The Buzz: 'She's Gotta Have It' Is a Smart & Stylish Reboot
In the 1980s and 90s, Spike Lee didn’t make films-- he made “joints.” It was a pejorative term, and one that would quickly become a running joke amongst cinephiles, but it was also Lee’s way of distinguishing his art from his peers-- an indicator of the offbeat liveliness that flowed through classics like Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, and Malcolm X. Whether you loved them or hated them, you couldn’t deny these “joints” their originality.
By contrast, Lee’s output over the last decade has seen him ditch the “joint” for the more conventional “film” moniker, a change that’s coincided with tepid, workmanlike outings like Inside Man, Miracle at St. Anna, and the American remake of Oldboy. I make this distinction not to berate Lee, who’s outspoken politics have lately usurped his directing career, but to praise him, in fact, for returning to form with She’s Gotta Have It, the Netflix series that proves he’s still got a few “joints” hidden up his sleeve.
Lifting the title and premise from Lee’s 1986 film, She’s Gotta Have It focuses on Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise), a twenty-something living in Brooklyn. She’s a proud political activist, an avid moviegoer, and an aspiring painter. She’s also a woman who openly rejects notions of monogamy, as evidenced by the casual, sexual affairs she carries on with three wildly distinct men: mature lover Jamie Overstreet (Lyriq Bent), slick womanizer Greer Childs (Cleo Anthony), and charming goofball Mars Blackmon (Anthony Ramos). It’s perfect arrangement. Until, that is, each suitor decides they want Nola to themselves, and begin falling over themselves in an attempt to prove their worth.
Given that societal taboos have changed drastically in thirty years, Lee wisely tweaks the shock-and-awe sexuality of his debut (which he’s frequently expressed regret over) for a loose, thoughtful look at gender relations and the maddening intricacies that make them tick. Sex is certainly a focal point, but it plays as a byproduct of the characters and their actions as opposed to their defining trait-- particularly with regards to the titular role of Nola Darling. Played with poise by Wise, Nola is no longer the enigmatic muse from which the male characters and Lee himself draw inspiration; she’s a fully realized woman who’s aware of her shortcomings and has ambitions that actually go beyond the bedroom. This makes her subsequent trysts feel all the more believable, and believably complex.
It’s a revision that Lee extends to Nola’s various suitors as well. In the original film, the men were glorified tropes who bumped heads and lusted after her in their own, idiosyncratic ways. It was effective, if not revelatory. She’s Gotta Have It manages to retain these howlingly funny efforts, while exploring the choices that landed them in this situation in the first place, desperately clinging to Nola as their salvation. Overstreet is older and noticeably less nice than in the film. His plea comes off as an act of possessiveness, especially when it's revealed that he’s seeing two other women on the side. Childs is predictably vain, but there’s a sadness to him here, a sense of fragility that suggests a lack of identity. And Blackmon (who Lee originally played) comes off like a stunted adult, conflating self-worth with whomever he happens to be dating.
The series has deservedly won praise for its female characters and feminist nuance, though for young men seeking love in the Tinder age, She’s Gotta Have It will prove just as enlightening. Nola may be the instigator, but for all three male characters, their desire for sex as a means of escape is the real misstep. It’s a behavior that’s rarely shown in such empathetic detail.
As director of all ten episodes, Lee reaches back to the luminous heights of his youth; where narrative and form were merely elastic tools that could be twisted to pivot away from and provoke the audience. The camerawork is fluid and expressive, floating through scenes and lingering on Nola as if it were another one of her lovers. Conversations, which come packed with sly references to Lee’s own films (Nola complains about Denzel Washington not winning the Oscar for Malcolm X), will sometimes halt mid-sentence, so as to cut to a brief aside or explanation. My favorite directorial flourish, though, are the album covers that appear on screen after nearly every scene, informing us what song was just playing. It would be a daring touch in a student film, let alone a Netflix production helmed by a man who’s nearing sixty.
She’s Gotta Have It has its occasional guffaws (a corny line here, a misplaced reference there), but its joyous marriage of sincerity and sophistication is not to be missed. Instead of offering up a lazy rehash, Lee buckles down and reinvents his original “joint” from the ground up, injecting new life into both his characters and his long-dormant career.
All ten episodes of She’s Gotta Have It are currently available for streaming on Netflix.