Spike Lee Says His Wife Convinced Him to Bring Back 'She's Gotta Have It'
We talk to the legendary director on his Netflix remake and believing in serendipity.
In 1986, Spike Lee released his first feature film She’s Gotta Have It, a dramedy about an independent black woman having sexual relationships with various men without belonging to one of them. Thirty-one years later, Lee's turned the film into a new Netflix series launching on Thanksgiving.
Set in modern-day Fort Greene, Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise) is a free-spirited Brooklyn artist in her late 20s getting her start in the art world. She juggles three different lovers in her life: a businessman, a commercial photographer, and a bicycle repairman, all of whom suit different needs.
While the original film focused on Nola’s taboo lifestyle in the 1980s, things have clearly changed since, and this series reflects the times as such. From #blacklivesmatter to the gentrification of Fort Greene and online dating, the series delves into the male gaze in art, the aftereffects of sexual harassment, and a feminist street art project that taps into body politics.
Lee and Wise spoke to us about sexual liberation, work ethic, and what it’s really like shooting a Netflix series in Brooklyn.
VICE: Why bring back She’s Gotta Have It now?
Spike Lee: It was my wife’s idea [Tonya Lewis Lee]. She said: “Spike, you should try to do this, or we should try to do this together as a series.” So I said, “That’s a great idea. Let’s do it.” Many of the issues I dealt with in 1986 in the original film have not gone away. But also, in this new world we live in, we have gentrification. There wasn’t gentrification in Fort Greene in 1986—there wasn’t even a word for gentrification. Now that part of Brooklyn is different today. It was a great opportunity to focus on the past, the world we live in today, and the future.
You both have spouses and are in monogamous relationships. But the character DeWanda Wise plays is Nola Darling, who is polyamorous.
I have no idea what the word “polyamory” means. What is it? Polly wants a cracker? What are you talking about? [Laughs.]
DeWanda Wise: I married young, true. Nola's just more transparent about dating multiple people, which is something a lot of people do today. I have friends in committed, polyamorous relationships. It’s more prevalent. I haven’t seen any examples of polyamory in TV or film in 1986 other than She’s Gotta Have It, which is depicted in a real way.
The film was originally shot in Fort Greene before it was gentrified. How is it different shooting there now?
Lee: This isn’t the first time I've shot in Fort Greene, so it wasn’t much different. Even though it looks fun on camera, we become a drag to people in Brooklyn. They can’t park their cars where they want to, and they have to wake up early in the morning by loud crew members, banging on sets, and loud trucks. After a while, the magic wears off and they want you to get off their block.
Wise: When Spike Lee's in Brooklyn, he's in his hometown glory. He puts out a casting call and people come through. If you see a party scene in Spike's show, it’s because Spike threw a party and filled it. People pull up.
Can you give us an example?
There’s a scene in episode four when I’m at a nightclub, and there's a reggae concert with a fictional artist, Wally Mirk. When we showed up that day to shoot, there was a line around the block. The energy was real—I didn’t have to act. That’s the kind of environment Spike Lee sets up for his actors.
Which issues are as relevant today as they were in 1986?
Lee: This is the first Netflix series I’ve done. Gentrification is one of the things, but there are so many things in there. Let the viewer connect with what’s close to them—what they care about, what speaks to their heart. We only hope, God willing, that we get a second season and more to explore. It’s not like everything is tied up. There's a wealth of stories that need to be told.
Wise: I had the scripts for all ten episodes before starting to shoot. I was compelled by a number of things: body issues and female body issues for black women. It’s always presumed we’re confident, strong, and don’t care what anyone thinks. Also, sexual liberation.
Sexual violence also plays a role in this show, right?
Art is always this living, breathing organism. It’s kind of surreal, whether it’s the Trump administration or what’s been going on in Hollywood, a lot has compounded.
What vision brought you guys together?
I come from a background in indie films. There was so much serendipity in this: people I worked with from a 2013 play, someone from Netflix saw my work. Me and Spike clicked instantly. We’re both efficiency snobs—work hard, play hard. We came to the set passionate to tell the story.
Lee: Then go home.
Spike, do you believe in serendipity?
Yes, I’m a big believer in that. It has come into my life many times. Those have been blessings. DeWanda is Nola. It’s a very hard role to cast. We were approaching the end of the deadline to cast, and Netflix was getting worried that we would have to push back the dates because we couldn’t find an actress. But I knew a talented person would reveal herself before we began shooting. I had a belief we had to keep looking. It was meant to be—end of story.
Wise: I feel like this was Spike’s baby, I took care of it and gave it back to Spike, and now it doesn’t belong to either of us. It's become the audience’s. We’re both very open. It’s special, and it’s a global relationship that keeps us making it.