In the seventh episode of the new Netflix series She’s Gotta Have It, director Spike Lee’s updated TV adaptation of his own classic 1986 breakthrough film, a white art critic played by the inimitable Wallace Shawn publishes a video review of an art show featuring black artists, including protagonist Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise). He pontificates at length about how Nola doesn’t capture the other artists’ essential blackness, that her understanding of the black experience isn’t as pointed or profound.
Lee — who directed every episode of the series — and his mostly women writers’ room don’t need to underline the point. The idea that a white male critic would presume to tell a black woman artist that her art somehow lacks authenticity because it doesn’t place her race at the center of its construction and is, instead, a series of celebrations of the black female form — Nola is a portraitist — is presented as self-evidently ridiculous. It’s to the series credit that it doesn’t underline this particular joke. Simply casting Wallace Shawn, who is as all-purpose of a goofy white guy as you’re going to find working in show business, does most of the work.
I mention this to highlight the way that She’s Gotta Have It paints with more subtle hues than you might expect based on its bold and flashy presentation, where lyrics to songs playing on the soundtrack plaster themselves onscreen, or where Lee might interrupt the primary plot to follow Nola around local cemeteries as she pays homage to her heroes. But I also mention it because, as a white guy critic, I want to acknowledge up front that Spike Lee, She’s Gotta Have It, and everybody involved in the project have my number.
With that said, I have few complaints. I loved She’s Gotta Have It. I loved its presentation of 2016 Brooklyn (for the series is very pointedly set in 2016). I loved its central character (and DeWise’s performance). I loved its vibrant look at life and its mournful take on gentrification. And above all, I loved Lee’s perfect, precise framing, the way he collected everything he’s learned since the first She’s Gotta Have It and loaded it into this love letter to his city and his favorite music and some really tremendous actors.
The show stands as a textbook example of how major filmmakers can and should adapt their work for television: by not trying to rewrite the rules of another medium, but by finding a way to make their signature style flow through those rules. Warning: Mild spoilers follow.
She’s Gotta Have It never forgets that it is, first and foremost, a television show
I first noticed just how skillfully Lee had translated his style to television somewhere around the series’ fourth or fifth episode (out of 10). Just from looking at the running times — most of which hover in the 35-minute range — She’s Gotta Have It would seem to have a clear case of Netflix bloat, the condition that occurs when Netflix auteurs expand and expand and expand their work simply because they can. The resulting shows become soggy and formless, and the good bits get lost amid all the dross.
So why didn’t this happen with She’s Gotta Have It? Perhaps Lee looked to Steven Soderbergh’s work on The Knick, or Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan’s work on The Girlfriend Experience, for guidance on how fellow film directors who’ve landed TV directing gigs made shows that are recognizable as their own, but also recognizable as television. And if he did, he surely realized that those shows work because each episode is just that: an episode.
The same is true of She’s Gotta Have It, which succeeds because Lee doesn’t delay payoffs past when he absolutely needs to. While individual installments might be loose and breezy, they also tell more or less complete stories about, say, Nola exploring the idea of monogamy with a woman she’s attracted to, or Nola attending her first big art show, or Nola having to hustle to pay some bills.
Like Lee’s 1986 film, the series understands that because so much of its appeal is rooted in Nola’s point-of-view, it wouldn’t feel as vital were it a sweeping tale of Nola’s journey to artistic success (though it’s also that, here and there). It’s well aware that it’s more compelling as a story of one very interesting woman’s day-to-day life in a Brooklyn that’s swiftly changing.
The most notable thing about the 1986 film was that Nola’s character was defined largely by the fact that she was dating three different men, which in 1986 was presented as a groundbreaking example of her empowerment. Nola is still dating three different men in the new series, but She’s Gotta Have It doesn’t try to suggest that she’s somehow unusual or unique for doing so.
Instead, her three suitors — mature businessman Jamie Overstreet (Lyriq Bent), preening model and photographer Greer Childs (Cleo Anthony), and motormouthed Mars Blackmon (Hamilton star Anthony Ramos, taking over the role from Lee himself, who originated it in the film) — are presented as interesting not for which one Nola might choose but for how they all speak to different parts of her personality.
At 27, Nola is still figuring a lot of things out, both about her herself and her artistic sensibilities. That means not tying herself down to any one suitor, or any one self. Even her relationship with a single mother (Opal, played by Ilfenesh Hadera) is presented not as anything titillating, but as something Nola’s just not ready to handle. She might be good with a kid in short bursts, but long term? That’s another matter.
But She’s Gotta Have It is also quite obviously — and beautifully — the work of Spike Lee
Even if the series is recognizable as TV, it’s unmistakably the work of Spike Lee. His incredibly fluid but precise frames animate every episode, and each installment opens with one character (usually Nola) addressing the camera in theatrical style, surrounded by some element of She’s Gotta Have It’s Fort Greene neighborhood that illustrates the point being made. Even these relatively simple shots of a character talking to the camera are beautifully composed, telling you everything you need to know about who they are and who they hope to be.
And few better directors are more skilled at positioning actors within the frame or using bright, poppy colors than Lee, something that’s more than evident in the season finale, when he gathers all of the characters in one space for a purple-hued, Prince-themed Thanksgiving dinner that functions as a culmination of everything the show has accomplished to that point.
But Lee doesn’t overplay his hand, either. He writes a couple of episodes, but as the show delves into the personal lives of Nola and her many suitors (including some surprising detours into the frayed but technically still intact marriage of one boyfriend and the hyper-attuned sex drive of another), the show’s writing staff, mostly made up of women (including two-time Pulitzer winning playwright Lynn Nottage), expertly expands the show’s world without losing sight of the woman who binds all of these characters together.
She’s Gotta Have It has loose ends here and there. Some of the stories involving Nola’s female friends don’t add up to much, and there were times when I, a non-Brooklynite, wanted a slightly better sense of how Fort Greene had changed between 1986 and now — how the process of gentrification had taken hold, and when.
But those are minor quibbles in the face of a series that so thoughtfully and beautifully celebrates creativity, of the way that just the right song can seize you in the moment and spur you to greatness, or the way that just the right book can speak volumes right when you need it to. (Lee, helpfully, splays album covers and book covers onscreen to guide you through the series’ omnivorous playlist.)
And there’s a melancholy to She’s Gotta Have It that strikes me as just right, especially as it follows Nola through a pivotal year that ends with America as a whole seeming to reject everything her diverse, cosmopolitan neighborhood stands for. Gentrification is changing the face of Fort Greene, a haven for black success in the 1986 film, but now a rapidly changing little world, pushing out people of color in favor of the rich and young and (usually) white.
But the world has changed in other ways, too. In 1986, She’s Gotta Have It was at the vanguard of a new movement in independent American film, one that would change the art form. In 2017, to make indie films, you have to sell an idea to Netflix. But that doesn’t have to be a curse — it just requires a different approach. Maybe She’s Gotta Have It can point a new way forward in 2017, too.
She’s Gotta Have It is streaming on Netflix beginning Thursday, November 23.