The Black Artist's Dilemma

How Spike Lee’s 'She’s Gotta Have It' highlights the relationship between black responsibility and artistry

The Arts


In case you missed it amidst the flood of summer streaming content, the second season of the popular Netflix show She’s Gotta Have It came out on May 24, 2019. For those unfamiliar with the Spike Lee Joint, She’s Gotta Have It follows Nola Darling, a Brooklyn-based black artist, throughout her journey of self-discovery and actualization. A boundary-pushing exposé on the complexities of being a black woman in this country, She’s Gotta Have It does not shy away from the full-bodied and multilayered nature of black femininity, artistry, and self-expression.


The struggle of defining black responsibility in art is thematically peppered throughout the series. The second season, however, takes the thematic truth to a whole new level. In the fourth episode, we follow Nola to the picturesque Martha’s Vineyard, in acceptance of an invitation to the prestigious black artists’ retreat Nation Time. While at the retreat, Nola rubs elbows with the best of the best in her field. Her fellow artists of color redefine how the black experience is translated through artistic mediums, and Lee, always in pursuit of building a platform to celebrate black excellence, uses this episode to highlight real-life champions in black art, as Carrie Mae Weems, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh and Doreen Garner make cameos in the episode. Their presence challenges Nola to push herself to delve deeper and figure out how to tell her story to serve the black community and the world.  


The most powerful aspect of She’s Gotta Have It, and why everyone needs to see it, is its commitment to boldly sharing a dilemma all black artists face: how do you balance the responsibility you have as an artist to share yourself through your work and create work that both uplifts and represents the black community? Black artists, in a different way than artists of other ethnicities, must be hyperconscious of how the work they produce portrays and speaks to the black community.


While walking on the beach with Olu, a fellow Nation Time artist, Nola explains “black folks in America are bound together you know. The history of how we got here and being here made it so. Why do you think we need a separate space on an island for black artists to begin with?”


In this social and political climate, there is a necessity for authenticity and diversity in black representation. We’ve seen the power of seeing black faces in the mainstream - how it challenges racism and can empower little black girls and boys. To ignore the responsibility black artists of all mediums have to produce content that represents the community is naive. As a black artist myself, I feel the weight of this in every piece I produce. It’s my right, responsibility, and honor.


But is it debilitating? Is this responsibility to speak for millions of Americans ensuring that the individual artist’s story gets lost in the crowd? Nola’s journey in the second season ends with the presentation of her first solo show, in an episode significantly entitled “#IAmYourMirror.” Nola’s final show is the perfect embodiment of her journey.


Nola’s journey starts in a place of comfort. In a committed relationship with a past lover, Nola stumbles into the role of the committed girlfriend and pseudo-parent to her partners young daughter. The work she produced in this phase reflects her feelings of passion, love, and belonging. Then Nola and her partner break up, and she is forced to take a hard look at herself and her life’s trajectory. That manifests in her art by experimentation. Nola tests out different mediums, thematic ideas, and messages in her art in attempts to find a style that feels authentically her. This struggle for identity inspires a shift in Nola’s artistic journey. Her trips outside of Brooklyn, to Martha’s Vineyard and Puerto Rico, widen Nola’s artistic scope and are symbolic of the variety of black stories she needs to tell. Her openness to create art that is authentic and complex introduces a whole new element to her pieces. The stories she tells through her art become multifaceted and this evolution comes to fruition in her solo show. 


In attempts to create a controlled, individual, and in-real-time experience, each member of the crowd is ushered into a private area to digest Nola’s piece individually. The reactions it garners are strong. Nola’s past lovers exited the experience with boyish grins slapped across their faces. Her female friends and mentors left looking disturbed. We see Nola’s piece in the last two minutes of the episode and are allowed to finally come to our own conclusions. We learn that the mystery piece is a painting of a nude Nola being lynched by her own braids. Her body is painted with the American flag, and the red portions of the image look a lot like blood.


Nola’s wisdom-filled therapist describes the “the strange fruit piece” as irresponsible, a vicious act against the black community that does not need to be reminded of their painful past. Her fellow artists applaud Nola’s commitment to including politics in her art. She is celebrated and attacked for her vigor and bravery. The conversation for the remainder of the episode is focused on the impact of her piece on the black community. While Nola’s art is powerful and provocative, there is a piece of her as an individual that gets lost in the enormity of her sociopolitical message. Nola is not just a black artist. She’s a queer woman, a lover, a fighter, a sister, a friend, a daughter. There are stories and struggles that are interwoven into each of those roles. Sometimes those stories and struggles will not align with, and potentially overshadow, her advocacy for the black community.


That is the often-insurmountable struggle that black artists face. While serving the community is and should be at the forefront of all black artists’ motivations, it can impede their freedom as an artist, and potentially drown their individual voice. She’s Gotta Have It is a must-see because it shows the difficulty of being a black artist and the importance of celebrating black artists. With every completed piece or milestone, they are overcoming a significant internal battle. 



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