Not often are filmmakers offered the opportunity for a do-over, especially when they’re as bold a directorial voice as Spike Lee. Auteurs tend to recut and reconfigure their creations until they find that perfect vehicle of their vision, but self-remakes are rare. Ozu did it. So did Hitchcock, Hawks, Mann and Capra. The danger is that you screw it up (Funny Games, anyone?) and you miss your chance at redemption. But with Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It, that’s exactly what Lee got—and he didn’t miss his shot.
Based on Lee’s debut film of the same name, the series stays true to the much of the movie’s ideals and plot, but gives more expansive psychologies to its superfecta of love interests: Jamie Overstreet (Lyriq Bent), Greer Childs (Cleo Anthony), Opal Gilstrap (Ilfenesh Hadera) and, yes, Mars Blackmon (Anthony Ramos) return to pursue the affections of one Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise). Hell, you even see the return of S. Epatha Merkerson’s Dr. Jamison (here played by Heather Headley). It’s a sign of maturation that its love interests are given a new depth here—and I say “its” when referring to love interests, because this show (and the movie) is the character of Nola Darling.
Nola is our perspective and our subject, the end-all, be-all of the series. She is the She and boy does she have to have It. Direct address (and more of Spike Lee’s best) returns with a bang as the style is the same but the budget is bigger. This is what happens when you let a dreamer dream, when the imagination behind the scrappy yet inventive She’s Gotta Have It is fully financed to achieve its potential.
While the film exploded Lee onto the national stage, the show embraces all the quirks and signatures he’s developed over a long career (musicality in collage-like montages and choreography, lyrical writing, bombastic framing, a general tendency to err on the side of provocative and sexy) and brings them full circle. When writing to interrogate your youth—which the show, focused on the romantic and artistic aspirations of a black woman in Brooklyn, does while Lee self-reflects with his namefellow creations—the more detailed, exploratory format of TV compliments the inevitable instinct to go long and thorough. And Lee has much to interrogate.
Lee recently told The Hollywood Reporter, “People always ask me if there’s one thing I could take back, a do-over. The first thing I say is the rape scene in the original film from 1986. So I’ll apologize again right here. That should’ve never been in there.” In the movie, Nola is raped by one of the men she dates and then chooses, after following a batshit line of reasoning, to be monogamous with him. It’s an act that’s spun questionably for character development, is initially rewarded and, even if the pair’s happy ending is deconstructed by the finale, is never treated with anything close to the disgust it merits. The 1986 film was progressive but imperfect, still leaning on many well-worn stereotypes as it fought off a choice few.
Lee, who wrote and directed the film, directed the entire series and wrote the first and last episodes. Rather than repeat past mistakes or fall into new, exciting ignorances, Lee has instead chosen to hire prominent black female writers (including two-time Pulitzer winner Lynn Nottage, Eisa Davis, and his sister, Joie) to tackle the majority of episodes. You can feel the difference. These writers inject a different (yet no less realistic) sexual threat into the proceedings that turns the focus where it belongs: Nola. Her headspace afterwards, coaxed out by art, her support system of friends, and professional therapy, is one that the series prioritizes more comprehensively and delicately than the film.
There is thoughtful value in a show built on its creator’s creative and personal maturation, its tools used to address violent sexual patriarchy at large and in the smallest, trickle-down details of the men in its protagonist’s life. It’s a series-long apology letter that remains compelling and respectful of a character more than well-written enough to deserve it. Imperfect and selfish as she may be, Nola’s Rashomon-esque multifacetedness is a brilliant summation of youth’s creative masks and the infinite flexibility of a hungry personality. Or is that just how brightly Wise shines in the role? Let’s call it a draw. But that’s why Nola so easily consumes the entirety of the film. In the series, she’s allowed the luxury of a deep supporting cast and a Brooklyn beset by gentrification rather than focused entirely on sex.
The “Hashtag” episode titles—the second is called “Hashtag BootyFull (SELF ACCEPTANCE),” for instance—immediately point to the modernization of the storytelling, updating the tech along with New York City’s economics and sexual attitudes. Its lesbian character is no longer lambasted by its leering men. It allows Nola to idealize freedom of expression in artwork, in politics, and in economics rather than just on her “lovin’ bed.” She addresses potent, red-hot sexual topics with a feminism raw and black, all while existing in between generations on opposite ends of digital familiarity. Lee takes his chance to revisit his 1980s sexual politics and while he’s at it, delivers a few choice words to the next generation.
She’s Gotta Have It may not be the revolution it was in 1986, but it’s more refined in almost every way while kicking the formal bravado into overdrive. There’s a ten-minute vigil mourning Donald Trump’s election. There’s Requiem for a Dream-like butt injections. There’s a full-on dance sequence to “Raspberry Beret.” Its lead is smarter, braver, and more complex than ever while tackling social threats with infectious energy and relatable vulnerability. If this doesn’t more than make up for a first-timer’s misjudged scene, I don’t know what does. Doing it again may be a rarity, but when Lee does it this well, I’d be happy for that to change.
She’s Gotta Have It is now streaming on Netflix.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.