She’s Gotta Have It: How the present becomes Nola Darling

By Olivia Kelliher

The moment my friend and I finished binge-watching She’s Gotta Have It, we resolved to do our best to emulate Nola Darling. Her poise and creativity drew us in within the first ten minutes of the first episode; her confidence and steadfast self-intuity inspired us through every episode after. A character who represents so many underrepresented groups, Darling is unapologetically individual. “I don’t believe in one-word labels,” she affirms in her opening monologue.

It’s no wonder that director Spike Lee chose to revisit Nola Darling and her complicated “loving” story more than 30 years after She’s Gotta Have It premiered as a film in 1986. The film was what made Spike Lee what he is today, earning him respect as a breakthrough auteur and launching him into his career.

At the time, Nola Darling (portrayed by Tracy Camilla Johns) was absolutely revolutionary. She shocked audiences by taking on what was deemed a “masculine” view towards her sexuality and lovers. The film follows her through the weaving of three men she interacts with sexually, conflict arising when these men simply cannot handle the way she chooses to live as a sexually-liberated woman.

A pitfall of Lee’s film’s feminist strides, however, is the way Darling reacts to her lover Jamie leaving her. When he storms away after not understanding how she can sleep with other men, she makes a midnight call begging him to come back to her. Horrifically, this results in Jamie raping her. The scene itself is a disturbing plot turn along with what seems to be an unfounded character choice (on Nola’s part). Even after this incident, Nola talks to Jamie, telling him she loves him and hardly mentioning the gravity of the rape.

Thankfully, the film concludes in a monologue where Nola Darling confirms what she’s known and deeply felt the whole time: her body is hers. She breaks it off with all three of her lovers. But it seems an amendment to Nola Darling’s story has been more than deserved. How could visionary Spike Lee let go of such a groundbreaking character?

The 2017 Netflix series reframes, reimagines, and reinvents who Nola Darling was and is. We still get the original lyrical monologues, the straight-to-camera interludes of the characters’ inner-thoughts, and the instrumental backing of a familiar thematic melody. But now Nola (portrayed by DeWande Wise) struggles with new challenges that accompany the strife of our modern age. An artist resisting the rampant gentrification of Fort Greene and single-living female finding strength in the aftermath of an assault, modern day Nola navigates the injustices and oppression of black women that still exist.

Plus, with the extended medium of television, Spike Lee’s intention of creating a dynamic female character can really be realized. The series gives us the ability to see Nola in more complicated conflict than simply between her and her lovers which were founded in their philosophical ideas about sex and gender roles. Now, she must grapple with the taking-over of her neighborhood, her unemployment and struggles to make rent as an artist, along with her mental health.
Therefore, the conflicts that do arise with her partners can be more nuanced and fully explored. The residue of the same antiquated ideals of sex and gender that inhibited the lifestyle of 1986’s Nola Darling infiltrate modern Nola’s relations in subtler ways. In the series, Nola solidifies her lifestyle and principles, making for a more satisfying and thematically sound conclusion than the film’s. Grounded in her female friendships, her art, and the discoveries of her ongoing self-exploration, Nola Darling still ends the season with an inspiring solace.

By Olivia Kelliher

Olivia is an 19 year old from the US, originally from Chicago but currently attending film school in Boston with hopes of becoming a screenwriter. One day, she hopes she will write a film so insightful that her parents will think maybe letting her live a thousand miles away from them as a teenager was worth it. She likes movies with lots of words or at least a few words that mean something. Whip it, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Beginners, and A League of Their Own are some of her favorites.

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