WARNING: Spoilers inside!
I moved to New York the summer of 2010 after graduating college. Well, technically I moved to Queens (whether it qualifies as “New York City, Inc.” is a debate that will turn the boroughs into a battleground), Cambria Heights to be exact, the neighborhood a short bus ride from Jamaica and a brisk walk down Linden Blvd. from St. Albans. I have no shame in admitting that I lived with my grandmother and my oldest brother’s mother (I come from a blended family, y’all) who took care of my Gma. I was broke and unsure of my future, including what a career in film and television would look like. As I tried to figure things out, hustling at different unpaid internships and freelance production assistant gigs, I got a job at the Rockefeller Center’s Banana Republic. There I slanged polos for up to 40 hours a week and still somehow only qualified as a part-time employee. I met other artistic types like myself, folk just working until they got the Broadway call back or the staff writing job.
Yet most of my coworkers didn’t have a long game; Banana Republic was just a means to get a break from their mama, get their baby mamas off their backs, get their kids fed, or just get the feeling of having their own money heavy in their pocket. Their goals and dreams weren’t less valid than mine, and in addition to being dope people to be around, they gave me a reality check, keeping me grounded whenever I got the inclination to go full “woe is me, I’m a struggling artist.”
Even when I saved up enough money to get an apartment in Flatbush with three other lovely ladies, I surrounded myself with people who challenged what a life of labor was supposed to mean. Much of American identity is rooted in occupation; people with undesirable jobs are seen as undesirable. Americans are supposed to be ambitious, but ambition is relative to individual situations. And in a city like New York, you get a lot of situations.
Now that I live in Los Angeles, I don’t always get back to New York that often so I turn to film and television to fill that longing. In these images I seek out the people and city I remember, even though there are a million different versions of it. It’s what I looked for in the TV adaptation of She’s Gotta Have It starring the lovely DeWanda Wise, who has a face so stunning I’d watch her read the dictionary.
In this new version, Brooklyn gentrification looms over Nola Darling’s head and brings up different questions regarding Fort Greene’s racial divide. The older black families and artists who created the neighborhood’s golden age are being priced out due to young white millennials looking for cheap(er) rent and real estate than that in Manhattan. Spike Lee deftly depicts the tension between the new and old yet struggles with issues of class. Because as much as he and other people wax poetical over the “old days” when hard-working, middle class black people were able to buy brownstones for cheap, he neglects the hard-working lower class black people who couldn’t afford to do the same.
When I lived in Flatbush, I’d take the Q to Dekalb just so I could walk in the shadows of BAM and other art sites. I felt like being in proximity to talented black artists would somehow inoculate me with their courage, in the same way Nola is seen strolling past the graves of her artistic muses, paying tribute in one of the series most touching sequences. This was despite hearing the neighborhood described by a native Brooklynite as a “playground for bougie blacks.” This new iteration of Nola Darling’s love life doesn’t counter this unfavorable nickname despite the promising characters of Mars Blackmon and Nola’s friend and single mother, Shamekka.
Anthony Ramos as Mars breathes new life into this character, originally played by Spike in the 1986 film and later in legendary Nike Air Jordan commercials. Ramos’s face shows the entire range of emotions, enthusiasm and sadness. He is pure earnestness, a child on Christmas morning cast against a backdrop of an art world that’s slightly jaded and fixated on image; the ability to be cool is a testament to talent. Mars isn’t cool because he doesn’t say the right words at the right time. Immediately he reminded me of the cute Dominican stockboy I flirted with to pass the time when the store was empty; He teased me about my Southern drawl, and I mimicked his Spanglish. Mars, too, speaks with a Brooklyn Puerto Rican dialect that equally seduces and grates. And yet even with his grammatical faux pas, Mars speaks with the braggadocio of a man who knows exactly who he is and what he wants: Sneakers. Knicks. Nola. His desires are simple, and maybe that’s why Nola doesn’t fully embrace him. What he wants isn’t enough because Nola isn’t enough for her own damn self.
Her friend Shamekka also has simple but very specific dreams. She wants to be the center of attention, the dance star at the club where she works as a bottle girl. Unfortunately, to be one she has to be thicker, although the current dancers derrieres aren’t as pronounced as the ones you’d see in Magic City or Onyx. Shamekka on the surface is the tough, round-the-way girl whose door knocker earrings have more bravado than the average person, but insecurities about her body bubble underneath.
While sitting for a portrait, she asks Nola’s opinion on the matter, and Nola tells her she’s fine just the way she is despite later painting over Shamekka’s portrait to change her weave to a respectable, unapologetically black Afro. Nola often says one thing and does the other, but she also doesn’t realize that Shamekka’s expression of blackness is still unapologetic even if its Patronus is a 24-inch Remy. She’s Gotta Have It wonderfully shows how women have agency over their bodies. They can walk down the streets late at night alone. They can wear tight, little black dresses if they please....just as long as the ass squeezed into it is au naturale.
Determined, Shamekka asks her boss - hilariously played by Fat Joe who’s taking a break from doing TED talks about a pyramid scheme - for an advance for ass shots, and he blesses her with the cash. This is where shit gets horrifyingly fucked up for dear, sweet Shamekka.
Instead of a licensed surgeon, she goes to a black market woman who works out of a grimy motel. A doctor’s white coat and surgical mask is exchanged for one of Chantal Biya’s castaway wigs and a throw pillow a wardrobe assistant lazily stuffed into actress’s leggings because this is what Spike thinks Nicki Minaj looks like. This isn’t the first or the last time that the show tackles a subject it’s too busy disparaging to understand in order to humanize even the flawed characters. Shamekka and her “doctor” come off as caricatures, sticking out in a cinematic world obsessed with authenticity: authentic Brooklyn and Blackness with a capital “B.”
What follows is a scene out of torture porn where this be-wigged Angel of Death stabs Shamekka’s backside with an absurdly large needle. On the bed, Shamekka screams and writhes in agony. Compare this with the images of Nola’s “backshots.” The camera captures Nola’s throws of passion with great delicacy, her head tilted back in pleasure and a wide smile bellowing out a prayer to the heavens for blessing her with the joy of dick. But for Shamekka there’s no joy, only pain.
The needle torture’s repeated again, and the story culminates with a scene so horrible, I kept pausing in the hopes that it’d be easier to get through frame-by-frame. “It was not easier,” said the narrator.
It’s the night of Shamekka’s debut. She dances on stage in the finest Fashionova leotard stretched over what looks like the padded bodysuit from Tyra’s “Fat Like Me” episode. The crowd cheers; they love this new, thicc Shamekka. “Go, Shamekka!” shouts a disabled patron with hooks for hands -- this is gentrified Brooklyn, remember, niggas can’t afford 3-D printed prosthetics. It’s clear this character only exists for comedic fodder because when Shamekka slinks over to give him a lapdance, his hooks jolt her back and she falls on her inflated behind. It bursts. All hell breaks loose. Shamekka, once again, writhes in pain. She cries. I cry. We all cry together.
Even with DeWanda Wise’s sparkling performance, Nola’s growth as an artist, and that weird Prince-themed dance break in the finale, I couldn’t shake off Shamekka’s trauma. After she recovers from her injuries, Shamekka wonders what she’ll do for work now. Nola suggests Shamekka get a job at downtown Brooklyn’s Applebee’s, a business I’d be remiss not to inform y’all is currently selling $1 Long Island Iced Teas. Like the ass shots and the dancing, this is a job that’s beneath Nola, but it’s good enough for Shamekka.
Spike Lee thankfully removed the 1986 rape scene in which Jamie Overstreet forces himself on Nola to teach her a lesson, but he still found time to punish Shamekka for the choices she made with her own body. Sprinkling hashtags into the dialogue doesn't make up for this dated classism. But, hey, at least it was unapologetically black, I guess.