(Photo: Netflix)

The climax of Shemekka’s plastic surgery storyline is so disgusting and revolting that it dominates this episode. It’s a confusing and tonally out of place moment that relies on body horror for shock value. The rest of the episode is what I believe is Spike Lee’s attempts at comedy and it falls flat. It’s a mess from top to bottom, no pun intended.

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“#HeGotItAllMixedUp (DYSLEXIA)“ focuses splits its time between Nola’s art show and Shemekka’s stage debut. The episode also attempts to humanize Mars by having him talk more candidly about his dyslexia. Mars opens up emotionally and his typically manic energy settles down in this episode and Anthony Ramos runs away with the material. He’s the most sympathetic of Nola’s men and the only one that seems to be working to make Nola’s life better. It’s infuriating to see Nola use him to transport her paintings to the gallery and then chastise him for wanting to come inside. He seems to be the only one willing to provide her with the attention and emotional support that she desperately requires. It’s getting harder to watch Nola keep these men at arm’s length and be sympathetic toward her.

It’s also getting harder to watch Nola fumble through her career without her doing anything to better herself. That feeling is not helped by finally seeing her work next to other artists. Is there some list of works of art in television that don’t hold up? Carrie’s writing in Sex and the City, Hannah’s writing in Girls, anything from the musical Hit List from Smash. Nola’s artwork is serviceable. It looks like something you’d buy on Etsy and send the artist a photograph of your girlfriend for a birthday present. Jamie is the only one willing to buy her paintings and she needs her friend to get her a legitimate gallery show. She’s unwilling to mingle during the gallery opening and gets distracted by her three men showing up during the show. There’s no point of view or skewering of the male gaze in her work. It makes every speech Nola’s made about art and being an artist ring hollow. There’s potential to use that tension to explore how Nola sees herself and how others see her work.

Unfortunately, She’s Gotta Have It is more willing to skewer Shemekka and her quest for the body of her dreams. By having Shemekka’s ass literally explode all over the audience and giving her an infection, the show punishes her for this quest. The fact that the show has decided to torture and violently discipline Shemekka for her vanity is horrifying. The perfect victim for She’s Gotta Have It’s vendetta against butt implants is an Afro-Latina single mother who lives with her mother in the projects. Seeing Shemekka’s screaming face right after her behind pops feels like mashing together broad, gross-out comedy with body horror. This horrifying moment indulges the worst impulses of Spike Lee and the confusing tone of the moment is off-putting.

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Another off-putting moment is a brief interaction Nola has with a cab driver. The character isn’t seen and speaks in a “foreign” accent. The accent sounds like someone who putting on an accent and not a native speaker of another language. He hits on Nola and says he doesn’t want to be deported when Nola confronts him. It’s played for laughs. There is no need for a predominately Black cast and crew to rely on vaguely Indian or Middle Eastern caricatures for a cheap laugh.

Then we arrive at the art show. There is more attempts at comedy or something resembling comedy. The jokes are lazy and we’ve heard many of them before. There’s a white artist who has a child with a Black woman and he wears streetwear and rocks a grill. He crudely refers to Black women’s vaginas as “nappy dugouts.” This is all standard fare for a Lee comedy but then he spouts a line about his great-grandfather dying in a concentration camp when he fell off a guard tower. Google this joke. What’s the first result? A reddit post from three years ago. Culture vultures and cultural appropriation are still rich territory for comedy. Having white guys who like Black women a little too much spout tired jokes and talk like Malibu’s Most Wanted makes it seem like the writers haven’t actually encountered what cultural appropriation and microaggressions looks like in 2017. A white guy in a beanie with a grill feels edgy for 1997.

The episode desperately wanted us to laugh but relied on cheap, tired jokes or the suffering and humiliation of Black women to do so. The emotional stakes of the episode and of the series are far more worthwhile. The scenes with Nola and Mars, Opal, or Jamie are more fulfilling and rich compared to any attempt at comedy.

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Stray observations

  • What was that dance routine? This is supposed to be shameful? Shemekka looked like a middling RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant during a lip synch for her life. Her outfit is way more fabulous than any strip club I’ve ever been to.
  • Mars continues to love Jordans as much as his film predecessor and Spike Lee.
  • There’s a cameo from the original Nola Darling, Tracy Camilla Johns. She had the same lightness and twinkling energy that film Nola has. I’d love for some of that lightness in this series.
  • Are we supposed to believe that Mars’ dyslexia is the explanation for his unusual speech pattern?
  • Clo introduces the art show as featuring the most interesting millennial voices in the African diaspora. I don’t want to dance of any graves but those other artists are older than millennials. By like a significant amount. The choice for the other artists to be older and well-known is ridiculous. They could have been Nola’s age and accomplished and still highlighted her lack of success.

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