“She’s Gotta Have It” feels overwhelming. We came for a movie about black women and their sexuality but for better or for worse we got gentrification, cultural commodification, class warfare, political dissent, police brutality, black his…*fades to end scene* Yes, in real life these affronts to black humanity don’t exist in neat little doses of oppression but compounding this many struggles in the format of a series — which was arguably rendered more like a 5-hour movie — made “She’s Gotta Have It” a really exhausting viewing experience.
But surprise, the worst aspect of “She’s Gotta Have It” is also its silver-lining. Throughout the series, Lee seems to unintentionally turn his most authentic characters into caricatures. We see this with the overdone “Lady and the Tramp” dynamic between Jamie and Sheryl Overstreet, where Jamie’s rags to riches journey is complex and believable, Sheryl is reduced to elitist one-liners. We get another huge helping of this in Lee’s treatment of Nola Darling, who packs on black millennial stereotypes like a costume to the point that she comes off more of a “symbol” rather than an actual person. (I bet Nola is somewhere apologizing for being late to brunch because Mercury is in retrograde.)
If you stick it out, Lee’s caricaturization leaves us with something beautiful: an exploration of trauma and coping that rests squarely on the New York & Company suited shoulders of Raqueletta Moss. Raqueletta Moss is an obvious symbol of the strong black woman stereotype, she’s hardened through the pain of poverty and sexual trauma but she offers measured moments of insight and caring that drive Nola’s evolution. You know what I’m about to say next: “no-nonsense tough-love.”
Still, Raqueletta Moss is a woman to be remembered. As part of the excessive nature of her caricature, Moss consistently refers to herself in the third person which Nola astutely notes is a coping mechanism. Nola doesn’t know shit else in the series, from how she’s going to pay her rent to who she is as an artist but she’s able to recognize Moss’ use of third-person to disassociate herself from trauma,“Raqueletta Moss speaks in the third person because she survived her own personal holocaust by stepping out of her body and saying ‘I am not here. I am not here. You cannot hurt me. Because Raqueletta Moss is not here.’” Jokingly, Nola employs this on the stoop of her building in conversation with one of her lovers, referring to it as the “Raqueletta Moss effect” — but then shit gets real.
In Nola’s journey back to herself, following a series of significant failures (most notably the attacks on her street art and her body and the failed art show) Nola’s self-portrait becomes her own “Raqueletta Moss effect.” Nola’s portrait goes from being a work in progress in the start of the series, to the face of her anonymous anti-street harassment campaign, “My Name Isn’t” to part of her collection in the art show, which she stands in front of to figuratively “protect” it from the eyes and judgement of guests. She then “sells” the portrait to Jamie Overstreet for a much-needed economic come up. While she , — er the painting I mean, exists in his possession for a while, she becomes hell-bent on getting it back once the transaction fails. By the series’ end, Nola is deconstructing the self-portrait, cutting out the facial component and creating something (and someone) new.
Despite making herself the literal poster child of “My Name Isn’t,” Nola refuses to be defined or even associated with the series. Her efforts are railroaded by friends and the campaign goes viral as Nola’s best work. But, Raqueletta Moss understands. Moss is also desperately trying to separate herself and her body from her own trauma, and like Nola her pain is the root of her best work. Moss’s personal past as “the product of a cracked out single mom who pimped her overdeveloped daughter in dark project hallways” fuels her tireless commitment to saving her students and it’s also an exemplar of the complex commentary attempted but lacking in “She’s Gotta Have It.”
While piling on numerous symbols of oppression and culture throughout “She’s Gotta Have It” make “the struggle” hard to digest and easy to dismiss, Raqueletta Moss sparks a distinct set of character revelations that illustrate a larger cultural commentary about the sexuality of black women and hip-hop. In episode five, Nola’s 12-year-old student Regina uses the cover of Lil Kim’s debut album to depict the image of her life. (Let’s all take a moment here to ignore the fact that no one born in 2005 would pick a 21-year-old Lil Kim album for an art project.) Nola delights in Regina’s authentic and very personal artistic expression while Raqueletta cautions against the use of provocative imagery to create autonomy. Trauma aside, the difference in Raqueletta and Nola’s response to Regina’s painting struck me as a nod to contrasting generational views of sexuality. Like Nola, I believe provocative self-expression is a liberated act of rebellion while other women closer to my mother’s generation see this as a flimsy definition of freedom. Nola and I are forced to chew on Raqueletta’s statement, “using art to confront personal dysfunction is a self-fulfilling defect. A broken record that never stops skipping.” When Nola attempts to “guide” Regina’s use of sexual imagery as empowerment in a one-on-one conversation, Regina explains,
“Don’t you know that I know that girls like Nicki Minaj and Amber Rose are playing a role? I’m not stupid. Men call them ‘sluts,’ ‘hoes,’ every dirty thing you can name, yet Nicki and Amber have damn near 75 million followers on Instagram, combined. Being a hoe can be a great business. …Yeah I understand what I’m saying. This is America. That’s what works for them. That’s not what works for me though.”
This dynamic represents the complex “work” that Lee attempts to achieve throughout “She’s Gotta Have It”. Raqueletta’s caricature creates humor to gently help us explore sexual trauma and then it makes a cultural observation about the objectification of hip hop vixens, just for bonus points. It’s Spike Lee at his best in what may potentially be his worst work.