When I first heard that director Spike Lee would be rebooting his debut film, She’s Gotta Have It, as a Netflix series, I was equal parts excited and anxious.
The movie is about headstrong, beautiful, black artist Nola Darling (originally played by Tracey Camilla Johns) and the triad of male stock characters trying to win her affection. There’s the gentlemanly Jamie Overstreet, the self-absorbed model Greer Childs, and the cartoonish hip-hop bike messenger Mars Blackmon. Each of them fulfills a particular set of Nola’s desires in a man, but she refuses to commit to any of them. She prefers her independence.
The original She’s Gotta Have It, released in 1986 , was formative for me. I first watched it as a college student, as I was still figuring out my feelings towards romance and commitment. As my preferences began leaning towards non-monogamy, I appreciated Nola’s refusal to be possessed by any man (despite her brief acquiescence to Jamie in a moment of self-described weakness). But despite my eagerness to see the show reprised for a new generation of black women still navigating these patriarchal demands in an era of swipe-dating, this update still felt dated.
Lee has something of a (black) woman problem—namely where sex and sexual agency are concerned. As Teresa Wiltz has pointed out, Lee consistently produces single-dimensional female characters that are not afforded the same dynamic nature as their male counterparts. She notes the rigid saint/sinner dichotomy of female characters in Do the Right Thing (1989), repeated again in Mo’ Betta Blues (1990); then there’s the “conniving siren” he relies on in He Got Game (1998). In Spike Lee: That’s My Story and I’m Sticking to It, the authorized biography of Spike Lee, his wife, Tonya Lewis Lee, criticizes the flatness of the female characters in Girl 6, Lee’s 1996 film about an aspiring-actress-turned-phone-sex-operator. Her critique was echoed by the array of (admittedly white and mostly male, but nonetheless accurate) film critics who agreed that Lee repeatedly fails to represent women’s perspectives, and panned the film. And in a 2000 interview with the New York Times, Rosie Perez recalls the infamous nude scene in Do the Right Thing, describing her feelings of violation as Lee put ice cubes on her nipples. Her head was removed from the shot because she was crying.
She's Gotta Have It, Lee’s first feature, closes with an unfortunate scene in which Nola is raped by Jamie, who growls “Whose pussy is this?” during the act, as if punishing her for refusing to choose him. On the ending, bell hooks wrote in Reel to Real: Race, Sex and Class at the Movies: “When Nola responds to the question by saying 'yours,' it is difficult for anyone who has fallen for the image of her as sexually liberated not to feel let down, disappointed by both her character and the film.”
So, I was skeptical from the start: How would a Lee-directed and -executive-produced project about the very same queer libertine woman—particularly after Chi-raq’s failures in the gender department—fare?
Despite having far more in common with the 2017 Nola than the 1986 Nola, the Netflix Nola feels surprisingly empty. The show’s version of the black woman’s experience feels pandering and stilted at times: a scrapbooked womanhood that’s brimming with wit and complexity, but so deliberately curated that it feels artificial and almost devoid of personality. The way Nola announces her aversion to monogamy by rattling off her identity as a “sex-positive, polyamorous, pansexual” feels more comically juvenile than confidently self-defining. (And it’s not DeWanda Wise’s embodiment of the role as much as the writing and production that shapes the contours of the character.) There are moments in the TV show where it’s unclear if Nola’s story is meant to be an empowering celebration of black, female autonomy à la the original, or some kind of exaggerated cautionary tale about a young, black female product of Tumblr identitarianism who can rattle off her politics-cum-identity on command.
The new Nola feels like a receptacle for the parts of Nola’s life that Lee wishes he had included in the original film—her painting, her non-romantic relationships, and her navigations of her environment beyond her suitors—forced into an updated environment. The result is an inorganic character constantly uttering strained, overly witty Gilmore Girls-esque banter (including Lee’s nod to himself in early season dialogue about Denzel Washington’s Oscar snub for Malcolm X), who feels detached from actual experience and conversation, living in a purgatory between 1986 and now.
In a recent Rolling Stone article, we get a few contradictory glimpses into Lee’s intentions in recreating the film in a new medium, or rather, his attempts at “expanding” Nola’s universe. He describes how social and sexual tides have changed since 1986: “It’s fair to say that a woman having sexual relationships with three men is not shocking today as some people might have thought back when the film came out.” Yet Nola’s take on non-monogamy is still met with constant consternation by her three envious suitors, who can’t seem to understand her refusals of commitment.
“Nola’s a strong woman, and boys love strong women,” Lee also says in the interview. But the show is entirely premised on three men’s attempts at doe-breaking and reining in the elusive exclusivity they all feel entitled to.
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Even when Lee seems to be getting it right, he eventually undermines himself. (If you haven’t finished the series, you may want to stop here. Light spoilers ahead.)
While Nola is on dick hiatus (or “radical self-care” as she calls it) —a hiatus that I cannot divorce from that “sex strike[s] could really work on college campuses where there’s an abundance of sexual harassment or date rapes” comment Lee made in 2015—she runs into the arms of an affirming queer woman and former lover named Opal Gilstrap. In the original, Opal's depicted as a predatory lesbian lurking in the wings for her opportunity to pounce on heteroflexible-ish Nola, so this version is certainly an upgrade.
Opal is depicted as the responsible person who will bail Nola out of a sticky situation; she's the emotionally mature one who would love Nola how she wants and needs to be loved. But when it comes to making any real commitment to Opal or her daughter, Nola dashes and takes comfort in the heteronormative scripts and poly power plays she’s used to. It’s a turn that echoes stigma about bisexual women’s alleged indecision and the damaging idea that we’ll always inevitably leave women for men. By fundamentally discrediting Nola's bisexuality, she is no longer just learning what it means to love and heal; instead, she becomes a greedy pansexual willing to use and consume whoever is in her path.
And, as Evette Dionne has beautifully noted, Nola's so-called polyamorous practice is actually a rule-based absence of boundaries, self-centeredness, and/or uncertainty and even a fear of herself: She answers a phone call from another partner while in bed with Jamie, she’s afraid of being too vulnerable with Opal, and she refuses to allow the art she displays to reflect any honestly emotive part of herself.
Throughout the show, there’s a portrayal of women as inherently immoral that continuously undermines any empowerment afforded to the show’s black female stars. And Nola's initial failing of Opal, one of the only really redeeming suitors in the series, is just one instance of that.
It’s even worse in the uncomfortable sub-plot of Nola’s friend Shemekka (played by Chyna Layne) being fixated on getting ass enhancement shots. There’s a reality in black women feeling pressured to conform to standards of beauty that revolve around particular notions of full-figuredness—insecurities about flat butts being one of them. (Hell, I haven’t gotten over the time a college friend called me “long-backed” six or seven years ago.) So, to use the physical and emotional misfortune of Shemekka falling and busting her silicone as some kind of urban afterschool special about beauty standards is a cheap way of intimating lessons about natural beauty and the almost inevitable consequences of artificial enhancements. It’s a benevolent patriarch’s wet dream.
A recent piece by journalist Ernest Owens reminds us that, despite having a writing room filled with black women (including Eisa Davis, Lynn Nottage, Radha Blank, and Joie Lee), this series is ultimately a pet project of Lee’s that almost feels like an attempt to make up for the tragically anti-feminist rape scene in the original. Lee “hog[s] the narrative,” Owens writes in The Grio, pointing out that he insisted on directing eight out of ten of the episodes himself despite only writing two of them.
Considering Lee’s obvious inability to fully empathize with the women at the center of the show, it’s a shame that he wasn’t willing to hand over the directorial reins. “From the beginning, I knew I wanted to direct all ten," Lee says in the Rolling Stone interview. “This is my baby—this is my first infant. If somebody's going to fuck it up, it'll be me. Nobody else.” And so it was.
Ultimately, She’s Gotta Have It isn’t really about the women that Nola Darling is meant to represent. It’s Spike Lee’s homage to himself.