After two seasons of "She's Gotta Have It," I still don't know who Nola Darling is.
Updated: Jun 22, 2019
When She’s Gotta Have It, the television series based on the 1986 Spike Lee film, premiered on Netflix in 2017, it became notable for its imperfections. The modern retelling of Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise), a polyamorous, pansexual Black woman living in Brooklyn, was burdened by outdated dialogue, excessive stylistic choices and underdeveloped themes. Still, the show offered intriguing portrayals of gender dynamics and young-adult life that were bound to flourish over time. In the second season, however, Lee refrains from the franchise’s original premise that observed Darling’s romantic relationships and focuses primarily on her career struggles and artistic journey. This may seem like an adequate approach for exploring the complexities of Darling’s behavior. But instead, we are left with a broad portrait of Black, female struggle that feels hollow and insufficient.
When season two begins, we find Darling amicably separated from the three male suitors that comprised her quasi-polyamorous circle - Mars Blackmon (Anthony Ramos), Jamie Overstreet (Lyriq Bent) and Greer Childs (Cleo Anthony) - and back in a monogamous relationship with Opal Gilstrap (Ilfenesh Hadera), Darling’s sole female love interest on the show. Their relationship ends abruptly after Darling rejects the boundaries Gilstrap set for her and her daughter Skylar. This plot turn is disappointing as we were just beginning to uncover more of Darling’s vulnerabilities and understand how she operates in a committed relationship with a woman. But like the first season, Lee and the rest of the show’s writers leave many of the emotional threads of Darling’s experiences hanging throughout the show, filling opportunities for her character’s development with vapid expressions of resistance and political commentary instead.
We see this in Darling’s repeated reckonings with the corporate side of the art world. When a music streaming service wants to use her “My Name Isn’t” campaign, which she created after her sexual assault in season one, for a series of ads, she rebuffs the opportunity for fear of being seen as a sellout. When she eventually accepts the offer, she is comforted by an affirming black, female executive who assures her that the ads will represent her work authentically. This is where we see how banal Darling’s political motivations are in her art. Darling’s primary insistence is that the images of the models be in color as opposed to black and white, for no other reason than that black people and people of color are already muted by society. Darling is, of course, entitled to her preferences. But this feels like a confining and dull way to approach art-making, particularly since the original She’s Gotta Have It is shot in black and white.
Ultimately, the company has final creative control and makes the decision she dreads without notifying her. This leads to a soapbox moment where Darling lectures a fellow black woman on the importance of black people being seen for who they are. The exec replies emotionally that she didn’t have the power she thought she had, but Darling is apathetic to this very real dilemma for black professionals.
Spike Lee is notable for these preachy moments of political dialogue that suit certain characters, like the overzealous Buggin’ Out in Do The Right Thing who demands that black people being added to the Wall of Fame in Sal’s pizzeria throughout the film. Likewise, there’s a beautiful episode this season in which Mars Blackmon brings Darling to San Juan, Puerto Rico that opens with him reciting a monologue about the historical oppression of the island. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work for Darling whose social commentary often feels disconnected from her normal way of speech and her lived experiences on-screen.
In the episode where Darling visits San Juan, Blackmon’s mother Dona Tina (Rosie Perez) says about her art, “what’s real to you and what’s real about the rest of the world are not connecting.” It’s an ironic critique to have a character relay in the show because so often Darling’s anxieties regarding her relationships and her art are treated separately from the institutional structures that hinder her as a queer, black woman. For most marginalized groups, particularly black women, we understand the personal is political. And yet the intricacies of Darling’s experiences are reduced to general proclamations over and over again.
An example of this is in episode four when Darling is invited to an all-black artists retreat called NationTime that takes place in Martha’s Vineyard. While there, she’s captivated by a sexy British artist named Olu who she ends up dating. More importantly, she’s disturbed by the presence of Dean, the cartoonishly problematic white dude we met in season one at her first art show, who turns out to be the primary donor for the event. While her discomfort is extremely valid, Darling can’t take a moment to focus on herself and her reason for being at the retreat in the first place, which is to explore the depths of her creativity. Instead, she creates an emotionally lacking self-portrait and calls out Dean for disrupting their “black energy space” in front of her fellow black artists. (There are other white people at the event who Darling isn’t bothered by.) This signaling is crucial in a larger discussion about the sacredness of black spaces, but it doesn’t pay off for Darling who still lacks an artistic voice by the time she leaves.
When Darling eventually attempts to hone her identity as an artist, it’s women who assist her. In San Juan, Dona Tina asserts that her calling as an artist is to “speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.” She repeatedly calls her the daughter of Oshun, the female orisha or deity who represents love, fertility and sensuality in Yoruba religions. Later, in the city, Darling sees the image of Oshun in a stunning black woman, draped in the deity’s signature color yellow, who walks by her on the street. It’s implied that this woman represents Darling’s potential self. But we still don’t understand what that means beyond the idea of beauty and liberation. What does Darling need to be liberated from to be great? How can she speak for others if she can hardly speak for herself?
The season finale sets out to encapsulate all that Darling has learned from her failures and triumphs when she holds her first solo art show. We anticipate a level of self-actualization to finally translate through her new art. But the result is an underwhelming and obvious depiction of black suffering via the signature piece in her collection. The so-called controversial painting is protested by a fellow artist and her friend Shemekka (Chyna Layne) but revealed to be something a lot less penetrating than described. It’s a self-portrait of a naked Darling being lynched by her braids. There’s not much commentary to be had about the portrait other than who has the right to see it, which would be an appropriate conversation if the piece was more compelling and nuanced. Instead, it’s so on the nose that as a viewer, I suffered from secondhand embarrassment looking at it, much like the ending of Lee’s latest film BlacKkKslansman that featured footage of the white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville and an upside-down American flag. To Darling and the most of the people around her, the piece is job well done, if not affecting.
After viewing the finale, I was left wondering whether She’s Gotta Have It the series will ever be able to justify its existence in our culture today. How can a tale about a queer, black woman in 2019 feels so unnecessary? The show had the most to offer with its original premise that focused on the complications and delights of polyamory and the ways men and women experience love. But once again, the writers are reluctant to explore the interior life of a queer, black woman in all of its richness and complexity and rely on broad themes to relay Darling’s story instead. As much as this show frustrates me, I long for Darling and women like her to be taken seriously rather than have their experiences subdued by creators and writers who refuse to understand them.