The title of Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It now requires a parenthetical: (the movie) or (the Netflix series). The former came out in 1986, the latter debuts Thursday. What’s fascinating about both versions is how loose and playful they are. The original, an 86-minute sex comedy about a free-spirited painter named Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns) who refuses to let men define her, was Lee’s debut feature and his pop culture breakthrough. At the time, a number of white critics condescendingly described him as a black Woody Allen, presumably because both filmmakers were skinny and wore glasses and made movies in New York; but there were few other defensible points of comparison, and Woody Allen damn sure never mock-begged the audience to buy tickets to his work, as Lee did in a hilarious trailer that found him standing on a corner selling tube socks, “three fi-dollars.” The movie had a patched-together quality characteristic of many notable American indies from that period, but it compensated with a fresh style and an unprecedented Afrocentric view of middle-class black life.
Lee and his then- (and still best) cinematographer Ernest Dickerson shot Fort Greene as if it were the hippest, most beautiful place on earth, filled the screen with fresh faces, gorgeous bodies, and striking camera angles (including direct address), and stocked the soundtrack with a mixtape of then-current hip hop, rhythm and blues, and original jazz compositions by his father, composer and pianist Bill Lee. The movie’s sexual politics didn’t hold up under scrutiny – more on that in a moment – but this seemed like less of a deal breaker when measured against Lee’s audacity, talent, and relentless determination to make Afrocentric movies set in the real world, on his own unique terms. As Lee’s longtime champion Roger Ebert observed, She’s Gotta Have It was a rare feature about black folks that showed them relating, first and foremost, to one another, without mediating their existence to protect the sensibilities of a hypothetical white audience.
The Netflix version won’t have the same cultural impact, and how could it? Over three decades, Lee inspired countless filmmakers, both visually and in terms of professional philosophy, who are now feature directors or showrunners themselves. This series can’t help but feel like a latecomer to a genre that Lee’s first movie refined and made popular – one that’s now exemplified less by feature films than by web series and shows that started out as web series, like High Maintenance and Insecure. But it’s fun to see Lee, who is almost 60, goofing around and trying out new things as if he’d time warped back to the moment he graduated from film school.
DeWanda Wise plays Nola, our guide and narrator through modern Fort Greene, a less funky, more gentrified place whose rising property values are the subject of much discussion. (Though he’d doubtless be horrified to read this, Lee’s debut might have unthinkingly jump-started gentrification in that neighborhood; a lot of the white homeowners who bought property there in the 90s and aughts were in high school and college when She’s Gotta Have It came out.) Cleo Anthony plays Greer Childs, a preening playboy so cheesy that animated wedges of gruyere should trail him through the frame. He’s mostly a body to Nola, though his apartment is gorgeous, with lots of open space and striking, large-sized photographs, and a stereo system blasting Miles Davis. Anthony Ramos is Mars Blackmon, a motor-mouthed clown of a bike messenger played by Lee in the original movie; Nola likes Mars because he’s unpretentious and makes her laugh, though she gets annoyed when he waxes rhapsodic about her apartment (this show is real-estate porn) and immediately asks if he can move in. Lyriq Bent is Jamie Overstreet, the buppie who presents himself as a thoughtful, sensitive, responsible man but has a controlling streak. Here, as in the movie, it’s not immediately apparent what Nola sees in Jamie, a character who seems to represent the monogamous, woman-as-possession scenario that’s anathema to her. Or maybe on some level it isn’t.
In the pilot, written and directed by Lee, the quadrangle of Nola and her lovers plays out more or less as it did in the original film, but with full color and more acrobatic sex scenes replacing Dickerson’s softcore splash panels of bare backs and breasts and climax-faces. But things detour pretty quickly after that, in ways that detractors of the movie might appreciate. Lee’s debut was criticized even at the time for reveling a bit too obviously in Nola’s sexual availability, in a way that objectified a woman who said she did not want to be objectified; and the rape-as-punishment scene that drove Nola away from one of her lovers, then back into his arms, felt like a repudiation of everything the movie professed to stand for. Lee has been contrite about all this, and belatedly makes amends here by entrusting most of the episode teleplays to women writers (including Radha Blank, Eisa Davis, Lee’s sister Joie Lee, and playwright Lynn Nottage) and replacing the rape with an incident of street assault that becomes defiant fuel for Nola’s art.
More so than a lot of Lee films, and this is saying a lot, She’s Gotta Have It is a hangout movie, built mostly around scenes of people talking in apartments, coffee shops, and on the street. Sometimes the conversations are germane to the plot and sometimes they refer to the culture at large, to American history or race relations or economics, or to the relationship between the series and the people watching it on their TV or laptop or phone (Lee’s fondness for theatrically florid, straight-in-the-camera monologues could be jarring on a big screen in the age of film, but it feels natural in the era of selfies). The series changes tone and genre so often that it’s hard to keep track of all the different iterations that it passes through as you watch it. There’s an explosion, and I mean literal explosion, of scatalogical humor a few episodes in that might give even the Farrelly brothers pause.
For the most part, Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It finds Lee operating in an entranced, scattered, digressive mode reminiscent of a mid-period work like Girl 6 or Bamboozled, or one of those long scenes in Jungle Fever where the story, such as it is, grinds to a halt so that the characters can discuss social or political issues. or so that Lee can properly worship a bit of architecture or a man or woman’s body, or let a song that he likes finish playing.
There are images, scenes, and devices in this show that I’ve never seen before, including a type of edit that I’m going to dub a “hypertext cut,” where Lee essentially pauses to answer an extra-dramatic question that might have arisen in your mind as you watched (for instance, whenever an original song ends, Lee cuts to a closeup of the album cover!). That’s impressive enough on its own that it overcomes some very circa-1986 Spike Lee declamatory line readings, many clumsy bits of exposition, and a strain of self-congratulation in the form of shoehorned-in references to other Spike Lee joints. Some of these are clever, like a painted “Da Mayor” sign on a stoop that harkens back to Ossie Davis’ role in Do the Right Thing. Others are squirm-inducing, notably a long discussion of the injustice of Al Pacino beating Denzel Washington for the best actor Oscar in the year of Lee’s Malcolm X. This kind of thing would be less irksome if there were, say, 80 percent less of it. But it’s also fascinating, in a back-asswards way, because it shows that Lee is as influenced as ever by Jean-Luc Godard, the French New Wave standard bearer who had a Brechtian and self-referential tendency from the start of his career and started turning subtext into text (sometimes actual text) more often as he got older.
I have no idea if I’m enticing you to watch the show or actively driving you away from it, but that’s Spike Lee for you: He does his thing, and you can take it or leave it, and it’s the take-it-or-leave-it attitude that inclines me to take it.