The problem with writing reviews after watching something which speaks so directly to your soul is that it’s difficult to hide behind your reviewer’s shield. There’s no time to wait for the emotions to get back into their lock-boxes when the deadline calls.
Spike Lee deserves dissertation-length words about him, his work and his legacy. This is a pre-apology, because… time.
She’s Gotta Have It (SGHI) the 2017 series based on Mr. Lee’s 1986 first ever feature film of the same name will have landed on Netflix by the time you’re reading this review. The film in a nutshell – Beautiful Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns) can’t decide what kind of man she wants to date, so she decides to date three at the same time. The first is Greer Childs (John Canada Terrell), a rich, handsome narcissist. Then there’s Jamie Overstreet (Tommy Redmond Hicks), a stable, overprotective alpha male. Finally, there’s Mars Blackmon (Spike Lee), a timid geek with a heart of gold. Unfortunately, while each suitor has his virtues, Darling just can’t seem to make up her mind.
Anticipation for Lee’s return to fictional screenwork after 2015’s Chiraq has been a respectful buzz. Red Hook Summer (2012), Oldboy (2013), Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014) and Chiraq have all been met with confusion and ponder as to whether Lee’s long-held crown as our best black filmmaker ever was slipping.
I am a huge fan of Spike Lee. I loved Chiraq, was confused by, but definitely saw valuable gems in Red Hook, still haven’t seen Sweet Blood and Oldboy remains half watched. Friends of TBB, We Are Parable curated the #SpikeIs60 film festival in celebration of Lee’s work and him turning 60 this year. Along with hosting Lee when he visited London in July, they also screened She’s Gotta Have It (film) at Hackney Picturehouse. It was the first time I’d seen SGGI in over 15 years and was amazed at how relevant the film still is from its black and white visuals to its themes. I was happy to hear SGHI was being turned into a Netflix series. Expectations high.
This is Lee’s first full fictional TV series, and in keeping with modern tradition he took a chance with Netflix. We are grateful. She’s Gotta Have It, is a wonderful piece about humans through Nola Darling’s internal and external lens. The main elements of the film are there. Nola is still involved with three black men – wealthy businessman Jamie Overstreet (Lyriq Bent), model/photographer Greer Childs (Cleo Anthony), and basketball fanatic, bike shop worker Mars Blackmon (Anthony Ramos – who takes over from Lee who played Mars in the film). We also have single mother Opal the Horticulturist (Ilfenesh Hadera) Nola’s female love interest. All three, and Opal speak to different sides of Nola’s personality.
She has two best friends, waitress Shemekka Epps (Chyna Layne) and art curator Clorinda Bradford (Margot Bingham). Her mum (Joie Lee) and dad (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) are still together and present in their daughter’s lives.
Whilst juggling her relationships, Nola (DeWanda Wise) is a struggling 27-year old artist, determined not to let gentrification and lack of steady income get her evicted from her much loved brownstone home in Fort Greene, Brooklyn New York. White Gentrifiers offering buy out money be damned, be damned. Thomas Chatterton Williams pondered in his New York Times article, ‘The Culture Caught Up With Spike Lee — Now What?’  that usually a visionary ahead of his time, would Lee be able to make SGHI stand out in 2017 the year of liberated women, a time when multiple sexual partners with any gender identifier isn’t a thing, the woke black and #BlackTwitter?
He needn’t have worried. SGHI the series, takes its foundation and rebuilds upon it respectfully whilst bringing us new nowness. SGHI the series is needed. At a time when, mother of one female teenager that I now am, have my back against the wall a little bit frightened of how fast human evolution by way of the Internet and superficial feelings is speeding past me. Can we all just pause a second for us born in the 80s, 70s and back to gather our wits!?! What Lee has repackaged for us is 10 episodes of therapy. There are notes of Insecure and Atlanta and Black & Sexy TV (YouTube channel) peppered throughout but I’m saying that for you to identify. Becuase it’s definitely not a carbon copy. It’s Lee and his creative team’s assessment of now, and to be now is to popular culture.
This is a series for women. For black women most definitely. For black dark-skinned women thankfully. From young girls, to mature women with their backs against the wall, it’s a moment of explanation, exploration, condemnation, exhalation, elation and verification/validation. This is not to say, men stay away. Men would benefit from watching this series. Especially those who believe feminism is taking over the world and are worried about the death of The Patriarchy. It’ll appease. I promise.
I don’t do spoilers as you know. So there will be no episode breakdown. But know that each episode has a relevant hashtagged title. Know that Lee honours classic songs in a way, I’ve not seen before, on screen, in a series. He stays true to form with his signature artistic visual delivery and musical scoring. This is most definitely a Spike Lee Joint… yet he does well to not beat us over the head with it. It’s a clever and beautiful from big to little screen transition. We have a special ode to Prince. We have a no holds barred challenge of ‘agent orange’. It’s rebellious without sensationalisation. It’s not attention seeking but it will grab you.
Where the film was criticised for its heavy focus on Nola and her sex life; Lee also recently spoke about how he regrets the rape scene which featured in the film and that Nola chose to stay in a relationship with her rapist Jamie , all this is gone in the series. Though there is a situation which triggers Nola’s disillusionment with the world around her. Nola’s relationships are a very much a part of her, but the lens is pulled back that bit farther and we get to see more of her world and all her talents and flaws which don’t revolve around sex.
For that we thank Lee, and we also thank him for handing over five episodes to four female writers: his sister Joie Lee; Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage. House of Cards actress Eisa Davis and writer-performer Radha Blank who got to write two episodes. (I purposefully didn’t make note of who wrote which episode).
DeWanda Wise’s talent is as outstanding as she is beautiful, her transition from a broken single mother in mourning in the Fox series Shots Fired, to Nola Darling the free-spirited young woman trying to find her identity and leave her mark on this world is very good. Wise carries this series with ease. Her chemistry with everyone she encounters is strong. This woman can act. It’s in her moments of honest tenderness that you truly connect. Her ability to switch between superficial and selfish, to vulnerable and open is captivating. There are times you want to shake Nola as much as you want to hug her. Wise is a beautiful dark-skinned woman with light eyes. She has good hair, smooth skin, and a fit body. I’m glad she was cast. We are still colour struck. Shadism is real. Wise’s casting is a positive.
(I’m still waiting, however, for when a Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong’o, Adepero Oduye, Danielle Brooks will take centre position in a black production about a beautiful black woman on a black woman journey with an abundance of black love interests at her disposal. Absolutely no shade intended. Pun also not intended.)
What doesn’t work in this series, is in the minimum. Nola’s girlfriend-ships aren’t as fully rounded as I would have liked. Maybe it’s a reflection of how people connect nowadays? She seems to have better conversations with her therapist played by Heather Headley and the head teacher of the school she part-times at Raqueletta Moss (De’Adre Aziza).
There are a few on the nose monologues of historical facts which could grate, even whilst you appreciate the information. There’s a theme around body enhancement that comes across very preachy and the villain in that set up is inexplicably over-dramatic in their villainry (sorry no spoilers… watch it). There’s also an LGTBTQ dedicated episode which may irritate because of it existing in that episode box, it also throws in the almost requisite black parents who don’t know their son is gay because duh, black parents and homophobia. Which is fast becoming a lazy stereotype. Not every black parent etc. etc. etc.
What I love the most about this series are the themes it covers so well. Alongside politics and social commentary, we get Nola’s search for self-ownership, definition, and identity outside of other people’s expectations of her. Today we are so dependent on likes and approval that to just be ourselves, naked and raw is beyond scary. We get shadism which isn’t directly spoken about but it’s there when we see Nola vs. Cheryl (watch it). Classism. Mixed Race as an identity. Black women and their relentless need to save black men and more.
As much as Nola is the focus character we also get to see how important she is to Jamie, Mars and Greer in their quest to validate and define their existence. Through them, we see how women’s freedom and self-awareness frightens men. How men classify independence as a woman ‘acting like a man’, how one sexy little black dress can cause men much emotional distress. That’s not to say any of the male characters look bad (although my goodness I thank the Universe that I’ve never dated a Greer in real life). This isn’t a man-bashing series, there’s an especially tender treatment of homeless war vet
Papo Da Mayor aka ‘Da Mayor’ (Elvis Nolasco) who has a few great scenes with Nola. From the male characters’ perspectives, we are further exposed as to how disconnected from or maybe how scared we are of who we are without anyone else’s input. It’s a great contribution to the discussion around where men fit, in a world of self-assured women.
Episode 9 is my episode, with the last episode (10) being a satisfying full stop to a very good series. Can there be a second one? Should there be? It’s special.
She’s Gotta Have It is available on Netflix now.