Film director Spike Lee has long earned a reputation for being politically outspoken. Following the election of Donald Trump to the role of US commander-in-chief, Lee told the Hollywood Reporter:
He’s not my president. I call him Agent Orange. He’s the clown with the nuclear codes.
Lee’s new Netflix series She’s Gotta Have It, sees him revisit the character of Nola Darling and her four lovers: three male, one female. At the time of its original release in 1986, the film signalled a revolution in black film-making. Prior to Nola’s onscreen sexual antics, African American characters were rarely depicted in moments of intimacy. Tracy Camilla Johns’ Nola Darling of the 1980s challenged conceptions of female sexuality, yet she did not use her voice to engage with wider political problems.
The same cannot be said of Lee’s return to the story in 2017. The new millennial Nola, played by DeWanda Wise, exists in a world where politics are brought to the fore. The updated Nola is not only a self-professed “Sex-Positive, Polyamorous Pansexual” but she is also not a fan of the 45th President of the United States. Nola doesn’t pull any punches when she states:
Truth be told 2016 was just a fucked-up year. And the bogus election was the biggest fuck-up of all time.
Klown wit da nuclear code
The Netflix reimagining of She’s Gotta Have It is a collaborative project. Lee invited eight writers to contribute an episode, while he wrote the opening and closing instalments. The scathing attack on Donald Trump first appears in episode eight (#LoveDontPayDaRent). Although penned by Barry Michael Cooper, the opening montage can be attributed to Lee’s own hand as the anti-Trump sequence is based on a music video Lee released on July 3, 2017 to ironically coincide with Independence Day celebrations.
“Klown Wit Da Nuclear Code” was a joint venture between the director and the Tony Award-winning songwriter Stew and his band The Negro Problem. The pair had worked together previously when Lee filmed Stew’s Broadway show Passing Strange.
The music video was not attached to any larger project or album but instead functioned as a standalone cry of protest. Uncomfortably, Lee visually matched modern-day images of Trump with original photographs of Africans working in the fields as slaves, with the lyrics emblazoned on the screen:
Now come check out the scene.
Every day is Halloween.
Dead ideas waltzing from their graves.
Swipe right for information.
Bringing back dat old plantation
Only this time we all get to be slaves.
The election dissection
The confrontational music video is repurposed as it is inserted into the lives of Nola, her friends and neighbours on the day of the 2016 presidential election. The video is remixed to include swelling orchestral strings and the original imagery is now intercut with characters from the series responding to the news of Donald Trump’s ascendancy. Lee depicts the diverse demographic of Fort Greene, Brooklyn: old, young, black, white, rich and poor. All the inhabitants are shown in mourning following the election result adding poignancy to the lyric: “Only this time we all get to be slaves”.
The geographical location of New York, and more specifically Brooklyn, is flagged in the lyric “When Brooklyn sings a rhyme to world out of time”. Following the election, 10,000 protesters took to the streets of New York chanting “Not my president”. Although the Netflix series highlights tensions regarding the gentrification of Fort Greene – with the rise in property prices forcing original inhabitants out of the area – in this montage we witness a united front.
Lee frames many of the characters in moments of reflection, looking into the camera lens with both sorrow and defiance. The homeless army veteran questions whether he will be deported back to the Dominican Republic, referring to Trump’s immediate blacklisting of people from specific Muslim nations from being able to enter America. Even Bianca, the new white neighbour, cuddles her dog for comfort. Nola’s reaction as an artist is to paint Barack Obama and his family. Similarly, her employer – the schoolteacher Raqueletta Moss – holds a photograph of the former president as she fights to hold back tears.
As part of the montage the white art critic, Julius Kemper states:
Very often, beautiful art is created in very ugly times and we’re entering a very ugly period.
New times have resulted in more overt political art forms, and in Lee’s reworking of She’s Gotta Have It, the fresh politicised voice of Nola resounds as an open assault on Trump and his regressive mantra to “Make America great again”.
If you'd like to investigate more about how media and culture reflect the times, why not explore Liverpool Screen School courses?