand, often, that is the hardest thing to get to—to land at a place where folks can find openness, candor, and frankness amongst each other.”

It might follow, then, that the show’s second season would find Nola (played by DeWanda Wise) attempting to carve out a life—or to make art—that exemplifies this commitment to vulnerability and critical thinking. Unfortunately, Nola’s development seems far less important to Lee, who executive-produced the series, than bizarre political gripes. Unconvincing as breezy sitcom or weighty satire, Season 2 of She’s Gotta Have It diverges further from Lee’s romance-centric source material but offers its protagonist little imaginative recourse.

Absent the guiding conflict of Nola’s polyamory, the new season of She’s Gotta Have It fills those gaps in her life with troubling misrepresentations of several social issues. Many of Season 1’s uncomfortable moments had to do with the show’s inability to reckon with just how much dating norms have changed since 1986; Season 2’s are more egregious, stemming from sweeping misrepresentations of black history and simplistic indictments of contemporary oppressors. No sun-filled, Icee-laden, natural hair–heavy Brooklyn series could buoy that narrative choice.

She’s Gotta Have It is jarring in its tonally confused commentary, but it’s not a wholly surprising offering from Lee. The Brooklyn-bred Do the Right Thing director effectively treated gentrification of his borough as its own character in the show’s first season. Lee depicted these shifts through the same telltale signs that greet black residents; every episode opened with a shot of a real-estate banner advertising an outrageously expensive house for sale. The influx of rich, white residents caused problems for Nola, a cash-strapped artist, and her neighbors of color: The newest Fort Greene dwellers called the police on them and one of Nola’s neighborhood friends was incarcerated toward the end of the season after being misidentified as the perpetrator of anti-gentrification vandalism.

In this, the series offered a fairly straightforward critique of gentrification: White newcomers, especially young people with access to their parents’ finances, displace longtime black residents and cause material damage in the process. But Lee’s relationship to the phenomenon is not nearly that simple. Asked about his own role in commercializing black Brooklyn (from his new post in the Upper East Side, no less) in 2017, Lee defaulted to name-checking Do the Right Thing as evidence of his ostensible wokeness:

Spike Lee Is The Reason Why Fort Greene Is Gentrified? Get Da Fuck Outta Here With Da Bullshit. There Had To Be White Flight First For Gentrification To Happen. FACT. I Wrote A Scene (Way Back In 1988) About Gentrification In DO THE RIGHT THING Which Featured The Actor JOHN SAVAGE. FACT. So Your Questions/Narrative Are WACK!!!!

Last year, after reports surfaced that Lee had accepted $200,000 for his work on a New York Police Department PR campaign in 2016, the director Boots Riley called Lee’s Oscar-winning 2018 film, BlacKkKlansman, “a made-up story in which the false parts of it try to make a cop the protagonist in the fight against racist oppression.” Lee didn’t reply to Riley directly, but he did express frustration at those who question his ability to portray social dynamics affecting black people.

The indignation Lee displayed when his claim to black artistic dominion was questioned, even slightly, seems to manifest in various storylines of She’s Gotta Have It’s second season. The show takes easy swipes at white developers and arts patrons, but deploys its contempt in other directions as well. Perhaps most baffling is its apparent inability to imagine the subjectivity of non-American black people, including Brooklyn residents and artists. Papo Da Mayor (played by Elvis Nolasco), the neighbor who was arrested alongside Nola in Season 1, reappears early in the new season. She’s Gotta Have It makes him the subject of a brief interview that Nola conducts using her shiny new camera: Papo tells Nola that he would now like to be called “Divine,” a shift that occurred during his 18 months in prison because “I learned that I’m more than just Dominican; I’m a black man.”

Papo Da Mayor and Nola Darling (David Lee / Netflix)

If Papo served as a symbol of native-Brooklynian authenticity in the show’s first season, here Lee makes the curious choice to have the character spurred into a new consciousness only by incarceration—despite the fact that Papo presumably lived alongside other Afro-Latinos and black people of many backgrounds in his home borough. And Divine is not the only black man on the series who has a delayed racial awakening. Halfway through the new season, Nola meets a British Nigerian artist at Nation Time, the exclusive retreat for black artists that she’s selected to attend. The West African sculptor, a veritable mishmash of stereotypes about the continent, predictably catches Nola’s eye. Thus begins a multi-episode arc so tedious, it makes Will Smith’s Concussion accent sound like a lullaby.

The most important thing that viewers learn about Olumide Owoye (played by Michael Luwoye), Nola’s Nigerian beau, is that Nola believes he sculpts with “cow dung to reflect the prickly relationship between the black male visage and the white gaze’s distrust and enticement of it.” In one scene, she watches him construct one of his ostensibly African-inspired works in the nude; the visual cliche is never explained. Later, Nola tells him, “I’m not mad at Chewy-toy Ijeda-tofu. I’m not mad at John Puerto Rican Bodega,” hideous butcherings of “Chiwetel Ejiofor” and “John Boyega,” the names of two prominent British Nigerian actors (the latter has pithily weighed in on the line via Twitter). Olu, whom the series depicts clad in Ghanaian kente cloth despite his being from Nigeria, laughs as he tells her to stop messing up their names. Nola’s response, like much of her dialogue, sounds painfully like Spike Lee:

You know I’m just being slightly shady. Point is, I agree with my brother, Samuel L. You London blokes need to fall back and fall away from taking all of our roles. Like we have dope, talented, trained, qualified black actors right here in the States. And at the end of the day, black Brits just come cheaper.

Rather than explore any of the complex reasons black British actors aspire to American entertainment gigs—or question the larger gatekeeping apparatus that keeps all black people fighting for a handful of opportunities—the show’s writing doubles down on ahistorical condescension. Nola tells Olu, a black man raised in a country where most black people are the descendants of West Indian enslaved people, that Britain also participated in the slave trade. “You and your manz and your fellow black British blokes didn’t come out of the shit unscathed,” she retorts (the Netflix captions spell manz with a z and fufu, a common Nigerian culinary staple, as “foofoo”). “You just have Stockholm syndrome and fell in love with your captors.”

Olu, instead of rebutting her statements, tells Nola he loves her “fearlessness.” The two proceed to have sex. She’s Gotta Have It allows Nola’s insular worldview, which sounds suspiciously more like that of a middle-aged man anxious about his place in the entertainment world than that of a young Brooklyn woman, to go unchallenged. (Nola’s derivative art, with its many references to only the most overt forms of American racial violence, is regularly framed as inventive work; here, too, the show feels outdated at best.) The show’s treatment of Olu, who has a Yoruba name despite being written as the descendant of Fulani nomads, remains hackneyed throughout the season. In a particularly fetishistic scene, as Olu gives a speech at Brooklyn’s Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, he’s heckled by a woman who calls him “Mr. Coming to America.”

She’s Gotta Have It also has yet to shake its strangely regressive view of women. The series presents mawkish lines of dialogue that seem more like placeholder text than words people might actually say to each other. (In one scene, Nola is in bed with a woman named Opal Gilstrap; the latter punctuates their post-coital bliss with the painful sentence, “Nola Darling, you’ve been Opal Gilstrapped.”) The show is also palpably judgmental of women whose decisions fall outside the Instagram-ready shenanigans Nola gets herself into. Shemekka, a friend of Nola’s whose butt implants literally exploded in Season 1, once again serves as little more than a sentient warning: All viewers see her do is either liaise with a curiously accented character from Brownsville (played by Fat Joe), wistfully pine after a new job at a hair salon, or lament her botched surgery. Shemekka never gets justice.

Frustratingly—and unsurprisingly—She’s Gotta Have It’s most amusing character remains Mars Blackmon. Played by Anthony Ramos in the series, the character was embodied by Lee himself in the original film. In Season 2, Mars gets precious little screen time—despite a promising gentrification plotline—and when he does appear, his fizzy energy is too often lost amid buzzy repartee that mimics Twitter threads (indeed, all the episode titles are hashtagged). The resulting mess feels like a chore to watch, with chants like “Reclaiming our time!” meant to appeal to the same kinds of viewers who are most likely to reject aesthetic allusions as signifiers of principle.