THE SHOW “She’s Gotta Have It”
WHEN | WHERE Starts streaming Friday on Netflix.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT This 10-parter is based on Spike Lee’s inaugural 1986 movie, “She’s Gotta Have It,” about a Brooklyn artist, Nola Darling — then played by Tracy Camilla Johns — and her three lovers, including Jamie, played by Tommy Redmond Hicks. In the series — directed and adapted by Lee, while his wife Tonya Lewis Lee is also executive producer — Nola (DeWanda Wise, “Shots Fired”) is still balancing three lovers: handsome, preening Greer (Cleo Anthony), solid, controlling Jamie (Lyriq Bent), and funny, unpredictable Mars (Anthony Ramos; played by Spike Lee in the movie).
MY SAY “She’s Gotta Have It” hasn’t aged particularly well after 31 years. Directed on a shoestring of a shoestring budget, Lee was exploring lots of ideas (many of them technical) and not all of them synced up into a coherent film with a coherent message. By letting her establish her own rules of (sexual) engagement, Nola’s story was about a woman’s rejection of male subjugation. At least that seemed to be the story until the closing minutes, when she was raped by Jamie. If that wasn’t bad enough, it then proceeded to get worse: Nola decided that maybe Jamie was right all along. She should be monogamous, and be monogamous with him.
Talk about your worst kind of mixed message. Lee tried to reverse his mistake before the closing credits by having Nola tell viewers that she had dumped Jamie. But the damage was done: The feminist cred of “She’s Gotta Have It” was nearly obliterated by a misogynistic wrong turn.
Now the redo, and it’s been redone right. At the end of the first episode, Nola is assaulted by some creep on a dark street. She’s shaken, understandably, then resolved: Her art thenceforth will be about recapturing her image of herself as she wants to be seen, or in her much better words, she will become an “artist to express who I am and hope to become.”
That’s a veritable rallying cry — an aux armes! by a young, talented, confident, black woman who’s gonna take Brooklyn first and the world after that. It’s the Mary Richards’ hat-in-the-air moment of “She’s Gotta Have It” and also sets up the rest of the series. The movie was about the sex. The series is about the work. Differences are enormous, also welcome.
The series is also far more confident — understandable insofar as Lee was just starting out back then — but confidence helps the still-slight story. Not much goes on in this, other than what goes on in Nola’s head, which is considerable. She grows while everyone around her remains in place. As such, “She’s Gotta Have It” is best when only Wise is on screen, or she’s on-screen with other women. It grinds and wheezes when the guys show up. They’re bores and buzzkills who intermittently serve as comic relief, if that.
Brooklyn of course is the other star. This isn’t the gentrified, prettified, hipsterized Brooklyn of “Girls,” but a multicultural Brooklyn — and specifically Fort Greene — with a rich black history. Lee and “She’s Gotta Have It” are rueful and nostalgic over what’s been lost but they’re hardly cranks about it. This also celebrates what’s been gained. “She’s Gotta Have It” is a love letter, full of color, life and a superior soundtrack — a generous one, in fact, with music by dozens of artists, including the Roots, the Isley Brothers, Sade, the Emotions, Vivian Green, Dionne Farris, Dreezy, Mos Def, Jorja Smith, and lots of Miles Davis. In this, Nola, Brooklyn and the music rule.
BOTTOM LINE Uneven, occasionally preachy, but Wise’s Nola Darling and Lee’s Fort Greene are winners. Did I mention the soundtrack?