She’s Gotta Have It is Back as a 10-Episode Netflix Original Series
“I don’t know how I feel about hailing Nola as emancipated either, because she was doing to men what some men had been known to do to women,” Spike Lee says. “So I was just flipping the script.”
Someone could write a book—or at least a magazine article or two—detailing Spike Lee’s track record as a polarizing, at times bombastic, figure. There are his sporadic public put-downs, calling out artists as varied as Clint Eastwood (for whitewashing the Second World War in Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima) and American R&B singer Chrisette Michele (for performing at Trump’s inauguration). And then there are his equally pointed responses to critiques of his own films.
Clearly, the film world’s OG black auteur has never shied away from speaking uncomfortable truths, even when that has meant taking heat for it. Lee, the first African-American filmmaker to break into the mainstream, has been rolling out thought-provoking features for over 30 years. So ubiquitous is his presence in the independent-film canon that in 2014, Barack Obama recalled taking Michelle to see Do the Right Thing on their first “official” date. And from that film’s simmering racial unrest in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood to Chi-Raq’s female sex strikers trying to curb gang warfare in Chicago’s South Side, Lee has constantly been honing his stylistically daring and politically blunt brand of storytelling. Even those Spike Lee films not ostensibly tackling anything political have a way of touching upon unresolved social ills.
After graduating from New York University, Lee spent three years getting his debut feature off the ground. She’s Gotta Have It charted the comings and goings of twentysomething Brooklyn artist Nola Darling, who divided her time and affection between three lovers. Nola pursued relationships for the sake of her pleasure only—which was intended as a bold subversion of gender roles. Now, the film is getting a 10-episode reboot courtesy of Netflix, with Lee, his executive producer wife Tonya Lewis Lee and a diverse writers room adapting Nola to modern mores and a newly gentrified Fort Greene.
As a film buff weaned on Do the Right Thing and the New Yorker’s feature-length takedowns of black stereotypes, I’ve always eagerly awaited every new “Spike Lee Joint,” even while having mixed feelings about his portrayal of women at times. She’s Gotta Have It is a case in point. Although the film offered one of the first positive representations of African-American sexuality in mainstream culture, I never bought into the narrative that Lee had really broken new ground. So news of a She’s Gotta Have It reboot helmed by Lee, some 30 years later, left me a tad apprehensive. Was this some kind of penitence or just an opportunity to jump on the Netflix nostalgia train?
When I ring up the filmmaking power couple in late August to inquire, they’re enjoying some downtime in Martha’s Vineyard. “Spike and I were looking for something to work on together, and we’d been talking a lot about the gentrification in Brooklyn,” says Lewis Lee, the producer, author and former lawyer who’s been married to the New York Knicks superfan since 1993. She gleefully recalls seeing the black-and-white film for the first time in Paris, where she spent her junior year in college as an exchange student. “Even though Nola was a little older than I was at the time, I felt a kindredness to her,” she says. “It was such an exciting time culturally, coming off Michael Jackson and Madonna, to throw in something like She’s Gotta Have It. We hadn’t seen anything like it.”
“Even though Nola was a little older than I was at the time, I felt a kindredness to her,” Lewis Lee says. “It was such an exciting time culturally, coming off Michael Jackson and Madonna, to throw in something like She’s Gotta Have It. We hadn’t seen anything like it.”
As with so many other Spike Lee projects, the film proved divisive. Some saw it as a bold portrayal of a black woman freed from the burden of male desire, while others were less kind. Author, feminist and social activist bell hooks called out Lee’s patriarchal take on female sexuality, considering the three male characters seemed much more well-rounded than Nola did. It’s something Lee recognizes without hesitation. “I don’t know how I feel about hailing Nola as emancipated either, because she was doing to men what some men had been known to do to women,” he says. “So I was just flipping the script.”
Only, back then, he didn’t flip it completely. An unusually contrite Lee tells me about his only regret as a filmmaker: a shocking rape scene that’s impossible to read as anything other than she-asked-for-it-type punishment for her sexual emancipation. The moment occurs when one of her three beaus, the gentle yet possessive Jamie, decides he’s no longer down with Nola’s reverse objectification. Instead of simply breaking up, he proceeds to assault her. “It was stupid,” recalls Lee. “It was immature and did not show the violation that is rape.” The scene has not only been entirely expunged from the Netflix adaptation but hindsight has also provided the filmmaker with an opportunity to improve his track record on female-driven stories…by hiring more women.
While the 86-minute film came out at a time when the notion of a woman with multiple partners was deemed shocking to some, that reality is (thankfully) not so taboo in 2017. This allowed a creative team with tons of female energy and insight to properly flesh her character out over a 10-episode arc. “Spike originally wrote Nola Darling, so it was important for us all to have not just myself but other women really round her out and make her an authentic woman,” explains Lewis Lee, adding, “She was before, but sometimes men can’t see things. They don’t notice.”
“I would not disagree with those who haven’t been happy with other portrayals of women in my films,” admits Lee.
“The role of Nola started it all for me, and I would not disagree with those who haven’t been happy with other portrayals of women in my films—but I definitely think they’ve gotten better since I married my executive producer,” he says over a sudden speakerphone symphony of chuckles. In fact, Lee has always made it a point to praise the powerhouse ladies in his life, starting with his late grandmother, art teacher Zimmie Shelton, who put him through Atlanta’s historically black, all-male college Morehouse and gave him the seed money for She’s Gotta Have It.
We can trace a clear evolution in Spike’s depiction of female characters, but his films have always called attention to racial tensions and injustice. In the original She’s Gotta Have It, for instance, there are newspaper clippings of police brutality adorning Nola’s walls. Some three decades later, the Netflix reboot has a gorgeous title sequence that juxtaposes past and present, the working class and the affluent, the black, brown and white hues that make up a fascinating neighbourhood in flux. “One of my main problems with some gentrifiers is that they move into these predominantly Black and Hispanic neighbourhoods but don’t respect the people,” argues Spike, pointing to the recent case of a Crown Heights sandwich shop boasting a remarkably offensive wall décor of fake bullet holes. “Harlem is now SoHa and NoHa, the Bronx is SoBro. The real estate motherfuckers have this Christopher Columbus syndrome. They think no one was here before and have no sensitivity to the culture.”
The passion and outrage Spike’s been channeling into his craft for three whole decades are precisely what have made him so vital to the broader culture—shaking up the film landscape to make room for a plethora of non-white voices. Perhaps sensing that her husband has done his fair share of repenting during our chat, Lewis Lee reiterates just how much he pried open the industry’s doors. “When he started, there certainly wasn’t a diversity of black filmmakers out there,” she estimates. “I would love for film people to do a Six Degrees of Separation of Spike, to see how much he’s impacted the business. It’s so amazing and powerful.”
And what might be Lewis Lee’s all-time favourite female character in a Spike Lee film, I wonder? “I’m not saying this for promotional purposes, but I’m going with Nola Darling,” she answers without delay. “I really identified with her, and I honestly related to her lifestyle.” From the other end of the line, I sense exchanged glances, at which point Lewis Lee adds, “I mean, way back!” and Spike chimes in to echo a sustained “waaaaay back” as they erupt into laughter.