In 2004, when She Hate Me came out, I was assigned to write a story about Spike Lee for the San Francisco Chronicle, where I was a young features reporter at the time. The movie’s tagline was: “One heterosexual male. 18 lesbians. His fee…$10,000 each.”
Like a lot of Spike Lee’s work, I thought the concept was interesting, but I was worried about the execution. I missed one screening of the film, possibly two, and felt like my spirit was subconsciously trying to protect me from seeing the thing all the way through. (Roger Ebert, bless his soul, was probably the only person who wrote anything nice about the movie, which included animated sperm. )
The best thing about the movie was that it provided an opportunity for me to interview Spike Lee in person. His Malcolm X biopic is one of my favorite movies of all time. I wouldn’t see them until later, but When the Levees Broke and 4 Little Girls are two of the most important and beautiful documentaries ever made about black people in our country.
I respect Spike Lee because he has fought for and maintained against all odds complete and utter control of his artistic vision. He is not afraid to take risks, which makes me love him loyally and even more, because there is perhaps no bigger challenge for black artists in America than to take risks.
In the realm of creativity and imagination, black art is always cast as political, created in response to or because of oppression. Black art, like black genius, that is beautiful on its own merit, absent of political sensibilities, is not a concept that is understood, which is why most critiques of black cultural products that are not composed by people of color miss the mark. They cannot conceive of a blackness that is not self-conscious, reactive and that exists for its own sake or to encourage more of the same.
Anyway, even though I was intimidated by Spike, it was still an honor to speak to him and a very young Kerry Washington (also a Bronx girl). I rambled and he was patient but I had two burning questions:
- Would he one day find the discipline to end a movie properly? (I was thinking of the basketball launch from prison out into the world at the end of He Got Game; the montage at the end of X; Bamboozled, Clockers…I mean, there are 30 years of movies here to assess at this point, so you get the point. But it doesn’t matter because I never got the courage to actually ask this.)
- What did he think about criticisms that he only wrote one-dimensional female characters? (I did ask this: “Some people say that one of your flaws as a director is writing realistic female characters.” It could have been my imagination, but I remember him rolling his eyes at the first part of that question.)
There are likely some exceptions in Spike Lee’s work — of mothers, or sisters or women who are based on real-life characters — but by and large, women in Spike Lee’s films are rendered as caricatures instead of complex characters like male protagonists. It is always the men who have full and complete narrative arcs in his films, motivations that make sense, pragmatic drive and passion. Maybe because he is closer to them, he understands what motivates them, what they desire.
The women, though, tend to be caricatures. Troubled beauties. Whiny plot devices with a good line or two, amazing bone structure. This is them as love objects, as wives and lovers. As with all cultural products that are not meant to be humorous, maternal respect protects black motherhood from the same kind of flat rendering. But all other women are mysterious and odd.
When I asked Spike Lee about critiques of one-dimensional female characters in his films, he said that his wife and some time collaborator Tonya Lewis Lee helped him flesh out the women in his films. He didn’t say it but the look behind his thick framed glasses after suggested his answer should quell any critiques.
I thought about that again when I watched the She’s Gotta Have It Netflix series this weekend, for whom Tonya Lewis Lee is the show runner and for which there was reportedly a robust women’s writers room. This is the part you shouldn’t read if you haven’t watched it yet. SPOILERS BELOW.
- The best thing about She’s Gotta Have It on the small screen is that it is beautiful to see. The actors are lovely. The soundtrack is amazing. The art is also lovely. (I loved so much of the influence of Art Consultant and Artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh). The homage to black musicians and artists and blackness in Brooklyn is incredible.
- The second best thing about this is that Spike Lee is brilliant on the small screen. I think this has something to do with giving his ideas a container in which to work. Sometimes the best writing is short because it requires economy and discipline; I think television and documentary work help him refine his vision and rein it in in a way that is only positive in the end.
- In the span of 10 episodes, it’s clear that we are in a Brooklyn that is very different from the Brooklyn that Spike Lee has loved and grew up in his whole life. That informs the backdrop of the series in a way that isn’t distracting so much as it reminds you, regularly, that even though this a remix, it is very much a Spike Lee Joint. I’m not sure that’s a good thing. Is this about Nola Darling or is it about the male experience of Nola Darling?
- To that point about who this Nola Darling/series is for, maybe I should have expected there to be a moment about Trump and the 2016 Election, but 1. I didn’t and 2. I wasn’t sure why it was wedged in here. It felt like Spike couldn’t wait for his next project to get it out — much like his feelings on gentrification in Brooklyn — so he amplified them here.
- DeWanda Wise is wonderful as Nola Darling. She is beautiful and perfect and has great chemistry, especially with Anthony Ramos, who plays Mars, but really with each of her lovers. I appreciated the update for her as someone with a fluid sexuality. This is something that could have been a little more fleshed out.
- There is an odd heavy-handed series of comments on her black dress that needed to be condensed, and a scene in front of her art with Me’Shell N’degeochello playing while she’s spinning around that goes on for too long.
- Much has already been made and will be made about how delightful She’s Gotta Have It is for representation of black women and the complexity of it. I would argue that it is a good start (and even that is debatable because…it has been 30 years! Can you call yourself woke if you got up late?) but there are some pretty wacky missteps. The whole Shamekka/butt injection side plot and scenario leads to a narrative arc for that character that is obvious and literally messy on all kinds of levels. The whole time it was happening, it felt like a flashback, like a montage from another movie.
- At some point Nola makes the point, paraphrasing another woman, that she’s found the man of her dreams and it is her. It creates a bit of cognitive dissonance for someone who is essentially queer — is this the language she would use, then, to declare her freedom? Besides, in the end, it doesn’t seem that it’s even true — but maybe that’s just a set up for the next season.
In the end, I enjoyed She’s Gotta Have It more than I expected, and I’m curious to see where it will go from here. If you’ve seen it, what did you think?