Words || Ilhan Abdi
[Content warning: sexual assualt]
After watching the series, it’s easy to see why Spike Lee thought his 1986 film needed a reboot set in 2016. It’s also very easy to see that he was terribly wrong and miscalculated. I can picture him pissing himself with excitement at how badly he wanted to show how ahead its time and how *timely* the concept is today. Nola Darling is a 20 something fledgling artist living in Brooklyn, New York who is in a sexual (and sometimes emotional, even if she pretends it isn’t) relationship with three different men. The premise might have been groundbreaking in the 80s – to see a young carefree black woman expressing her sexuality – but what made Nola special in the 80s does not make her so today. A woman in her 20s having casual sex with multiple partners is nothing short of normal today, so the premise of the show was off from the jump. In an interview, Lee said: “the way those women are judged hasn’t necessarily changed as far as men go,” which is true, but the way Lee and his writers view black women in the 2010s through the framework of the 80s and 90s is what informs the show and ultimately makes it so misdirected.
Nola calls herself a polyamorous pansexual, but her actions make it seem like the writers have an unclear idea of what polyamory is. Poly relationships involve intimate relationships with more than one partner, with the knowledge and consent of all partners. In the show there’s Jamie, the sugar-daddy-esque investment banker with a wife and son whom he is still living with even though they’re separated. Greer, the half-Black half-french model and photographer who calls out his own name during sex, and Mars the playful and geeky hip-hop aficionado who’s absolutely devoted to Nola and his Jordans. Of the three suitors, Mars seems to be the only one that translated well into the 2010s. Greer’s brand of cultured, romantic, self-obsessed wannabe-Prince light-skin died out in the mid-90s, while Jamie seems like he stepped out of a Wall Street building in the 80s. None of the three guys have consented to being in a poly relationship. In fact they all actively seek out a monogamous relationship with her and it’s never clear why she doesn’t just dump them, because they clearly all annoy her, or commit to all three of them when she relies on them for emotional support. She rotates them based on her needs, and refuses to ‘make love’ to them anywhere else other than her “lovin’” bed. Like this is a Janet Jackson song from 1993 or something. Please. Nobody talks like that.
Nola’s selfish and shows no consideration for their feelings, rotating the men according to her desires. At one point she gets a phone call from Mars asking to sniff her nether region while she’s in bed with Jamie, and despite his discomfort, she refuses to acknowledge he’s hurt and instead laughs it off. A few episodes later she decides to take a dick sabbatical and quickly jumps into bed with a former flame, Opal Halpert a woman in her 30s with a child and a stable and calming presence; and just as quickly jumps out due to her immaturity. Opal isn’t considered worthy of Nola’s time until she needs sex from someone that isn’t a man. In the final episode, Nola ambushes the three men by inviting them to what each one thinks is a private Thanksgiving dinner, which ends up being a sister-wife (or brother husband?) family dinner as all three, visibly hurt men fight over a Nola who says she’s chooses herself over the three.
The show falls flat when it tries to make big sweeping points about the current state of our world. It makes incredibly awkward, superficial and stale references to real world issues like Trump’s election and Black Lives Matter. After 8 episodes, the political turmoil of 2016 is finally addressed…in a 4 minute montage which has fuck all to do with the rest of the episodes. None of the main characters do anything but look sad and most of the footage involves protest posters and pictures of Agent Orange himself and an art critic affectedly stating that beautiful art is created in ugly times, even though Nola’s art is apolitical and remains that way until the very end of the series.
And don’t even get me started on Spike Lee’s obsession with showing off how smart and cultured he is through his characters! Instead of fleshing out Nola’s character over the ten episodes, her personality is replaced with a strange and unrealistic love for old films, the characters awkwardly name drop his favourite black artists musicians, dancers at the weirdest times. Did you know that he loves jazz?? Did you know that Spike Lee is the pinnacle of black culture and taste? He loves Kerry J Marshall and basketball!
It’s pretentious to say the least. The second to last episode begins with a montage – in the vein of the Oscars ‘In Memoriam’ segment – of Nola doing paying homage to famous dead New Yorkers like Celia Cruz and Michael Basquiat which quickly becomes exhausting and drags on for 3 minutes. It has absolutely nothing to do with who Nola is, there’s no sense that she’s even interested in jazz music, I don’t even think we get to know what music Nola likes, all she does it talk about the ‘black female form’ like she’s some white forensic scientist whose research of study is on black bodies and not a regular 27 year old black woman who calls her body a body, like a normal person. Like Spike, we get it…you like jazz music and you’re smarter than everyone. Whatever.
Towards the end of the first episode, Nola gets sexually assaulted by a man as she walks home from a friends house one night. This inspires her to make a series of artwork titled ‘My name isn’t..’ ( ‘My name isn’t yo, ma’, or ‘mamacita’) to combat street harassment and catcalls. The episode ends with one of the many scenes where she strings fake deep sentences together to the camera and in this particular one she finishes delivering her ‘My name isn’t..’ series and says: “My name is Nola Darling. Peace. Two Fingers. Black. Lives. Matter” ?????????????????????????????? I had to take a two week break from the show after that scene. It felt like Spike Lee made a collage of his favourite Tumblr posts from 2014 and accidentally submitted it as his Final Draft for the script. That bit was completely unnecessary, awkward and nonsensical.
Even worse, the writers’ desperation to show how hip and with the times they are is embarrassing at best. The characters all feel like old souls trapped in the bodies of 20-somethings, and it’s no wonder, most of the writing crew is made up of people in their 60s. Episodes are all labelled with hashtags with an alternative title in parentheses – #BootyFull (SELF ACCEPTANCE), #4MyNegusAndMyBishes (ALL WORDS MATTER). I’m gagging just having to reread these. The use of slang and pop culture references are either stuck in the 20th century or are dated early naughts phrases which often make it seem like the characters have hopped out of a time machine from 1993, or alternatively, like 11 year olds in 2007. In the first episode Greer exclaims “WDF – What Da Fuck” upon seeing a portrait Nola painted of him. Tell me, what sexy 20-something model/photographer – who is supposed to be glued to social media at all times as part of his job – would use “Da” over “the” in 2016???
One of the most troubling and bizarre plot lines was the show’s narrative involving Nola’s best friend Shamekka, an Afro-Caribbean single mother living in the projects who works at a strip club. The show uses Shamekka’s desires and insecurities to deliver a dated Hotep point of view to police women’s bodies. It’s almost as if the writers heard that the natural hair movement and feminism had made a comeback and informed their understanding of modern black feminism based on the Hotep ideals of the 80s and 90s. At one point Nola’s mother shames Shamekka for wanting a straight weave, implying that she will never truly be free until she shows Nola her natural hair. The Natural Hair Movement has moved on from shaming black women for wearing wigs and weaves and no longer sees it as a rejection of the natural black self, but rather a form of choice and self expression.
Shamekka is also deeply insecure about her lack of ass, which would seem inconsequential if she didn’t work waiting tables at a strip club when she wanted to upgrade to the stage. In these old folks’ imagination strip clubs of today involve modestly (compared to Actual strip clubs) clothed dancing to jazzy hip hop. Nola’s family thinks Shamekka’s job is beneath her but to be honest, it seems like the tamest and safest strip club environment I have ever seen portrayed on TV. She ends up easily bagging money from the club owner and gets ass shots at a dodgy-looking back alley. During her debut dance at the club with her new ass, in the midst of killing it on stage, she falls off and her butt explodes over the audience. She screams in pain and abject horror and has to be rushed to a hospital. This whole plot line serves a way to discipline and police black women for doing what they want with their bodies. The fact that it was done to humiliate and punish the most vulnerable character on the show, a single mother living in the hood, for a cheap punchline that fell flat is disturbing. Again, it feels like the senior citizens in the writer’s room consider today’s feminism to be similar to the slut-shaming Lauryn Hill, hotep-y feminism of the 90s. Someone needs to tell the writer’s room that we don’t do that shit anymore.
Lee spent so much time trying to make a point about how the themes of the original film fit into modern society, and by extension how his understanding of discussions being had by modern society fit the original framework, that the show missed chances to further conversations being had at the present moment. The show is best when characters are exchanging dialogue without trying too hard, when Nola is trying to navigate her life without needing to make a sweeping political statement. Countless shows – influenced by Spike Lee’s filmography – about young black women like Insecure and Chewing Gum show how politics is intertwined in and affects the lives of normal young black women without resorting to making grandiose and two-dimensional statements. If Spike Lee spent less time jerking himself off to his own intelligence and more on developing the characters, actually trying to understand and further discussions we are having in society by honestly portraying black women navigating their lives in a world where their existence is a political statement, rather than clumsily co-opting movements and dead discourse, he could move the conversation further in the next few seasons.