Conversations around rape and sexual assault have made progress in recent decades, but at a glacial pace. And it feels like openly discussing rape culture has only been deemed somewhat permissible very recently, with the prominence of the Weinstein rape allegations and subsequent revelations about other abusers. But if Hollywood’s recent watershed moment in outing sexual predators has taught us anything, it’s that these dialogues need to keep happening, and not only from the perspective of the white and privileged. Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It, available to stream on Netflix as of November 23, which was adapted from Lee’s own film by the same name, does just that with a Black woman at the centre of the discussion.
Best known for classics like Do the Right Thing, Crooklyn and Malcolm X, Lee’s career launched with 1986’s indie classic She’s Gotta Have It, which centred around Black Brooklyn resident Nola Darling. Independent and free-spirited, Darling had three lovers—successful and self-involved Greer, naive Mars and mature but vulnerable Jamie—but didn’t need love, and always lived life on her own terms. The movie was hailed as progressive for its depiction of Black womanhood that went beyond stereotypes of the sassy sidekick or otherwise secondary character. In fact, The New York Times‘ original review starts by saying, “Nola Darling, the heroine of She’s Gotta Have It, a movie by the young Black film maker Spike Lee, has too many men in her life. She doesn’t think so, but each of her three lovers does. The situation is not entirely comic; while the film satirizes selfishness, sexual stereotypes, role-playing among black men and other follies, its presentation of Nola turns serious, even poignant.”
That said, the film’s 80s-era progressiveness can feel dated for today’s audience. Darling is presented as a woman seeing multiple men at once… and not much else, which would feel unrealistic to an audience that, if they’re anything like me, craves multidimensional female characters like the women in our real lives.
For Netflix, Spike Lee expanded and modernized Darling’s story into a ten-episode series set in present day. Still dealing with the same issues of navigating sexuality, independence and Black womanhood, the series gives us what the feature film couldn’t. Rather than simply focusing on Darling’s three suitors and her relationships with them, we get a glimpse into her life as an artist and millennial in gentrifying Brooklyn. We see her go to therapy, hang out with her friends and parents and try to figure out what success means to her as an artist. But the film and the series diverge most prominently in how they deal with sexual assault.
In a 2014 interview with Deadline, Lee expressed his regret at including a rape scene in the original She’s Gotta Have It. “It was just totally… stupid,” he said. “It made light of rape and that’s one thing I would take back. I was immature and I hate that I did not view rape as the vile act that it was.” In the film, after a tense confrontation with Greer, Mars and Jamie, all of whom want her to choose one man, Darling invites an angry James to her apartment. After an encounter that begins as consensual, he forces himself on her in a graphic rape scene. The next day Darling meets a friend, recounting how she probably blew it with him and that he was very angry. Ultimately, she tries to pursue a relationship with Jamie—but when speaking to him about the night, she can hardly admit it’s rape, instead calling it, “near rape.”
Lee went on to declare, “I can promise you, there will be nothing like that in She’s Gotta Have It, the TV show.” And he kept the promise—the series didn’t feature any rape scenes. It did, however, deal with sexual assault in a way almost any woman will find all too relatable. In the first few minutes of the show, we see Darling speaking directly to camera, explaining what it’s like to walk the streets of Brooklyn. We’re shown the various types of catcalling she’d hear throughout the day. But while the scene is meant to be humorous, it’s mostly foreshadowing events to come. At the end of the first episode, after leaving her friend’s house, she is attacked by a man. The scene plays out in an all too familiar way: first, the man yells, “Hey sexy!” but the interaction escalates into Nola being called a bitch when she keeps walking, and eventually leads to the man grabbing her after she verbally defending herself. She runs home shaking. The next day, with a new resolve, she decides any man who wants to be in her life will enter it on her own terms. She channels the frightening experience into her work, posting street art bearing phrases like, “My name isn’t sexy” and “My name isn’t boo.”
Watching Darling get harassed plays on one of most women’s biggest fears: that a man catcalling you will suddenly go from annoying to outright violent in mere seconds. But the scene and its aftermath were handled with a care and nuance we rarely get to see afforded to Black women on television.
Despite being presented realistically, the assault is nonetheless frustrating to watch. As Darling quickens her pace and responds to the harasser without actually looking at him, it felt almost *too* real. Street harassment is a unifying female experience, almost a twisted rite of passage. With the recent wave of sexual misconduct coming to light in Hollywood, campaigns like the viral hashtag #MeToo have shown us what we already know—while common, this type of violence should never be normalized. Especially since, despite these massive strides in Hollywood, most of those who have become faces of the #MeToo conversations have been famous white women. For women of colour, these conversations don’t happen in the same space. For Black women especially, they sometimes don’t happen at all. In a study by Georgetown Law, it was revealed that compared to white girls, Black girls are seen to need less nurturing, protection, support and comfort. Black women are forced to maintain an image of strength, mostly because we’re given no choice.
In light of the types of discourse we’re seeing around sexual harassment today, it’s refreshing that the series treats the instance as more than simply a bad experience. In episode three, Darling’s therapist tells her what every victim of sexual harassment needs to hear, “It’s OK to be angry. What happened to you was unacceptable and not your fault.” When she says she wants to disappear, her therapist tells her the solution to recovery is “finding a way to assert your power and move through the world with confidence.” Nola leaves, taking the advice of her therapist to “do something that brings you joy, wear something that makes you feel confident.” As an act of self-care, we see Darling and a friend go shopping for a new dress—something that seems small in the grand scheme of healing, but pleasurable nonetheless.
As in real life, in television and in movies, it’s rare to see a Black woman’s assault be taken seriously. More often than not, our pain is a plot device—as it was in the first She’s Gotta Have It—not a way to explore the complexities of how we’re meant to navigate the unique experience of sexual trauma and harassment. We see the tough and no-nonsense Nola Darling cry to her therapist in a way that’s almost refreshing and we see a Black woman be given the opportunity to process her anguish without placing the blame on herself. The series represents and validates the experience of Black women in a way that needs to be seen. Darling’s journey shows us that it’s OK to not be strong sometimes or have all the answers, and that recovering from trauma isn’t always a linear process, no matter your race.
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