'She's Gotta Have It': TV Review

Viewers gotta watch it.
11/23/2017

Spike Lee brings his indie film classic to Netflix and, thanks to leading lady DeWanda Wise, it mostly works.

When it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1986, Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It was a revolution, a landmark of independent and black cinema that defied categorization and comparison.

Lee's Netflix incarnation of She's Gotta Have It comes at least a decade too late to have a similar effect on the small screen. You watch the new She's Gotta Have It and know exactly what to compare it to, whether it's an East Coast version of Issa Rae's Insecure or a complement or corrective to Lena Dunham's Girls. Categorizing She's Gotta Have It is a breeze, but that may undersell how pure Lee's passion for this story remains, nor does it capture what a tremendous discovery he has in leading lady DeWanda Wise.

She's Gotta Have It retains the basic premise of Lee's movie. Nola Darling (Wise) is an artist struggling to catch a break in the gentrifying Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn. Nola is in a relationship-of-sorts with three men, each of whom serves a different purpose in her life. There's Jamie Overstreet (Lyriq Bent), older and wealthy, but married. There's model and photographer Greer Childs (Cleo Anthony), spontaneous and wildly egotistical. And then there's bike and sneaker enthusiast Mars Blackmon (Anthony Ramos). You may think this makes Nola a freak, but you definitely don't want to say that to Nola's face. She just wants to live and love on her own terms and according to her own set of rules.

Lee wrote the She's Gotta Have It premiere and finale, but the majority of the middle episodes were written by women, including Radha Blank and Lee's sister Joie, who also plays Nola's mother. While the basic conceit and characters of the film remain intact, the plot points deviate quickly and there have been many welcome adaptations to make Nola a free-flowing woman of the 21st century, particularly the decision to turn Opal Gilstrap (Ilfenesh Hadera) from the opportunistic lesbian in the movie into an important piece of Nola's sexual and romantic fluidity. TV Nola has worthwhile female friendships with former roommate Clorinda (Margot Bingham) and sassy single mom Shemekka (Chyna Layne) and her professional challenges bring her into contact with outspoken educator Raqueletta Moss, played by Passing Strange Tony nominee De'Adre Aziza in a supporting role so instantly vivid I'm already signed on for a Raqueletta Moss spinoff. In the movie, Nola Darling was the sort of black female character rarely seen onscreen, but in the series, she's a woman in full.

Wise, already seen memorably this year in Underground and Shots Fired, is superb. She conveys Nola's youthful naivete alongside her beyond-her-years wisdom, and she's able to express the different joys and pains Nola finds with each man. Wise stands up against the unrelenting examination of Lee's aesthetic — lots of tight close-ups, lots of direct-address to the camera, lots of extended takes of Nola in repose or at work — and she establishes a different dynamic with each of her male co-stars, each of whom in turn brings his own energy to the show. Bent is sturdy and at times threatening with his stature. Antony is electric and exciting. And Ramos has maybe the hardest job, stepping into the Nikes made famous by Spike Lee in both the movie and commercials, and quickly moves past catchphrases and annoying ticks and makes a fresh and original Mars.

Lee directed all 10 episodes; this is full-on Spike Lee, not craftsman-for-hire Spike Lee, and the series requires taking his excesses — not just in episodic running times, which all spill well over 30 minutes, often needlessly — for better and for worse. You have to know that in certain instances, his sense of satire might seem sour and there's a subplot involving a character's butt augmentation that is so ugly and contemptuous that I was uncomfortable. It's also hard to shake a certain sense of hypocrisy; this is a show featuring young women talking about subverting the male gaze, crafted under the watchful gaze of a director who, while going out of his way not to be exploitative in the show's sex scenes, is still unavoidably a 60-year-old man telling this story of female independence for a second time.

But if those few bumps are vintage Lee, the director's more positive fingerprints also are seen throughout. Nobody other than he would begin an episode with more than five minutes of Nola visiting, almost documentary-style, New York cemeteries, paying tribute at the graves of thinkers and musicians. And who else would launch an episode set immediately after Election Day 2016 with an archival footage-heavy take on Lee's own music video for Stew's "Klown With Da Nuclear Code"? The movie's striking black-and-white photography has been left behind for Daniel Patterson's confident and handsome lensing that accentuates Lee's love for the neighborhood and his pragmatic approach to gentrification, which is as much a part of the series as the core love triangle, weaving in more than a few Do the Right Thing shadings and moments of hashtag activism. (The ninth episode, the season's most political and bringing the most simmering anger to the surface, actually made me think a Spike Lee-guided, 2017-set series version of Do the Right Thing wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, which I assure you I wouldn't have thought when I began watching She's Gotta Have It.)

Another key non-human character here is the music, which combines a score by Bruce Hornsby, frequent callbacks to Bill Lee's glorious jazz contributions to the movie and a decade-spanning, Spike-curated soundtrack that the director punctuates with album covers after particularly meaningful needle drops. Lee has worked steadily over the years in music videos and concert films, and every time he senses an episode becoming too conversation-driven, a musical moment injects new light.

Lee, who hasn't committed to scripted TV this extensively before, gains confidence as he goes. The closing three episodes move the furthest from the movie's storyline and feel the most free and experimental. She's Gotta Have It is already a very good show and maybe a second season could rewrite some rules the way the movie did.

Network: Netflix

Cast: DeWanda Wise, Anthony Ramos, Cleo Anthony, Lyriq Bent

Creator: Spike Lee

Premieres Thursday, Nov. 23, on Netflix.

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