This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
In Spike Lee’s original She’s Gotta Have It, the main character, Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns), is assaulted by a former boyfriend, Jamie Overstreet. The assault begins with a slut-shame—a toss of the label “freak” over her sexual promiscuity. His next words are a warning, “you don’t want me to make love to you, you want me to fuck you.” Then he pushes Nola onto a bed before the eventual rape scene. It’s a sequence that Spike Lee has since regretted, and one he’s often blamed on his own immaturity. It was clumsy, insensitive, and told through the optics of an unapologetic male perspective.
Spike Lee is pretty much that guy; the person you either love-to-hate or hate-to-love for scenes like this—that fuck your lawn approach. It’s what you have to consider with Lee’s body of work. That his words and actions are liable to be insensitive and insane. He’s advanced a career in telling a “truth” that’s paramount to anyone else’s, even when that truth is only his truth.
The Netflix remake of She’s Gotta Have It seems to be a side-step from that approach through. Spike Lee isn’t in the fresh, non-woke, internet-less era of 1986, where he can freely write the story of a black woman as a black man. He’s in the now of 2017; a moment where women across the board are demanding that their stories be portrayed without bootlegged, male-interpretation. And since then, Lee’s acknowledged it through his hirings.
Oklahoma City-born artist, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh was one such hire. She was the Nola before the 2017 comeback—known over the years for her use of the craft as a means of social activism for women of color. Her global Stop Telling Women to Smile 2012 campaign, which focused on street harassment, was in part, a huge inspiration for Nola Darling’s newfound artistic expression. Through that same reputation, found in the streets of New York, Spike Lee hired her as the show’s main art consultant and painter of Nola’s many pieces.
“I’ve had issues with his work over the years in how he’s portrayed black women,” says the soft-spoken Fazlalizadeh over our phone conversation. “But it’s Spike Lee, he’s brilliant, he’s a legend, and absolutely, I was down.”
During our phone call, Fazlalizadeh spoke candidly with me about She’s Gotta Have It, the craft she uses to speak to women in particular, and why she’s hopeful for women in a post-Harvey Weinstein era.
VICE: Let’s talk about She’s Gotta Have It, were you a fan the 1986 film?
Tatyana Fazlalizadeh: First of all, I loved the original. Yes, I had my issues, and yes, I didn’t like the sexual assault that happened in the original—but Spike has already addressed his regret in that. As a young black woman, watching a movie like that was something I had never experienced before. Because it’s now a ten-episode series, there’s greater opportunity to dig deeper into characters like Nola Darling. And this time around, her artwork and profession seems to play an equal part. In the film, we never really got a chance to see all of that. It was mostly about Nola's romantic relationships with these dudes. In the remake, her art is another character. She’s passionate about it but also insecure at the same time. We get to see her working through it all, which is really great. It only adds another layer to her as a human being.
Elaborate on that human being aspect, especially as a black woman.
As a black woman, I’m always looking for us to be portrayed as regular people. Yes, we go through a lot of stuff, and experience oppression all the time, but we’re also just regular people. We’re not super or weak woman all the time. We’re not super sexual or non-sexual all the time; we’re just regular human beings. And yes, we don’t always have our careers together. A lot of times in media, we are the trope of women who are super successful and independent. But a lot of times, we just don’t have our shit figured out. We’re trying to make it like everyone else. The show just gets that in a lot of ways, and I’m hoping that future seasons can uncover that aspect in these characters. It’s something we’re really starting to see, not just in this show, but also in others. Black women are being allowed to be full human beings. I’m really excited about that.
Your art is featured throughout this show. It’s also inspired by your previous series, Stop Telling Women to Smile. You don’t have to be compelled to use your artistry or voice to do what you do. Elaborate on why it’s so important for you to do so.
I’m an artist, and through that, I’ve always had the desire to talk about the things that impact me through my work. I never wanted to just make pretty pictures or things that are aesthetically pleasing. My work had to address things that were important to me and my community. The truth is, I think about race and genre all the time because I’m experiencing the world in a way that forces me to face them head-on.
For me, the importance is always there. I always approach my work with an idea, issue, and an audience in mind. It’s not just about me, it’s about a particular audience. Usually, when there’s an issue to address, there’s the oppressed and the oppressor. In the case of Stop Telling Me to Smile, we’re talking about sexism and the women that are oppressed by this group, men, who are perpetrating the problem. Basically, I’m making work for women. They’re the audience, and the men are as well—to a lesser degree. It’s always about who I’m talking to, what I’m trying to say to them, and where’s the best place to have an impact that can affect people positively. That always dictates the direction I want to go in.
So when talking about harassment—without the pressures of getting too personal—can you tell me about the kind of things you’ve faced that inspired works like Stop Telling Women to Smile ?
Honestly, I’ve been experiencing forms of sexual harassment since I was a kid. It’s always been a part of my life. It’s not so much the actual experience of what has happened, but the fact that it happens all the fucking time. For example, I was working on a mural in Philly with a bunch of dudes for an art collective. I was the only woman working on the project. So you’re outside, it’s summer, we’re on lifts, up in the air, and we’re painting walls. Of course, I’m wearing shorts because it’s hot out. Men walking down the street would whistle and talk at me while I’m on a lift working on a wall. I’ve had a bunch of male friends in my life, and I’ve always noticed how my public space is very different from the way they experience the same public spaces. It let me know that even while performing labor, I’m still in the hands of men. I’m still being sexually objectified. Things like that have been huge motivators.
I've got to ask—As a black writer I sometimes feel like it's my responsibility to use my craft to further the causes that affect folks like me, instead of the fun stuff. Do you personally see what you do as your responsibility as a black woman?
You know... I don’t know if it’s a responsibility. Everyone doesn’t have to use their voice. Sure, it’s a grand and beautiful idea if every single person used their skill or talent for activism, community, fighting and resisting the terrible things that are happening to us. It’s a beautiful and lofty idea. But a lot of times, it’s asking a lot out of people who are simply trying to live their lives and get through the day, to march and be an activist. I don’t think that’s necessary nor my responsibility. I can easily paint pictures of flowers every day, but I’m doing this because I want to do it, and I really care about these things. If my art is the best way to help, I want to be able to contribute in the way that I can. If an artist doesn’t feel that way, it is what it is.
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