The Netflix original series, She's Gotta Have It, brings to the fore questions of race, feminism and sexuality in America. Mphuthumi Ntabeni considers whether the series lends itself to constructive and meaningful conversation or whether it's an example of an extreme swing of an entertainment pendulum.
To properly understand this Netflix series we have to go back into Spike Lee’s 1986 debut directory movie, Gotta Have It. At the end of that movie his central character is raped by one of her male lovers. “It was just totally stupid,” Lee said in 2014. “It made light of rape. If I was able to have any do-overs, that would be it.”
It is clear that with this new 10-part Netflix series, Lee has given himself a do-over. As it happens with these things, he has ran with it blindly to the opposite tipping point of the pendulum swing.
The show depicts a ‘free’ life of a black artist young woman, Nola. She has three different lovers, what her psychologist (it wouldn’t be American without the psychologist couch – their modern Delphi Oracle castle) calls her ‘three headed monster', from whom she derives different fulfilments: upper culture and sophistication from the rich married banker; Afroculture from the younger hip-hopping bicycle café mechanic; the perks of selfie-me-me culture from the preening narcissist ‘gorgeous’ looking model-photographer. There's also the quiet self assurance she gets from the lesbian single mother lover who dumps her early on the show to - you guessed it – reappear at the end. She labels her a confused tryo-sexual (will try anything sexually to see what fits with her character). In a manner that is possible only with fiction there are no complications, socially or otherwise, though they seem to all be living in the same suburb of Brooklyn in New York. Neither are there any serious morally ones on that department - she takes us into her mind about everything.
Something about Nola reminds me of some feminists who exploit reductive iterations of gender theories to avoid serious moral engagement with themselves. Her mantra is about destroying binaries - where have we heard that before - to show that you don’t have to choose between things to be fulfilled. Destroying binaries is an in-thing for our generation: we must be transsexual, bisexual, homosexual, or, if downright boring, heterosexual, if we like; schools must have only unisex toilets, so that children are not raised with gender specifics, because – wait for it - this encourages patriarchy, and so on. The confusion emanating from correlating gender with sexism and misogyny is wearisome, but an argument for another day.
As I was saying, the series is about the visceral experience of being black and female in our postmodern era. It’s musical narrative is pleasantly lyrical – I would give the show a major award just for having soul. But the slam poetry tends to be hectoring and maudlin, and though it has pretensions towards it, it is not attuned to vanguard feminist scholarship. The genius of the story developers is that they’ve anticipated these critiques. It inserts characters - who know Nola from her past - to comment on her present actions and opinions in weird episodic intervals. Most of the time this leaves the audience slightly confused and irritated, because your role is being usurped by these jarring intruders whose only role seem to shut you up from having an independent opinion.
My disagreement with the mores of the series does not mean I didn’t like it. Sure it is often pretentiously upper culture, and mawkishly jazzy, but this is not what bothered me most. For one it picks issues to interrogate very well, too well in fact, to an extent that it seems everywhere at the same time, thus nowhere satisfactory all the time as the result. It lacks subtlety in addressing the issues it picks, ending up bamboozling them; is often didactic and, frankly, preachy.
But it’s political commentary, especially the Donald Trump bashing, is pertinent. I am sure it is also cathartic for black Americans, as is for the rest of us. At times the show is poignant, as in a manner it handled the gentrification incident that ends with Nola being jailed for defending a homeless guy who lives in their street. The scene beautifully demonstrated the necessary intersectionality of authentic feminism. It is also artistically reminiscent of another excellent scene from that masterly done series, Atlanta, itself playing on Netflix. Both shows pick with impressive skill all the modern pertinent issues of being black in America.
In the interview about the show Spike Lee says he’s “attempting to point out the ways in which black entertainers have exploited the crassest, basest stereotypes about themselves to hack it in a media landscape that doesn’t see them as complex or humane.” The problem is in making the series into what it critiques. For instance, in trying to show that #BlackLivesMatter it inadvertently promotes a notion that nothing else matters much, thus bordering on racism and rejection of humanism beyond blackness – again an issue I often have with radical black activists who swing so far and end up in the realm absurdity historical known as fascism (think Andile Mgxitama). In criticising patriarchy Nola tends to be iconoclastic and devoid of any value system to contrast it with except the me-me selfie culture trappings. As such she seems schizophrenic sometimes, and mostly superfluous in her anger. This, in my opinion, not only obscures her authentic message, but is what lets the series down.
The series is often contrarian without substance – because, as I indicated, it lacks a fixed position (be it philosophical or religious) to evaluate things. Hence the protagonist often comes across as just a loud mouth who is angry at everything and everyone. And the areas meant to be satire don’t quite land most the time, feeling too forced, stilted and pitched at extreme frequency that becomes exhausting after the second episode or so. Whereas the message would have been exceptionally communicated had it be done in a more grounded manner. Most disappointing is it’s putting on the flea-ridden blanket of male chauvinism in the guise of misguided feminist.
They often say about our times: if you’re not angry you ain’t paying enough attention. Rightfully so. But you can’t allow your anger to dictate your reaction and, or, responses; especially when you are black and, or, female. Otherwise you give them ammunition to deflect or dismiss you. Your anger must be like white fire - felt more than seen. That way its direction and channeling is dependent on you, that way, you’ll will define and control your circumstances, not the other way around. In the words of yet another great series from a Margaret Atwood book, The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu): Don’t let the bastards grind you down! SA.
Note: She's Gotta Have It contains adult themes. Click here for a cautionary review on its content. This review has been published to encourage readers and The Church to grapple with key issues pertinent to culture and society.