Back in 1986, the indie film world was atwitter over She’s Gotta’ Have It, a sparkling, low-budget but high-style debut by Spike Lee, who went on to become an outspoken leader among African-American directors.
Among other distinctions between Lee’s breakout, debut indie film versus the new Netflix “limited series,” 31 years later, the film’s (and Lee’s frequent) home turf of Brooklyn has definitely changed since the original. Gentrification has crept in and is digging deep into the borough, sexual and racial politics have morphed in various directions, and, not least, the sea change of formats on screens, large and small.
The it-seeking “she” in question here is Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise), a 27-year-old emerging, soul-searching but confident artist who has strictly self-defined her sex life by juggling three lovers: the older businessman Jamie Overstreet (Lyriq Bent), the buff narcissist Greer Childs (Cleo Anthony), and the rhyme-timing, hip-hopped, bespectacled Mars Blackmon (Anthony Ramos), who we assume is a surrogate for Lee in his younger days. As Nola says in one of many confessions to the admiring camera, “I’m dealing with who I am right now. I’m not a freak. I’m not a sex addict, and I’m definitely nobody’s property.” That last qualifier is central to the feminist emphasis of the narrative.
It was a natural move for the flexible Lee, who has worked on television documentaries and other small-screen matters, to move into the newly fruitful and more-or-less uncensored realm of the Netflix-era “limited series” game. After all, one of his cinematic heroes, Woody Allen, even had to have some of that TV action. Even so, if this She’s Gotta Have It is a tasty and refreshingly African-American-themed item on the busy TV landscape, Lee’s limited series lacks the audacious, fresh charm of the original.
And Lee seems to have slipped in his ability to create a “joint” worth hanging out in, at least in terms of a binge-able dimension of a hang. The wavering quality of a narrative penned by multiple different writers for each episode impinges on the continuity of the whole. Still, there are plenty of satisfying moments and recurring treats in the 10 episodes, which have telling titles — “Self Acceptance,” “Sexuality Is Fluid,” “All Words Matter,” and “Gentrification.”
Creating a Brooklyn-ized audio-visual-cultural-carnal tapestry is part of Lee’s overall goal here, which he nicely achieves. A slight detour that plays into the scheme of life in 2017 is the insertion of a montage music video for playwright Stew’s indictment of Trump’s surprise rise to power, aka “the klown got da nuclear code.”
Music plays a strong role, as is usual for Lee, whose established affinity for music — from jazz (his father is noted jazz musician/composer Bill Lee, who scored the film She’s Gotta’ Have It and penned “Nola’s Theme” for the Netflix item) to old-school soul to hip-hop and beyond — is a strong component of the series. Key songs are placed in the episodes, acknowledged on screen by quick shots of specific album covers, and he inserts a tribute to late, great jazz musicians in a montage in Brooklyn cemeteries.
The final episode, in which Nola brings her posse of lovers to a confrontational and hopefully peace-making Thanksgiving dinner (replete with her unveiling her painting of all in the nude), the ensemble joins choreographed forces in a dance routine to Prince’s “Raspberry Beret.” The competitive quartet ends up in a happy, post-tryptophan heap on Nola’s “loving bed,” her portrait of Malcom X (not incidentally, the subject of Lee’s powerful film Malcom X) looming behind the headboard. In that fleeting, moment, she has it all.