How Spike Lee Changed The 'She's Gotta Have It' Rape Scene In The Reboot & Righted A Wrong
Light spoilers ahead for Season 1 of She's Gotta Have It.
It's been more than 30 years since Spike Lee's directorial debut, She's Gotta Have It, and his new Netflix TV adaptation of his groundbreaking '80s film is one of this season's most exciting releases. While She's Gotta Have It featured female sexuality in a new light, the original movie wasn't exactly a perfect feminist manifesto. A problematic rape scene towards the end of the '80s film garnered heavy criticism from feminist theorists like bell hooks, and when Netflix announced TV version of She's Gotta Have It, some people immediately doubted whether or not Lee would improve his portrayal of women's pleasure and the actions that violate it. Thankfully, in his new show, Lee revises his problematic treatment of sexual assault from the original film, and the series couldn't have come out at a more perfect time.
In the original She's Gotta Have It the protagonist — yes the one who's gotta have it — named Nola Darling (then played by Tracy Camilla Johns) is assaulted by one of her boyfriends, Jamie Overstreet. After Overstreet slut-shames Nola for being a "freak" who has multiple partners, he tells her that "You don't want me to make love to you, you want me to fuck you." In a shadow-filled scene, he then aggressively pushes Nola onto the bed and forces himself on her from behind. Nola tells him he's hurting her, but he doesn't stop, and as soon as he's finished he pushes her onto the bed and then leaves.
In a movie that's otherwise incredibly empowering for women, such a clumsy treatment of an important issue was disappointing. The unsettling scene comes as a surprise in an otherwise sex-positive film, and Lee has since expressed his regret over including that scene. In an interview with Deadline in May, 2014, the director said:
"I don’t really have any regrets. Check that. You know what my biggest regret is? The rape scene in She’s Gotta Have It. If I was able to have any do-overs, that would be it. It was just totally…stupid. I was immature. It made light of rape, and that’s the one thing I would take back. I was immature and I hate that I did not view rape as the vile act that it is. I can promise you, there will be nothing like that in She’s Gotta Have It, the TV show, that’s for sure."
Even more troubling is what happens after the rape. Nola doesn't discuss the event and then tells her rapist, Jamie, that she wants to be with him. Of course, every victim of rape handles the situation differently, but the way that Spike Lee handled such a heavy event as if it were a nonchalant moment, and then failed to address it as a problem later is what's so harmful about it.
The way that Nola submits to what Jamie wants after his violent assault even suggests that his unacceptable behavior allowed him to "convince" Nola to see his ways, which is a dangerous message for the film to send. But back in 1986, most reviewers weren't concerned with the message this depiction of sexual assault would convey. The New York Times' review of the film noted the strangeness of the original film's depiction of Jamie's rape but, rather than criticizing its tone-deafness, commended Tommy Redmond Hicks' portrayal of Overstreet. "Mr. Hicks gives Jamie a depth and passion that escapes the other men," the review states. "It is telling that, when Jamie's patience gives out and he turns rather shockingly brutal to Nola, his violence seems natural and does not diminish interest in or sympathy with the character." Now, in 2017, when a rape scene would (hopefully) never garner a non-skeptical review, The Times calls Lee's new show "Spike Lee’s Feminist Breakthrough," which it is, largely due to its change in tune when it comes to depicting sexual assault.
In the Netflix show, Lee follows through with his promise to rectify his film's blunder. In the new version of She's Gotta Have It, Nola (now played by DeWanda Wise) still struggles with balancing multiple sex partners and a burgeoning art career. While Lee could have avoided depicting assault in his updated version altogether, instead he took that theme from his original movie and improved his treatment of it. The first episode of the Netflix show ends with, Nola walking home from a friend's house as a man catcalls her on the street. When Nola talks back to him, the stranger grabs her from behind, threateningly holding her wrists. She finally wriggles away and runs home.
The incident isn't nearly as violent as the rape scene in the movie, but that's the point. After the stranger grabs Nola, the next few episodes of the show follow her recovery after the event, and show that even what some might consider a "less intense" incident of assault requires processing. While the original She's Gotta Have It portrayed rape as if it were a commonplace, even helpful event (for the assaulter), the Netflix series suggests that any level of violence towards women — even catcalling, which is pretty much universal — can traumatize women.
Violence and harassment against women are central plot points in the Netflix show, and it's refreshing to see these themes tackled in depth. The events of the first episode lead Nola to discover things about both herself and the world, and she comes to the conclusion that she has to prioritize herself. The show explores what that looks like for Nola, and the street-harassment incident catalyzes a series of healing processes for her. From visiting a spiritual healer to seeing a therapist and creating anti-street harassment art that she posts on the streets of Brooklyn, Nola explores many coping mechanisms after experiencing a traumatic event.
At a time when the #MeToo movement has brought the near universality sexual assault to the forefront of conversation, She's Gotta Have It couldn't have come at a better time. The new show portrays how omnipresent cat-calling and sexualization of women in public spaces shapes their experiences. From riding in a cab with a driver who continuously calls Nola "pretty lips" (in a caricatured, thick accent, sadly — the show isn't completely free of some prickly stereotypes), to the public defacement of her art that uses derogatory language towards women, the new She's Gotta Have It doesn't just focus on Nola Darling's sexual fluidity and autonomy, but it accurately portrays the public forces which oppose a woman's self-determination.
Despite its regrettable portrayal of domestic violence, 1986's She's Gotta Have It broke a lot of boundaries for female film protagonists, especially for women of color in film. The new show provides a necessary update though, largely because the character of Nola Darling represents a future — and present —which most people could likely support. In an interview with Bustle, Cleo Anthony, who plays one of Nola's lovers named Greer Childs in the Netflix series, reveals that the decision to revamp Nola's story came not from Spike Lee, but from his wife. "His wife said so. Tonya Lewis Lee said 'It's time,' Anthony says. "I think Spike wanted to do School Days into a musical — that's gonna be fantastic — but she said it's time for this one, and he said, 'You're probably right.'"
Tonya was right, as the new and improved version of Nola Darling — who's struggling to figure her life out in the new and tragically gentrified Fort Greene, Brooklyn — accurately depicts what it's like to be a woman today. In doing so, Spike Lee rectifies his past mistake in irresponsibly portraying violence against women. Who knew it would be Spike Lee, of all people, who would make a Netflix series whose main emphasis is on self-care?