They say that you don’t really know a person until you see them under pressure. If a two-hour wait from the time we arrive at a hip vegan restaurant in Harlem until we actually receive our food counts as pressure, actor DeWanda Wise and I know each other very well. Effortlessly cool and laid back, Wise is every bit the Black millennial: when I first showed up I found her casually leaning against the building and texting on her phone, clad in denim jeans and a denim button-up top, tied under her chest in a DIY crop top. If I were to close my eyes and envision #BlackGirlMagic, someone exactly like Wise would appear. and now she says she prefers not to scramble for a Plan B, so we end up posted in the waiting area chatting for over an hour. “The food is worth it,” she assures me.
It was the kind of easy conversation that flows between two people with things in common — for us it was our shared experience of being young, Black, and hungry. Wise speaks with a soft tone and laughs easily. She pays attention and knows exactly when to crack a joke or dig deeper with her questions. What I learned about Wise is that she is someone you want to get to know. But she also has a glare, an aura, an unnamed something that makes you crave for her to know exactly who you are, too. It’s no doubt that this mysterious ‘it’ factor helped legendary director Spike Lee cast her in his first-ever television series, a remake of his first film, She’s Gotta Have It.
“She had everything I needed. It’s just that simple.” Lee would later tell me about his decision to cast Wise as the main character, female protagonist Nola Darling. Nola broke the mold on how Black women, and their sexuality, were portrayed in pop culture. Turning her back on the respectability deeply ingrained in the Black romance genre, Nola took us on a tour of the Brooklyn we wished we had seen in Girls and managed her love life with the elegance we prayed for Issa to have on Insecure. Released in 1986 as the result of Lee’s industrious determination to see it through, the independent film was a 90-minute journey into the life of a twenty-something struggling artist trying to ethically juggle three lovers.
The movie was an experiential take on being Black and sexy in Brooklyn on the eve of the 1990s and in many ways, She’s Gotta Have It was ahead of its time. It has since become a cult classic. Over two decades before women of color had the idea or social media platforms to declare that #hoeislife, Nola had set a precedence for exactly how it’s done. She was independent, beautiful, and obviously untraditional in her approach to love and dating in a world where the script has been pre-written for Black women to be strategic and tunnel visioned on their path to marriage. To some extent, the same thing can be said for Wise, the woman tapped to bring Nola into the new millennium, and to Netflix when the entire first season will be available to stream on Thanksgiving day.
Wise was born and raised in Baltimore and started acting when she was only 15 years old. She was so infatuated with the craft that she broke up with her high school boyfriend, telling him, “You’re going to hold me back. I’m trying to move to New York and become an actor.” And that’s exactly what she did. She chose NYU for the same reasons thousands of college students pick their universities: the school offered her the most money. As a freshman in the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts, she went way above her station as a first year to audition for the annual showcase and ended up getting represented that same year. She was determined.
Wise has since racked up over 30 credits on her official IMDb page. Most recently, she played supporting roles on the FOX drama Shots Fired with Sanaa Lathan and WGN’s Underground, which was cancelled after two seasons. With over a decade of experience under her belt, Wise has seen the best and worst of Hollywood in terms of diversity. In fact, she can identify the moment that things started to change for Black women in the industry.
“The last couple of years — literally I can pinpoint it to Kerry Washington and Scandal for Black women specifically on TV — it has accelerated. You see Sonequa Martin-Green in Star Trek: Discovery. This season and the last couple before it have really exploded in television. I wouldn’t have foreseen that. Before that, if I was going in [to audition] it was for the party Black girl, and every best friend archetype. It wasn’t until 2012 where all of a sudden I found myself testing very often in television to be the lead of a thing.”
That thing has finally come to fruition — but Wise made it clear that she doesn’t believe in big breaks. “I have a healthy level of temperance and, honestly, just work ethic,” she was not afraid to admit to me. “I’m going to continue being the person I am. I’m going to continue to put the same work forth that I’ve been putting forth while also recognizing that I’ve never been number one on the call sheet. [Spike Lee] is the third high-profile director that I’ve worked with in my life. So I’m looking forward to it but I’m super cautious about attaching an expectation to it. They say expectation is the theft of joy, and I believe that.” Even still, Wise — while humbly acknowledging how her “pretty girl privilege” may have helped to get her here — is ready for it.
In what can only be described as a full-circle moment, Wise took on a serious tone when she explained between bites of food the effect that 1986’s Nola had on her as an actor. “When I first saw the movie about six years ago, I do feel like that was the first time I ever thought ‘I want to play icons.’ It really solidified something in my DNA.” This was years before Wise would be chosen to update the pivotal character she seems to embody so perfectly, from her intentionally thrifty style to her carefree demeanor.
But on a broader level, I wanted to know why Wise — the woman who impulsively married her husband, fellow actor Alano Miller, just three months after they met at a fundraiser in college — thought Nola was still relevant today. “She’s hard working,” Wise explained. “She’s a really fucking great visual artist. You watch her journey of fighting to become better, to do better. And fighting to — as much as we can — retain that #carefreeBlackgirl status. Because it’s a fight. It’s a hashtag not because it’s easy. It’s hard as fuck to maintain with all the things that are thrown at us. No matter what your choices are, in terms of your sexual politics, which is in itself worthy and powerful, more than that I just think it’s so wonderful to witness a Black woman so determined to fight for the certain quality of life.”
Just last week, Nicki Minaj broke the internet with a new cover shoot for Paper magazine. She was scolded by critics for not covering up more. When Cardi B. got engaged to her boyfriend Offset, Black Twitter launched into a conversation about whether or not she was “wife material” because of her past as a stripper and love of showing off her cleavage. When Nola Darling comes to Netflix, she is most certainly going to be judged by the same subsection of Black Twitter that calls women “beloved” before making gross connections about what their sexual practices mean. Black women and their bodies are constantly patrolled by the piety police and shamed for breaking their rules. Still, they have built a community and taken a stance in support of their own sexual liberation, but not without the misogynoir that demands that they adhere to respectability politics.
And this is exactly why stepping into Nola’s sexy shoes is helping Wise realize the legacy she wants to leave with her acting career: “It’s important to find your space. I recognized that there was no cinematic Rihanna… We were really imbued with this notion of Black respectability politics and everyone wanting to play the good girl and the good guy and this wholesome thing, super concerned with image. My concern is humanity, and my superpower is fearlessness. That’s what you can expect to see a lot more of from me."
Wise and I linger at our table way after the last bites of our food are devoured and I turn off my recorder. It turns out that this meal was worth every bit of the wait, not for the quality of the cuisine, but because it was so damn refreshing to spend a few hours with someone so committed to being more than pretty and proper. Wise is a game changer.