Spike Lee has few regrets. But there is that big one. “We’re talking about She’s Gotta Have It,” he says, sitting in an editing bay at his sprawling 40 Acres and a Mule office in Brooklyn. “People always ask me if there’s one thing I could take back, a do-over. The first thing I say is the rape scene in the original film from 1986. So I’ll apologize again right here. That should’ve never been in there.”
A generation has passed since the director’s breakout hit about a young woman with too many lovers — one played by Lee himself, then just 28. Now the micro-budgeted sex comedy She’s Gotta Have It, which ushered in Hollywood’s black film boom of the 1990s (and spawned a popular Nike ad campaign), has been remade as a Netflix series, streaming Nov. 23, which means that 30 years into a career that has earned him an honorary Oscar, Lee is executive producing his first TV show — and, perhaps more importantly, getting his do-over.
Like the film that inspired it, the show centers on a strong-willed woman trying to make it as an artist in Brooklyn; Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise) still beds a trio of men (Lyriq Bent, Cleo Anthony and Hamilton‘s Anthony Ramos), but the show is often more drama than comedy. And the social issues it explores (street harassment, body image) feel of the moment. “We tried to make sure the series exists on its own, not as just an extension of the film,” says producer Tonya Lewis Lee, the director’s wife. “It’s something new.”
Netflix’s Tara Duncan says Lee first approached the streaming giant about rebooting She’s Gotta Have It at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, where Spike was showing his documentary, Michael Jackson’s Journey: From Motown to Off the Wall. Netflix liked the idea of using the premise of his debut film to explore love and relationships from the perspective of a 21st century sister (“Meaning she’s a black woman,” Lee’s quick to point out, laughing). A follow-up meeting was scheduled where Lee showed up with boxes of scripts written by Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage and others that he’d already developed. “Spike is a one-stop-shop,” Duncan says. “He doesn’t have an assistant or committee of people to go through for answers. You always speak with him directly, and he’s making the decisions. He has a tireless work ethic and infectious enthusiasm for the process that keeps everyone and everything moving.” Filming on She’s Gotta Have It commenced this summer in Brooklyn with Lee behind the camera on all 10 episodes.
Lee, 60, continues to work 24/7 — he’s the only one in the office when I arrive to interview him (it is 8:00 a.m. on a Sunday). Lining the walls of every room and staircase at 40 Acres are rare movie posters (signed by Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Elia Kazan, Francis Coppola), original prints and artwork (James Van Der Zee, Kehinde Wiley, Naturel), and lots of sports memorabilia (game-worn NBA jerseys, and boxing trunks that belonged to Joe Louis).
On one floor there is a Confederate flag, standing next to a wood desk and chair. It’s set up for a scene he’s planning to shoot for Black Klansman, a feature based on the true story of an African-American detective who infiltrated the KKK in 1978. Lee started filming the Jordan Peele-produced thriller, which stars Adam Driver and John David Washington, in October. “It’s surreal meeting a guy who has broken so much ground,” says Peele. “He’s one of the all-time great directors, and when I first talked to him he was about to go see Get Out for the ?second time. I just soak up knowledge every time we talk.”
Lee spoke to THR about working with Netflix, the “masterwork” Get Out and how stories like Black Klansman resonate in American culture now.
How is the She’s Gotta Have It series different from the movie?
We’re introducing more characters, [fleshing out the story]. In the film, Nola is an artist, but you rarely saw her work. Now you see this young sister struggling to make her art in Fort Greene. She’s got three, four jobs and is juggling three men. The major change is there wasn’t this animal called gentrification back in 1985, when we shot the movie. Gentrification is a big theme in the series.
After the film’s success, were you approached about doing a sequel?
Right away. I wasn’t having it. I’d written the script for School Daze, so I knew what my second film was going to be. But I’ve got to say, this whole Netflix thing, I never saw it. It was my wife, Tonya Lewis Lee, who said, “This might be good for episodic television.” I said, “OK.”
Are there plans for a second season?
I would like that to happen. Netflix has their own metrics and whatnot so we’ll see. They’ll make the determination after they [debut] the series.
How did you end up at Netflix?
There were three black women at Netflix — Pauline Fisher, who’s since moved on, Tara Duncan and Layne Eskridge — who understood the cultural significance of the original film. That’s why it’s there. At the other places, there were no black people in the room. People in power should read the Census Bureau report about how, in the coming years, white Americans will be a minority. They should look at the increasingly diverse market they’re trying to reach. There’s no way in the world why I should go into any meeting anywhere and not see somebody who looks like me.
That kind of thing was happening 30 years ago, when you first arrived in Hollywood.
Let me tell you a story. This is true. When I started as a filmmaker, I would come out to these meetings in L.A. and they would bring black motherfuckers up from the mailroom and stick them in the room. I knew and they knew that once I left, their black ass was going back to the motherfucking mailroom. That’s the shit they were pulling. It’s pitiful. When I have a meeting with these companies, why am I the only person of color in the room?
Isn’t Hollywood supposed to be making a push for inclusivity?
Man, deeds, not words. There is still a great lack of diversity in these gatekeeping positions, and what gets me even more incensed is when they have these people making decisions about our culture, which they know nothing about. I don’t understand how this person over here’s going to tell me whether my project is good or not when you don’t understand the culture. And I don’t care if you know famous black rappers or famous black actors and your kids go to the same private school. Fuck that. You ain’t break the code yet and you’re not going to break the code. That’s just the way it is. We invented that shit.
What was it like to watch [the white nationalist march in] Charlottesville unfold while developing a film like Black Klansman?
Charlottesville was not a revelation to me. I was not asleep to think that, “Oh my God, there are neo-Nazis in America. Oh my God, there’s the Klan. Oh my God, there’s an alt-right.” The president has given these people the green light, the wink-wink.
How are today’s white nationalist organizations, which fall under the alt-right umbrella, different from prior generations?
Well, look, hate is hate. Racism is in the DNA of the United States of America. This country was built on the genocide of Native Americans and slavery. That’s how this motherfucker was built. The first president owned slaves. The Founding Fathers owned slaves. The Founding Fathers were rapists. You know, they want to talk about how rape is foul but my ancestors were raped! Our families were torn apart. Sold, like cattle. The motherfucking Constitution of the United States of America says slaves are three-fifths of human beings. I didn’t write that shit. Those motherfucking, racist-ass, slave-owning Founding Fathers wrote that. So I don’t want to hear this, “Oh, our Founding Fathers —” Bullshit! They owned slaves. If you own somebody else, you’re evil. I’m sorry. Evil. We don’t make excuses for Nazis. You don’t hear, “Oh, Hitler was a nice guy once you got to know him.” Get the fuck out of here! Nobody makes excuses for Nazis! But the Founding Fathers get a pass. Fuck that.
One of your first student films at NYU, The Answer, was about a young black director hired to remake D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation, which celebrates the Ku Klux Klan.
The reason I made the film is because we’d watched Birth of a Nation in school. I had seen clips of it before, but never the full version. And when they screened it in class, at NYU, there was all this talk of how D.W. Griffith is considered the father of cinema. But no one talked about the film’s social impact. This film gave a rebirth to the Klan. Birth of a Nation was used as a recruiting tool and, not indirectly, people were lynched because of this film. All this stuff, they never talked about it. It was only about the cinema of D.W. Griffith. So The Answer was my reaction to how that film was taught.
What happens in The Answer?
The director becomes a monster that the film’s about. We used a lot of clips from Birth of a Nation, and the hateful imagery of black people in that film affects him, mentally and physically.
Who were some of your early influences as a filmmaker?
Akira Kurosawa is one of my favorite filmmakers. I was introduced to him at NYU. I saw Rashomon and a lot of his samurai films with Toshiro Mifune. For those who don’t know, Rashomon is about a rape and a murder. There is some very elegant storytelling [and four points of view], where the witnesses speak to the audience. They give their version of what happened. So taking that element, in She’s Gotta Have It, we got to understand Nola through the interpretations given by the three men she’s dating, and from Nola herself. And, like Rashomon, we wanted the audience to decide whom they believed.
Did you know you had something when you made the film?
I was confident it would be a hit. This is post-blaxploitation. You had Eddie Murphy. But the indie thing? There wasn’t a film like it.
How did you do it?
We raised the money [$175,000] in stages. The first stage was to shoot it. The second stage was to get the film out of DuArt Lab. The third stage was key. I had to have money to live so I could edit the film. I knew if I had money to do that I could get the film in good enough shape for an investor screening, which is what happened. In fact, Nelson George is one of the people who invested in the film, so was Laurence Fishburne, and they’re still getting checks today. My good friend, Earl Smith. We went to John Dewey High School together. I remember Earl’s mother passed, God bless her soul. He got an insurance check and out of nowhere he said, “I want you to have this money.” I said, “Where’d the money come from?” He said, “From my mother’s insurance.” She just died. I said, “I can’t take the money.” He said, “Take the money.” So it was a blessing.
Mars Blackmon, the character you played in the film, went on to star alongside Michael Jordan in a series of wildly popular Nike commercials, which you also directed.
I gotta give love to Phil Knight. Many people got in his ear and said, “You’re making a mistake having this black guy be the face of your company.” We’re not talking about Aunt Jemima or Uncle Ben either. (Laughs.) People told Phil Knight it’s going to hurt you with the white consumer, and thank God he didn’t listen to them.
You’re working with Jordan Peele on your next film. I heard you’re a big fan of Get Out. You saw it multiple times.
I saw it with a black audience and a white audience; two different reactions. A lot of people don’t understand what the title Get Out means. I’m not speaking on behalf of all black people but, historically, when there’s one black person in a horror film, he’s always the first motherfucker to get killed. So when we see that black person about to open the door, we say, “Don’t open that door! Get the fuck out!” White audiences, I think, came for the horror genre but got much more. It’s like those misdirection plays in football when you fake handoff the ball to one guy, and while the defense is following him, the other guy’s high-stepping to the end zone. Get Out was a masterwork.
Do you think it gets an Oscar nom?
Whether it wins an [Oscar] or not has nothing to do with the impact that film made or how great it is. So I hope it gets nominated, but I’ve come to understand you can’t let people, organizations, whatever, validate your work.
You can see your influence on a number of young filmmakers — like Justin Simien, whose Sundance hit, Dear White People, was also turned into a Netflix series earlier this year. Were there any lessons you took from that film-to-series transfer?
Nah, he’s taking lessons from me! It’s the other way around. Here’s the thing, though, and this is the first time I’m going to publicly talk about this: I love my man’s film, and in a lot of ways I took it as an homage. But now that’s enough. C’mon now. We get it. All right, find your own shit or use somebody else for a reference. Hopefully, in the second season of Dear White People I won’t see me all up in there.
How difficult was it for you to cast a new Mars Blackmon?
It wasn’t difficult because of my ego. It was difficult because Mars Blackmon is an iconic, global figure in the culture. In the series Mars Blackmon is Afro-Boricua; that means he’s black and Puerto Rican and, for those who don’t know, there’s a historic relationship between Puerto Ricans and African-Americans in New York City. It’s the same culture. It was blacks and the Puerto Ricans in the Bronx who created hip-hop. So Mars is Afro-Boricua.
You haven’t played a sizable part in a movie in nearly 20 years. Do you ever get the urge to act again?
I ain’t even think about it until you just brought it up.
Do you think you’ll ever act again?
I try to refrain from the word never.
A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.