Spike Lee’s very first celluloid heroine, Nola Darling, will rise from the ashes of ’80s cinema soon. Showtime has announced a partnership with Lee to develop a half-hour series, updating his 1986 debut film, “She’s Gotta Have It.” The film chronicled the love quadrangle of which Darling was the dazzling star. Its characters dared to break the fourth wall and address the camera, strolled unabashedly through a bygone version of Brooklyn, and talked frankly about what professor Joan Morgan referred to in her course at Stanford last year as the search for a black female politics of pleasure.
There is cause for celebration here. Nola Darling is a character worthy of revival in 2014. Bohemian, sex-positive, and ambitious, Darling is, at her core, a timeless character. Reviewers called her (and Lee’s film) ahead of their time. But the ’80s seemed an opportune decade to introduce her. Silver screen images of black women who openly discussed sex and desire were few and far between outside the ’70s blaxploitation era. And Nola was no topless, gun-toting avenger a la Foxy Brown or Coffy; she was simply a self-possessed career woman embarking on an odyssey of personal independence and emotional freedom. The film had few other objectives than to play that pursuit out to its end.
Resurrecting Nola Darling for the small screen is a concept with great potential, especially now, in the Age of Beyonce and Rihanna, where colleges like Drexel and The New School live-stream panel discussions of the black female body, evoking the chanteuses as dialectics. Darling will also be right at home in today’s pop culture discourse alongside Olivia Pope in “Scandal” and Mary Jane Paul in “Being Mary Jane” — currently the only other black women characters helming primetime television series (though this is set to change in the upcoming TV season).
There’s just one dark cloud looming over this otherwise wonderful news: Spike Lee himself. Lee is reportedly writing and directing the Showtime series, and anyone familiar with his treatment of women characters in the near-30-year span since the original “She’s Gotta Have It” knows why this might give viewers pause.
It’s true that Lee created the free-spirited avant garde Nola of our nostalgic longing. But he also undermined her agency by writing in a scene wherein one of her suitors, Jamie Overstreet, intends to “tame” her into monogamous commitment by forcing himself on her. If one of the film’s conceits is to run Nola’s sexual freedom through the sieve of “traditional” gender role reversal, where a woman is the more vocal, proactive party in sexual pursuits and men are, for the most part, compliant with her whims, then the assault reads as cautionary: Women like Nola cannot trifle with men, lest they “put her in her place.” The scene has always been the thorn in an otherwise electric debut’s side; in fact, in a 2006 NPR interview, Spike Lee expressed regret over including it:
“It was just, just it didn’t need to be in the movie, it’s as simple as that…. That would be the thing that we would cut out.”
It appears he’ll get his chance. But neither regret nor propriety make him the best person to re-envision this narrative today. Lee has long been the subject of ire when it comes to his portrayals of women. In 2009, Teresa Wiltz noted at The Root:
From “Do The Right Thing” to “School Daze” to “Jungle Fever” to “He Got Game” to “She Hate Me” and virtually every other fiction film Lee has written and directed, his female characters have never been afforded the complexity of the men in his films. (He admitted in an interview for an authorized biography in 2005 that he’s allowed “unreconstructed male chauvinism” to play a big role in his films.)
Lee’s latent misogyny stings because, from the very beginning, his was the voice of the black hipster intellectual, filled with knowing references to Five Percenters, Zora Neale Hurston and John Coltrane. You expect a little more enlightenment from him than you would from, say, Ice Cube or from Tyler Perry with his scheming evil buppies. You know that Lee is capable of doing better. “Crooklyn,” which was released in 1994, was a rare example of fully imagined female characters, from the preteen protagonist to her doomed mother. Perhaps this is because Lee co-wrote the script with his sister [Joie] and brother.
Wiltz is right. The female characters in “Crooklyn” are fully realized because a woman was integral to the film’s creative process. Carolyn and Troy, the mother and daughter who serve as the film’s heart, are based on Joie Lee’s relationship with their mother.
And if Lee intends to build an entire series around a woman character he already concedes he’s mishandled the first time around, he’d do well to add women writers and directors to his reboot.
The decision to do so would not only make sense for the narrative but it would also serve as a chance for Lee to redeem himself among those who believe, like Wiltz, that his attitudes toward women — both in front of and behind the camera — are fueled by “latent misogyny.” In 2013, Lee was also lambasted for only including one female director on his NYU teaching list of 87 essential films.
In the 2012-13 television season, women directors accounted for 14% of primetime episodic TV across broadcast and cable outlets, down from 15% in 2011-12. Of that 14%, only 2% were minorities, down from 4% the previous season. Additionally, women make up just 6% of directors in television. Certainly, a new, buzzworthy reboot with a memorable female lead should be tapping more of this talent. If we ever hope to drive these numbers up, it will take some intentionality on the part of male showrunners like Spike Lee.
In a perfect world, Lee would serve only as executive producer in this Showtime series. He’d leave the work of writing compelling, updated content for his character to a writing room with at least as many women at the table as men. And he would recruit promising young women directors to helm his episodes. Without these provisions, it’s difficult to imagine what “updating Nola” would mean for Lee, whose most recent works have done little to inspire confidence in his growth as a writer of female leads.
Nola Darling may be ready to make her phoenix-rise, but this time around, she deserves a production team we can trust not to clip her wings.