In 1986, Spike Lee’s first feature-length film, She’s Gotta Have It, dared to challenge the constraints of monogamy by exploring the relationship between a single woman and her three male lovers. Actress Tracy Camilla Johns was striking as Nola Darling, a liberated Brooklyn artist, who valued variety and freedom over the constraints of commitment.
In the 30 years since that film’s release much has changed in the way Americans discuss sex, gender and sexuality — but much has not. While the language around intimacy has expanded, many of the basic instincts that rule us thwart our best efforts to evolve. As advanced as we may be in many ways, debates around harassment, assault, abuse and reproductive freedom still dominate the news cycle. So the timing couldn’t be more ideal to revisit Spike’s classic film, but with the benefit of a 10-episode arc to further explore the fundamental issues raised in the original film. DeWanda Wise (Claire in Underground and Shamika Campbell in Shots Fired) reprises the role of the shero, Nola Darling, who is still one of Brooklyn’s finest, but is trying to survive in the new gentrified reality of her hometown. She is again juggling multiple lovers; the egotistical pretty boy Greer Childs, the handsome and supportive Jamie Overstreet and the jocular Mars Blackmon, and their interactions make for some of Spike Lee’s most compelling work in years.
DeWanda gave BET.com an exclusive chat about her role, working with Spike Lee and how her sexually liberated character gets her Netflix and chill on.
How did you land the role of Nola Darling?
I got the role of Nola Darling by auditioning, like a score of other actresses. At the time, I was working on Underground. I put myself on tape. I heard later what sealed it was… there were three scenes. The first scene was the iconic, direct address to camera monologue that Nola gives. We do it in the update as well. And I decided for whatever reason, because I’ m very Yolo when it comes to self tapes, I decide to, like, tape it in my bed. My hair was in Bantu knots, ready to go to sleep. I literally just used the lamp that was by the bed and did it selfie style. Then the next day I woke up and taped the rest of the audition. But that was the moment. As soon as you turn it on there is Nola in her bed.
When did you first watch the original She’s Gotta Have It?
I think I watched the original when I was around 20. I remember being in college and funny enough we’d studied [Spike Lee's film] Bamboozled at NYU. We took a full semester of studying [that film]. So I probably went on a bit of a binge of a lot of [Spike Lee] films and I’d never seen that one. Kudos to my mom, that’s probably why I hadn’t seen it [because] it’s not exactly for children. And I was blown away. I thought even then that it was so far ahead of its time and super progressive. And a lot of the terms we have now to describe Nola and her sexuality weren’t on hand in 1986.
The first time I heard the word pansexual was in reference to Deadpool. How much research did you have to do?
I did not have to do a ton of research. A number of things kind of fell into play. When it comes to sexuality I have friends all across backgrounds and identities, and gender. When it comes to Brooklyn and New York, I was an urban studies major. I went to school here. And thankfully I had played two characters who were from Brooklyn; one in a play in 2013 and one in an independent film called How To Tell You’re a Douchebag, she was like a feminist blogger. That was the film Spike watched before I even auditioned for the role.
So what was it like working with Spike?
Working with Spike is the best. He will make sure you are super equipped to do your job well. He will take up your whole entire life, let me be clear. But he will make sure that if there is dancing, you will know how to dance. Or if there are long takes of painting and constructing and collage making that you don’t look like an idiot. So I had the best time working with him and I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would consider him a kindred, but we’re both super efficient, very 'work hard, play hard.' We didn’t go over 12-hour days. And overall it was probably the most fun I’ve had filming anything in my life.
The original Nola, Tracy Camilla Johns, made a cameo in Spike’s Redhook Summer. She is a pastor now and her character was “saved.” What do you think of that?
I feel like I heard years ago that she was a pastor. I grew up Christian so I understand how it can seem like it’s at odds. I don’t know the full story of her path after She’s Gotta Have It, but I will tell you this: If I’d gotten this role not married — I’ve been married for eight years — or in my early 20s, it would’ve been a disaster. It’s a lot to handle. And to be able to play someone who is free spirited and navigating life and all of these lovers, ironically you have to be really mature and disciplined. She’s still a Pentecostal preacher and may or may not make an appearance in our series as well.
Did you speak with her at all about your reprisal of Nola?
No, we didn’t talk a lot about it at all. Because honestly, when Spike created Nola Darling in 1984/85, he was thinking what would happen if a woman behaved like a man. So a large part of my contribution to the role in the story was updating Nola, and making sure that she was a millennial woman in 2017. Whether it was small tweaks with language or slang. They had this street scene were all the guys were hollering and I talked to this guy in my dad’s generation. He said in the ‘80s women would talk back. They would snap back and be like whatever. So when Spike was directing me, initially he was going to have Nola speaking back. After a while I was like, "No one does that, Spike." I, personally, do not know a woman, unless she is at the end of her line, who would speak back. It’s so dangerous. Street harassment is so serious. I would walk around in New York and I have a healthy fear of getting my face slashed. There were small things, but very necessary things that I contributed to bringing it to the present.
Issues of women’s sexuality and harassment are making more headlines than ever. Why does that make this series so timely?
We filmed the series in fall of 2016 and so much has transpired in the last year, which has exacerbated how much of a conversation women’s bodies are. It varies from something very small, to commenting on Rihanna gaining weight, to something very large, like a group of politicians that don’t look like you or have anything to do with you decide what you can or cannot do with your body. The personal is political. So here is a woman who is self actualized, who is saying that this is my personal life. Our personal lives are being used for political fodder. Nola, and I dare say, me, is a member of a growing community of women and allies who are saying no, absolutely not.
How does Nola Netflix and chill?
You know, Spike is really funny and old school. He’s like Nola doesn’t have a TV in her apartment. Nola watched TV, if she watches TV, on her computer. So she would most likely Netflix and chill with Greer.
And lastly, what would Nola Darling’s DMs on social media look like?
Well if Nola had an Instagram it would be entirely of her work. At the end of the day she’s still very private when it comes to her personal life. They’re not graphic, sexual conversations that she’s having with her friends. None of that. She’s very like, “This is my personal life.” So I’d imagine that her Instagram would be full of art.
She’s Gotta Have It premiers on Netflix on November 23. So make sure to secure your binge bae now!
(Photo: Clifton Prescod/BET)