I’m pleased to finally meet the flawed, yet whole Nola Darling, both through her and the women who love her.
I remember when I first met Nola Darling in 2007 during a university film class. Yes, she was alluring and sexy and like other people who had seemingly wandered into her path, I desperately wanted to get to know her. But I only saw glimpses of Nola through the eyes of those who wished to possess her.
Who was she as an artist? How did she regain a sense of herself whenever she experienced abuse or mistreatment? Hell, did she have any real friends who didn’t wish to sleep with her, aside from Clorinda?
Spike Lee’s inaugural She’s Gotta Have It is as much the mark of an immature filmmaker as it is a cinematic staple. While the 1986 film about a free-spirited, polyamorous woman may have cemented his career, its poor treatment of her left so much to be desired. One of Lee’s more egregious missteps showed in the way Nola was denied any opportunity to process her varied moments of potential trauma — from her verbally abusive relationship with international playboy Greer Childs, to her own brutal rape by Jamie Overstreet. Even in the face of predatory behavior (from the only LGBTQIA character, mind you — another notable mistake) she is unflappable, the perfectly uncomplicated object of the vintage male gaze. Nola is mysterious, self-assured, sexy, and strong-willed, but she never feels whole.
31 years later, Spike Lee has revisited She’s Gotta Have It for Netflix, and the episodic do-over is welcomed for a number of reasons. Nola (DeWanda Wise) and the men in her life — Childs (Cleo Anthony), seasoned, the now professional Overstreet (Lyriq Bent), and the iconic, charismatic Mars Blackmon (Anthony Ramos) — are fleshed out beyond their original caricatures. Nola is openly queer and involved with business owner and mother Opal Gilstrap (Ilfenesh Hadera). Best of all, Nola experiences trauma that isn’t gratuitous, but relatable while allowing her to maintain her power. And when the time arrives for her to process her pain, she has a number of women to whom she can turn.
Almost every woman in Nola’s life — whether they are mainstays or just passing through — plays an integral part in her healing. Nola’s mother Septima (Joie Lee) is a paragon of parental support. As a fellow artist, she’s able to possess an understanding of Nola’s life and choices in a way that allows her to be a solid home base. To be spared the trope of the preachy, infantilizing parent that treats creativity like a sickness is refreshing, as is witnessing Septima and Nola’s father Stokely actually listen to and respect her.
2017 Nola has a friend group that includes the original Clorinda Bradford (Margot Bingham) as well as newcomers Shamekka Epps (Chyna Layne) and Rachel (Elise Hudson) who does not have ample screen time. Their vastly different personalities often clash a create a friendship that isn’t necessarily perfect, but still solid in the face of trouble.
Though Clorinda can be judgmental and Shamekka can be hyperfocused on her own insecurities, they are there to root for Nola’s success and safety. The moments of platonic intimacy that she shares with both women — whether she’s having a quiet smoke and honest chat with Clorinda or having her bruised wrist lovingly nursed by Shamekka — are what were sorely missed from the source material. Here, she is cared for without the looming expectation of anything in return.
Nola’s relationship with Opal is certainly interesting. On one hand, we can’t ignore the way Opal is used as a literal reprieve from the men in her life after she decides to go on a “man cleanse.” The notion of her turning to her female lover only after the men have disappointed her is problematic at best and indicative of a neglectful lack of queer writers and insight at its worst. On the other hand, in the time that we have with her, Opal proves to be the steadying force that Nola seems to crave, and the only suitor who shows her ability to support Nola even after they decide to scale their relationship back. Opal didn’t have to attend Nola’s art show, nor did she need to bail her out of jail. Yet she does, solidifying herself as a reliable support system (whether Nola necessarily deserves it or not) without the expectation of sex.
Alongside her close friends and family is a small chorus of women who are active in Nola’s personal growth and healing. Mars’ sister Lourdes (Santana Caress Benitez) makes herself available to provide spiritual guidance after Nola’s assault, going as far as to supply presumably free labor to ensure her peace. Even Nola’s boss Raqueletta Moss (De’Adre Aziza) — AN ICON— therapist Dr. Jamison (Heather Headley), and her landlord Miss Ella (Pauletta Washington), issue support in the form of tough love, simultaneously encouraging her to make more mature decisions and remain true to her mission as an artist.
The film could have benefited from community of women who wanted to see Nola win and thrive. The show, however, appears to recognize the value of a strong, supportive network. I’m pleased to finally meet the flawed, yet whole Nola Darling, both through her and the women who love her.