Editor’s note: Last week, John Boyega and others expressed outrage over an exchange from the fifth episode of Season 2 in Spike Lee’s Netflix series, “She’s Gotta Have It.” The scene finds Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise) and her black British lover Olu (Michael Luwoye) debating the impact of black British actors in Hollywood. The conversation eventually expands to the British involvement in the transatlantic slave trade and other major historical issues. Many viewers have taken particular issue with Nola describing black British actors as “cheap” and essentially ignorant of their own history, suffering from “Stockholm Syndrome.” Boyega saw a viral clip of the scene circulating online and simply labelled it “Trash.”
Boyega’s tweet was picked up by numerous media outlets. In response, the episode’s writer, Barry Michael Cooper, wrote a letter to Boyega, which he has provided to IndieWire below.
A Letter To John Boyega: The Conversation of a Kidnapping
Dear John Boyega:
I hope all is well.
I want to begin by stating that you are one of the most accomplished actors of your generation. From your interpolation of Finn, the heroic intergalactic freedom fighter in “Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens” to the emotionally wounded Dismukes in “Detroit,” you bring an unshakable certitude to your all of your performances. You have a God-given talent, my brother.
I am writing you about a statement you made in a Twitter post, addressing a controversial episode in Season Two of Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It” streaming series on Netflix. The scene in question—from Episode 5, “SuperCaliFragiSexy”— concerns lead character Nola Darling (Dewanda Wise) offering her besotted but impassioned take on Afro-Brit actors seemingly taking all of the acting roles from African American actors. Nola’s Afro- Brit paramour, the lauded sculptor Olu Owoye (“Hamilton” actor Michael Luwoye) pushes back on her drunken rant, with a seemingly condescending dismissive remark: “Black British actors are better suited than black American actors because they don’t carry the burden of…fucked up black American history. Lynching, slavery, Jim Crow, all of that.”
Nola’s incendiary answer with a smile is like a detonated carpet bomb wrapped in velvet. “You’re not unburdened, Olu!” Nola exclaims. “British ships were the dominant force in the Atlantic Slave Trade. Almost two million kidnapped Africans died in the Middle Passage. You and your Black British blokes didn’t come out unscathed. You just developed Stockholm syndrome, and fell in love with your captors.”
Mr. Boyega, you labeled the scene “Trash,” by way of a 27 May 2019 tweet by Afro-Brit blogger Mi@helloalgeria . That tweet has since gone viral.
— John Boyega (@JohnBoyega) May 27, 2019
First and foremost, I need to clear up one misconception that is playing out online. Spike Lee did not write that episode. I did.
In all fairness, Mr. Boyega, you have every right to be incensed by the intentional mispronunciation of you and Mr. Ejiofor’s names. My apologies to you both. I wrote Nola’s politicized screed not only to be provocative, but to also bracket her riposte with a historical reference. Nola’s measured diatribe was a means of informing Olu (which also literally aroused him, based on the ferocity of their sex in the following scene), and to stir the viewers, too. I wanted to write a scene that would inspire a Transatlantic and intra-racial discussion about slavery and the emotional keloids that continue to scar the African diaspora to this very day.
This scene was borne of a series of actual events. The talented ladies in the SGHI Writer’s Room—Radha Blank, Eisa Davis, Joie Lee (Spike’s sister), Jocelyn Bioh, Antoinette Nwandu, Tonya Lewis Lee (Spike’s wife and co-executive producer of the show), and the actual artist behind Nola’s spellbinding artwork, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh—felt that Nola’s male lover for Season 2 should be a sculptor of renown in the art world (Olu uses cow dung as his work source), and he should be a Black Brit. Spike agreed that it was a hot idea, as did the male writers in the room, Andrew Lemon Andersen, Cinque Lee (Spike’s brother), and me.
Initially, Spike and I were going to write the episode together, since it used his beloved Brooklyn Prince Block Party as a backdrop (hence the title of the episode). However, because Spike was finalizing the post-production on what became his long overdue Oscar win for “BlacKKKlansman,” he assigned the episode to me. One of the many discussions we had about the relationship between Nola and Olu in that episode was the issue of African American actors losing roles to Afro-Brit actors, which was prompted by Samuel L. Jackson’s 6 March 2017 interview with Ebro Darden on the New York radio station Hot 97.
When asked about Jordan Peele’s landmark film “Get Out,” Jackson had an immediate take. “I know the young brother that’s in the movie…he’s British,” Jackson said, referring to the star of the film, Daniel Kaluuya. “There are a lot of black British actors that work in this country all the time. I tend to wonder…what would a brother from America have made of that role?”
When Ebro asked Jackson what he believed created the phenomenon of Afro-Brits playing African American roles, Jackson laughed and said, “They’re cheaper than us, for one thing. They don’t cost as much … and they think they are better trained than we are. I don’t know what that love affair is all about, but it’s all good. Everybody needs the work. But it’s a lot of brothers here who need the work, too.”
Jackson’s sentiment didn’t sit well with storied Afro-Brit actor David Harewood. His portrayal of the sophisticated and invidious CIA Deputy Director “David Estes” in Showtime’s “Homeland” was a powerful character study of subdued menace. His essay in The Guardian repudiated Jackson’s assessment of black actors from the UK. “Perhaps it’s precisely because we are not real American brothers,” Harewood wrote, “that we black British performers have the ability to unshackle ourselves from the burden of racial realities — and simply play what’s on the page, not what’s in the history books.”
Unshackle. That word has brutal connotations: Whips, blood, wounds, beatings, bondage, chains, water hoses, dogs, police batons, submission. Beautiful black baby girls bombed and blown to bits in church basements by Jim Crow cowards. Descendants of African kings swinging like mutilated fruit from the branches of shadow-stained Georgia Sycamore trees. The word unshackled is arid with the lugubrious, putrid and ancient stank of dismembered ghosts plumbing the depths of watery graves.
It may be that Harewood’s willful ignorance of the slave trade in the UK is because of the incongruent nature of its operation. According to a 2011 story on BBC by Sukhdev Sandhu, as the British empire extended its reach across the seas, “African and Afro-Caribbean slaves were ferried across the seas to work on plantations in the Caribbean or the Americas, where they had to do back- breaking labour all their lives under the scalding sun.” However, according to Sandhu, other Africans taken into captivity were, “offered to the commanders of slaving vessels as gifts, and were later sold into domestic service at quayside auctions or at coffee-houses in London … Slave owners selected them on the basis of their looks and the lustre of their young skin, much as dog fanciers today might coo and trill over a cute poodle.”
Sandhu goes on to say that “Black men and women found life in the UK infinitely preferable to the lives of punishing work they would have faced in the West Indies, but, though they were comparatively well treated, they were not treated as fully human. Artists routinely positioned black people on the edges or at the rear of their canvasses, from where they gaze wonderingly at their masters and mistresses. Their humanity effaced, they exist in these pictures as solitary mutes, aesthetic foils to their owners’ economic fortunes.”
Nola’s quip that Olu was a victim of “Stockholm syndrome,” was a direct hit on Harewood’s apparent obliviousness to the actual history of the enslavement of Africans in the UK. Conversely, Jackson’s initial statement about black actors in the UK may have sounded unnecessarily harsh to my brothers and sisters across the pond. My point is, the remarks of both Jackson and Harewood became the wellspring for the fiery exchange between Nola Darling and Olu Owoye. It’s not something I made up. The scene I wrote in this episode of “She’s Gotta Have It” was meant to be combustible.
Mr. Boyega, a “Spike Lee Joint” is meant to get folks talking. Even if we agree to disagree. When I was working with Spike and Tonya Lewis Lee in the fall of 2014 to retrofit his breakthrough 1986 feature “She’s Gotta Have It” into a post-millennial episodic television show, Spike always said it would be 10 separate, half-hour films, that would have a story arc, but each with a standalone identity. The characters I created for the show reflect that.
“Shemekka Epps” (gracefully portrayed by Chyna Layne) sprang to life from stories I read about women across the country who were dying from D.I.Y. butt injections. Women who reminded me of Sarah Baartman, the South African woman with huge buttocks, and kidnapped at age 16 from the Eastern Cape in 1810. Sarah Baartman was paraded around Europe by Dutch slave-traders as a sexual sideshow. Upon her death, Sarah’s genitals were placed in jars and on display at the Musee d l’Homme in Paris until 1974. The name of the burlesque club where Shemekka danced until that fateful night in Season One of “She’s Gotta Have It—The Hot N Trot Club—was a play on the name Hotentot.
Raqueletta Moss was another character I designed to create discourse. Her character was brought to life by the inimitable Tony nominee De’Adre Aziza, as the principal of Harriet Tubman Middle School. Raqueletta Moss spoke in the third person, and explained that tic as a defense mechanism that she employed to disassociate herself from the rape she endured as a 13-year-old girl in various crack dens in Brooklyn. Her mom used her own daughter as sexual barter to purchase crack cocaine. Raqueletta Moss is an unofficial mentor to Nola Darling, because she sees great potential beneath Nola’s chaotic exterior.
Mr. Boyega, I appreciate your response—and the response of your fellow UK black brothers and sisters—to my “trashy” episode. I hope that response will get our family in the diaspora to talk to each other, and more importantly, to listen to each other.
Instead of us fomenting Transatlantic factionalism, let us catalyze a conversation that would make our ancestors proud. We children of the diaspora need that conversation of the kidnapped to take place. To paraphrase Mos Def/Yasiin Bey’s line from Black Star’s “Thieves in the Night”: The length of black life continues to be treated with short worth.
I want to lift you up, my brother. Not tear you—or any of us —down.
Barry Michael Cooper
Barry Michael Cooper is a journalist, screenwriter, and producer who wrote “New Jack City,” “Above The Rim,” and “Sugar Hill.” He is also a Supervising Producer and Writer for Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It” series on Netflix, and is currently working on a documentary on Harlem titled “Harlem on My Mind.”