In 1986, Spike Lee wowed the world with “She’s Gotta Have It,” an homage to black female sexuality. With its jazzy score, sumptuous visuals, and a frank attitude toward sex, the film perfectly combined arthouse innovation and contemporary cool. Its characters were unique without seeming overwrought, and its story was fresh without seeming too precocious.
Over 30 years later, Lee and Netflix have attempted to revive that classic by adapting it into a miniseries. And while the 2017 “She’s Gotta Have It” is more socially conscious than its predecessor, the series ends up a structural failure. With one-dimensional characters and a runaway train of a script, Netflix’s “She’s Gotta Have It” fails to do justice to Lee’s exemplary film.
The series follows Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise), a Brooklyn native and aspiring artist. A “sex positive, polyamorous pansexual,” Nola’s chief most struggle is her inability to juggle three men: hipster photographer Greer (Cleo Anthony), boyish cyclist Mars (Anthony Ramos), and married investment banker Jamie (Lyriq Bent). Her friends Shemekka (Chyna Layne) and Clorinda (Margot Bingham) bear witness to her shenanigans, and support her when things get tough.
Things get tough pretty quickly. The pilot culminates in a street harassment-turned-assault that deeply unsettles Nola. This trauma propels her forward in the series as she begins a street art campaign against things shouted her way on the streets of BK. It’s refreshing to see misogynistic violence treated so seriously onscreen. The show doesn’t dwell too long on this, though, and soon dovetails into several nonsensical subplots.
There are episodes that focus on the men’s backstories, Nola’s friends, or Nola’s inability to pay her rent. Often these plot threads are stacked atop one another, with little rhyme or reason. If an episode begins with a solo monologue from Mars, for example, that doesn’t mean he’ll play a major part in the episode. Characters spring into the foreground out of nowhere, give moving monologues, and then retreat. De’Adre Aziza shines as the stern Raqueletta Moss, but her childhood sexual assault backstory feels forced coming from a tertiary character.
Raqueletta, like nearly all the other characters, is fueled by a gimmick. She is not so much a person as she is a quirky trait backed up by a discordant history. Such is also the case with Onyx, a graffiti artist who is mentioned often but matters little, and Shemekka’s deplorable strip club boss. Mars, Greer, and Jamie all begin the show as caricatures, but develop more over time. Jamie is disproportionately fleshed out, though, while Mars and Greer are reduced to their obnoxiousness. It’s odd to see Jamie afforded the most nuance, as he is Nola’s worst suitor by far. It feels like Mars and Greer deserve more attention, simply by virtue of not being condescending manipulators.
Though the show talks a big feminist game, Nola is hardly empowered. The protagonist reads more like an airhead than an idealist. She is adamant about being independent and morally opposed to Jamie’s infidelity, yet she lives off his money. She doesn’t want a day job and doesn’t pay her rent. She’s vexed by her rent in general, somehow convinced that she has to stay in her enormous studio apartment sans roommate or leave Brooklyn altogether. She isn’t honest with the men in her life, and thinks that’s feminist instead of childish. Whatever reality Nola lives in, I want a first-class ticket. I could afford it in such an alternate universe where dog-walking and art lessons pay enough for Brooklyn rent, a chic wardrobe, and giant canvases.
The show justifies its sketchy protagonist by making her a mouthpiece for progressive politics. But such activism can only go so far, especially in a show that preaches black female sexual liberation and then delights in acrobatic sex scenes and a grotesque butt injection subplot. Lee lends a much-needed perspective to issues of gentrification, police violence, and post-Trump racism. He has little to add to conversations on female empowerment.
The director happily plays with form. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The Subtitles And Text Messages All Look Like This. Weird camera angles and jarring edits abound. Subtitled song lyrics float through the scenes. Album art follows some soundtrack songs, but not others. There are tracking shots coupled with to-camera dialogue. It’s all mostly charming (I especially like those last two), but layered on top of a show that already has so much going on, it can feel like clutter. It’s like Spike Lee tried to direct a glossy, overproduced TV show. Probably because that’s what happened.
There are other bright spots in this inscrutable series. It is well-acted, with each player doing their best with their patchy role. Wise is particularly strong during Nola’s to-camera monologues. Opal, the wolfish lesbian from the original film, has been upgraded to a serene botanist — though Ilfenesh Hadera is hardly granola. Lee’s love of Brooklyn shines in every outdoor scene, particularly a charming graveyard sequence. The film’s rape scene is blessedly absent. The finale is fantastic.
Just like Nola can’t juggle three men, the show can’t juggle activism, experimentalism, and cohesive storytelling. It isn’t a bad series, but with Spike Lee at the helm, Netflix’s high production standards, and near-perfect source material, it’s disappointing to see the show go astray. Though it’s certainly unique, “She’s Gotta Have It” can’t charm its way out of its flaws, making it an ultimately exasperating watch. [C+]