The Black Artist’s Dilemma
How Spike Lee’s ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ highlights the relationship between black responsibility and artistry.
As black artists, we have the unique responsibility to both interpret the world as we know it and use our platform to visualize the black experience. Adhering to this standard can be extremely difficult- the needs of the community do not often align with the needs of the individual. Does one forgo their commitment to self-expression to serve the black community? Is it selfish, reckless, even irresponsible to choose the former over the latter?
This complicated aspect of the black artist experience is perfectly captured in the Spike Lee Joint She’s Gotta Have It. The Netflix series, based on Lee’s 1986 film of the same name, follows protagonist Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise) as she attempts to find herself and follow her dreams while juggling three comically different lovers.
The struggle of identifying black responsibility in art is peppered throughout the series’ second season. Nola gets the opportunity to participate in an artists retreat in Martha’s Vineyard. While there, she rubs elbows with fellow artists of color who aim to redefine how the black experience is translated through artistic mediums. Spike Lee, always in pursuit of using his platform to celebrate black excellence, uses this storyline to highlight real-life champions of black art: Carrie Mae Weems, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, and Doreen Garner to name a few. The artists’ consciousness and representation of blackness through different mediums force Nola to look at her own work and the motivation behind her creations. This confrontation inspires the audience to question the same. Is there something missing in Nola’s work? Is she not fulfilling her “duties” as a creative black woman? What exactly are those duties and is it fair of us, members of the black community, to demand that of our artists?
There is no merit in stifling one’s artistic spirit, nor can we ignore that there is a dyer communal need for representation. We also cannot ignore that an individual’s interpretation of how that representation should be acquired may not appease everyone in the community. It may even inspire backlash. In the final episode of the season, Nola debuts a piece met that was controversial… to say the least. The piece was a self-portrait, showing a nude Nola being lynched by her own braids. The American flag is superimposed onto her body, the red portions of the flag mimicking blood.
The show’s characters react differently to the portrait. Nola’s therapist deems “the strange fruit piece” irresponsible, an unwelcomed reflection of a vicious act against the black community, that no one wants a reminder of. Her fellow artists applaud Nola’s commitment to finally including politics in her art. Nola finds herself both celebrated and attacked for her artistic vigor and bravery. The varying reactions to her piece leave Nola disoriented, angry, and confused.
Moreover, the audience is posed with another question: is Nola’s portrait actually capturing her essence, or was it made purely to turn heads? While an eerily beautiful piece of work, there is something speaking louder than Nola in the piece. From what we know of her thus far, the self-portrait doesn't feel like her. Of course, as an artist, she is allowed to grow and explore, but there is palpable inauthenticity that almost makes the portrait fall flat. The piece is thought-provoking for many reasons, including the fact that it feels both devoid of self and extremely powerful.
Perhaps it is that self-sacrifice that makes the piece, and black art, so powerful. There is a great nobility in a black artist choosing to relinquish some aspects of themselves and their own desires to serve the community. Giving up oneself to both represent the black community and its diversities, to ultimately inspire conversations about the black existence, is a complicated honor. I hope to get the opportunity to make that choice in my own career.
Spike Lee’s 2019 reboot of She’s Gotta Have It reminds us that there are countless stories about the black experience that need to be told. We don’t often consider the difficult choices and sacrifices made by black artists to capture the black experience as a whole. Oftentimes one person’s perspective on that experience will not speak to everyone, but the debate that inspires is even more important. The more we challenge each other, no matter how difficult or even unfair, the more we uplift the black community.
That is art, especially black art, at its best.
*This post is a re-purposed version of an article featured and written by me in The Mantle. Check out the original piece here.