In 2017, “She’s Gotta Have It” may have more to say about men than women. Though primarily focused on the same independent woman from Spike Lee’s 1986 feature film — the sexually liberated Nola Darling, played here by DeWanda Wise — the series, directed in its entirety by Lee, often feels more focused on correcting men’s behavior than celebrating the singular human being at its core.
That’s not a damning issue, only a nagging one. Many, if not all, of the messages within Lee’s 10 episodes are valuable, insightful, and rarely so thoroughly discussed via a serialized narrative — not to mention told from a proudly black perspective. While the overriding educational value can lead to an academic disconnection at times, Lee’s revisitation is as singular and powerful today as it was 30 years ago.
“She’s Gotta Have It” tells the story of Nola Darling, but the series deeply invests in the three most prominent men in her life as well. Nola is a resident of Fort Greene, a Brooklyn neighborhood becoming increasingly gentrified (and well-known to Lee, who grew up and has a studio there). Her one-bedroom apartment on the ground floor of a brownstone is constantly being propositioned by newcomers with more money than Nola, an aspiring artist and part-time teacher.
Her financial struggles can sometimes complicate relationships she wants to keep drama free. Nola has three regular partners: Jamie Overstreet (Lyriq Bent), a well-off, gentlemanly man separated from his wife who believes in only one soulmate, but has met more than one over his life; Greer Childs (Cleo Anthony), a handsome, self-centered photographer who Nola generously describes as the “definition of narcissism”; and Mars Blackmon (Anthony Ramos), a loud-mouthed, good-hearted cyclist who loves his Air Jordans almost as much as he cares about Nola.
Initially, Nola forms a familiar dynamic with each man. Jamie is the most like a boyfriend, as he craves an intimate connection and expresses more desire for monogamy than his cohorts. Greer is her sex buddy who’s more drawn to Nola every time she rejects him, or, to be more accurate, lets him know that he’s not the center of her world. And Mars, who was played by Lee in the original film, is her best male friend. He helps her without seeking additional favors or credit.
That being said, this isn’t a love quadrangle. “She’s Gotta Have It” never feels like a love story where only one man will win. It’s about Nola expressing herself, as she tries to make clear what she wants isn’t weird or illogical. She wants to be free. Her independence in and out of the bedroom is part of that. But the men around her struggle to understand as much, even when she shows them and tells them, time and time again.
At its best, Spike Lee’s Netflix series depicts the reality women — particularly black women — live in every day. Harassment is presented as a daily part of life, a constant threat, and it can manifest in various forms of oppression. Early in the series, one of Lee’s trademark direct-to-camera montages shows various Brooklyn residents cat-calling Nola. Notably, the group includes men and women (and concludes with Isiah Whitlock Jr. spouting his famous catchphrase from “The Wire,” with an onscreen scrawl of “sheeeeeeet” falling from his mouth). Nola has relationships with both throughout the series, but her primary female companion (played by Ilfenesh Hadera) offers the safety and honesty Nola struggles to find with her male partners.
The ways in which Nola is threatened vary dramatically, and Lee’s directorial style helps convey the consistency of it while still incorporating visual flair to better exhibit the anxiety and confusion brought out. Still photos, album covers, and cutaways drop in to add context to scenes in certain locations or featuring key songs. (Though the hashtag episode titles are unnecessary.) It’s a melodic, straightforward presentation, as far as Lee’s past work goes.
The writing isn’t quite as natural. Situationally, the episodes are fresh and natural. In the dialogue, it’s a bit stilted and forced. Most notably, Nola’s shout-outs to her favorite filmmakers feel like she’s reading off a card (including a rather forced commentary on Lee’s own “Malcolm X” losing the Oscar). Other cultural conversations can come across like the two characters are reading from textbooks.
But the story’s relevance dominates all stylistic foibles. “She’s Gotta Have It” remains distinct in 2017, and Lee has successfully expanded and altered the original film for a series format. Episodes have arcs. The season does as well. And while the men may steal focus from time to time, the update makes sure no one will forget Nola Darling anytime soon.
“She’s Gotta Have It” premieres Season 1 in its entirely on Thursday, November 23 exclusively on Netflix.