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Netflix's She's Gotta Have It tells a familiar story in a new way

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Thirty years after Spike Lee's film debut, he revisits the story in a series that makes the characters richer and the world bigger

She's Gotta Have It Photo by David Lee / Netflix

In 1986, young Black Brooklynite Spike Lee made his first feature-length film with a small budget and big aspirations. The plot was a simple but fresh one in that decade: Lee’s leading lady flipped the script on expected gender norms by playing a character with no shame about her sexual ambition, or her focus on her own pleasure. With its black-and-white polish and its documentary-style storytelling, She’s Gotta Have It the film gave the mainstream world a glimpse of Black urban life. Now, a new Netflix series has Lee rebooting his 30-year-old storyline, viewing She’s Gotta Have It through a modern lens. But can Lee in 2017 be as groundbreaking as he was 30 years ago?

Like the film, the series centers on Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise, of Shots Fired and Underground), a beautiful young struggling Brooklyn artist who follows her own rules. She states in the beginning of the series that she doesn't “believe in one-word labels,” which is the foundation of her viewpoint on sex and relationships. She’s currently in casual relationships with three men with radically different personalities: Jamie Overstreet (Lyriq Bent, of the Saw films and Canada’s Rookie Blue) is an older investor and father in a fraying marriage. Mars Blackmon (Anthony Ramos, first to play John Laurens / Philip Hamilton in Broadway’s Hamilton) is a goofy, lighthearted sneaker enthusiast who works at a local bike shop. And Greer Childs (Cleo Anthony, of Extant and Transparent) is a self-obsessed photographer. At various points in the series, each of them are interested in committing to a relationship with Nola. But she stands firm: “If they want to deal with me, it has to be on my terms, or it ain't gonna happen.”

Moving from an 86-minute film to a 10-episode series to revamp this story, Lee makes some positive changes. This time around, Nola’s sex life is only one aspect of her identity. While the film attempts to establish Nola as an independent sexual being, Lee’s narrow focus on her romantic life deflates any character development she could have had. In the series, Nola’s life outside her bedroom is the center of the story. While waiting to see whether she’ll be awarded an important art grant, she gets a part-time teaching job. In the series, she has a broader work and social life: interacting with students, grabbing drinks with friends, taking a dance class, going to a party. This time around, she even paints. In Lee’s film, she’s an artist who never creates anything. “She talked about it, you never saw her as an artist,” Lee tells Rolling Stone. “You see Nola creating art in this.”

Some of the credit certainly goes to the Black women who wrote the five of the series’ 10 episodes. Lee wrote, edited, and directed the film on his own, but the series owes a lot to its screenwriters, including Brooklyn writer-performer Radha Blank (who scripted two episodes); actress Eisa Davis (Cynthia Driscoll on House of Cards), writer and actress Joie Lee (Lee’s sister, a fixture in his films, and Nola’s mom in the series), and Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage. Often, Nola’s free spirit ways in the film come off as a caricature of a carefree Black girl, because she’s so isolated from the world, apart from the men in her bed. In the series, she has layers. She’s part of a community instead of one man’s representation of an ideal.

And by making her richer and more complicated, the writers get a chance to bring other women into her orbit, and to make the characters around her layered as well. In the film, Clorinda Bradford was Nola’s previous roommate who moved out when she got tired of witnessing Nola’s sexual escapades. In the series, Clorinda (Margot Bingham, of Queen Sugar and Boardwalk Empire) still moves out, but she remains friends with Nola, and is an active part of her life. Clorinda also has a career as an art curator, and she uses that platform to showcase Nola’s art. Having a sister circle makes Nola a more realistic person. With female agency at the forefront of her values, it would be ridiculous for her to not have female friends. Shemekka (who gets her own arc dealing with body issues and illegal butt injections) and Rachel (the token “woke” white friend) round out her circle, adding a new dimension to Nola: interesting, supportive friendships that aren’t just about sex.

She's Gotta Have It Photo by David Lee / Netflix

That doesn’t minimize the series’ sexuality. Casual sex is more common in media now than it was 30 years ago, but it’s still rare to see Black characters indulging in it — Black women in particular. Lee is in the director’s chair for all 10 episodes of the series, and his habit of examining people in bed via overhead shots hasn’t changed. But shooting in color, rather than the original film’s black and white, brings a new dimension to these scenes. The different hues of brown skin are highlighted in this series, as a result of Nola’s choice of lovers. We also get equal-opportunity nudity, with the men stripping down as well. (Lee says he was upfront about the male nudity with the actors from the beginning: “Particularly today, I'd be crucified if Nola's butt-naked and she's the only one — I'd be justifiably crucified. So I told the men, I said, "Yo, we got to see your ass, too." The graphic, open nudity of these sequences are reminiscent of Insecure, the current leader in showing Black female sexuality on television.

Nola stays firm about letting whoever she pleases in her “lovin bed,” including other women. Another change from the original version has Nola labeling herself as pansexual, and entering a relationship with Opal Gilstrap (Ilfenesh Hadera, of Billions, Master of None, and Baywatch). In the series, Opal is a lesbian mother who owns a plant nursery in Brooklyn. In the film, she’s a casual friend who makes a pass at Nola, and gets rejected. In the series, she feels like the most compatible of Nola’s lovers, and the one with the highest chance of working out as a long-term relationship. In therapy, Nola describes Opal as safe: “Unlike the men I’ve been dealing with, she’s not tryna own me.” It’s refreshing to see a Black queer relationship presented positively, as safe, stable, and open.

Certainly the best improvement from the original film is the removal of the unnecessary rape scene. The sequence, where Jaime sexually assaults Nola, was a step backward from the film’s attempted character development and its message of empowerment. It signaled that sexually independent Black women need to be brought down a peg, that there are consequences for Black women with agency over their bodies.

She's Gotta Have It Photo by David Lee / Netflix

Spike Lee expressed regret over this scene in a 2014 Deadline interview: “It was just totally… stupid. I was immature. It made light of rape, and that’s the one thing I would take back. I was immature and I hate that I did not view rape as the vile act that it is.” Instead, the series includes a street harassment scene where Nola is catcalled and physically assaulted while walking home. But the series treats the incident responsibly and seriously, with Nola visibly shaken, but working through her trauma via art and therapy.

The Netflix series isn’t entirely an improvement over the original. It begins to feel aimless midway into the series. Some of the B-stories drag long, especially between episodes 5 and 9. Lee and his team keep each episode pretty lean — most clock in around 35 minutes — but some of the side stories are dull. While it’s new and juicy that Jamie’s character is a married man, for example, only half of his home life scenes are worthwhile, while the others are dry. The show even features a couple of surrealist musical / dance numbers that do nothing to progress the story. This version of She’s Gotta Have It could've easily been cut down to six or seven episodes while still maintaining its pacing and interest.

She's Gotta Have It Photo by David Lee / Netflix

This isn’t the only Netflix series that’s given a director a chance to revisit prior works. From Wet Hot American Summer: 10 Years Later to Fuller House to The Magic School Bus Rides Again, the streaming service has been a safe space for reboots and continuations, for creators trying again. This particular series is reminiscent of Dear White People, which Justin Simien originally made as a film, then brought to Netflix to flesh out the main characters. Dear White People chose the prequel route, developing the core characters leading up to the movie’s infamous blackface party. With She’s Gotta Have It, Lee instead chose to retell the story with more background information and better developed characters. Both series reinvigorate their stories; they just take different tacks.

The premise of She’s Gotta Have It feels more socially accepted than it was 30 years ago, but the new series still adds fresh blood. Lee’s creation adapts well to its new era, and where it’s necessary, the creators revamp the story to take it further than the original. And to this day, there still aren’t enough stories about women owning their sexual agency. While not as groundbreaking as it was 30 years ago, She’s Gotta Have It is part of a rising tide of media that gives Black women the opportunity to headline the story and call the shots.

Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It premieres on November 23rd, 2017. Lee’s original film is also streaming on Netflix as of this writing.