“You know what a make-up call is in basketball?” Nola Darling asks early in the new Netflix version of Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It.
Nola is, in the moment, explaining to one of her lovers that Denzel Washington didn’t win the Oscar for Malcolm X because Scent of a Woman‘s Al Pacino was due a make-up call for not winning for any of his ’70s films, which in turn led to Denzel getting a make-up call for Training Day. Lee directed Malcolm X, and Nola’s complaint about Denzel’s Oscar fortunes is one of many incredibly self-referential moments sprinkled throughout the new She’s Gotta Have It, which itself feels like a bit of a make-up call for Lee.
The 1986 version — in which young artist Nola (Tracy Camilla Johns) juggled three very different lovers, each hoping to be her only man — was Lee’s debut film, shot in black-and-white on a shoestring budget. It put Lee on the path to Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, and feuding with Reggie Miller, but these days is remembered for one of two reasons: as the introduction of Mars Blackmon, the motormouth Brooklyn kid played by Lee himself, who would later team up with Michael Jordan in a series of famous Nike ads; and as the one film in his ouevre for which Lee has expressed public regret, specifically for the late plot twist where one of Nola’s three love interests rapes her, which leads to her breaking up with the other two and getting with him (temporarily, at least).
Many movies have been adapted into TV shows, but only a few — Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Friday Night Lights, most notably — were adapted by the original writer or director because they found something in the film lacking. Lee has grown as both a man and a filmmaker in the 30 years since he made that first movie. Doing a new take for Netflix (it debuts tomorrow; I’ve seen all 10 episodes) allows him to not only leave out that misguided twist — there’s still an assault scene, but the nature, context, and perpetrator are all very different — but to expand our understanding of Nola, her three frustrated suitors, and the larger world of Brooklyn in which the story takes place.
Nola now arrives in the form of actress DeWanda Wise, who has all the magnetism required for a role that both features her speaking directly to the audience throughout, and one where she’s believable as the unrelenting object of desire for Mars (now half-Puerto Rican and far more charming, as played by Hamilton alum Anthony Ramos), polished executive Jamie Overstreet (Lyriq Bent), and narcissistic model/photographer Greer Childs (Cleo Anthony). We see how each man checks a different box for her, even as none of them check them all, but also how Nola has set up this polyamorous system, and a series of rules that go with it (she won’t have sex with any of them outside her apartment and her “loving bed”) in part to protect herself from making decision she unconsciously fears she’s not ready for yet.
As a romantic quadrangle — which occasionally becomes a pentagon whenever Nola’s eye turns towards single mom Opal (Ilfenesh Hadera) — is mostly terrific: sharply-observed, emotionally generous towards all parties, however flawed they are, sexy or sweet when the occasion calls for it, uncomfortable when it doesn’t, and loaded for bear with an incredible soundtrack featuring Prince, Sinatra, Biggie, and many more, in addition to incorporating both Bill Lee’s jazz score from the film and a new one by Bruce Hornsby. (In one of many interesting multimedia flourishes, Lee pauses the action after many soundtrack cuts to feature the album art for the song in question.)
But Lee (who directed every episode and wrote the first and last) and his collaborators (including, among others, Pulitzer-winning playwright Lynn Notage and Lee’s siblings Joie and Cinque) have a lot more on their minds this time than the question of Nola’s sex life. They want to ask larger questions about about being black, a woman, or simply alive in America at this moment in our history.
The series’ chief interest outside the loving bed is gentrification. The opening credits contrast black-and-white pictures of Brooklyn taken for the original film, mostly featuring black and brown people, with contemporary color photos of the more affluent and white Brooklyn of today. Nola’s neighborhood in Fort Greene is being taken over by new residents without an investment in the community and its traditions, like the street art of Papo (Elvis Nolasco), a homeless man (and former art school classmate of Nola’s) known as “da mayor” of the block. At brunch, Nola’s friend Clorinda (Margot Bingham) pushes back on the condescension of her immaculately-bearded waiter, insisting, “I’m not gonna cede the Fort to hipster imperialism.” There are also episodes or story arcs devoted to body image, child abuse, the N-word, the 2016 election, social media (every episode’s title is a hashtag, like “#HeGotItAllMixedUp”) and more.
Some of it is well-meaning but didactic and sledgehammer-y, with the episode about words that kids should stop saying feeling at times like the actors stepping out of character to recite position papers. Some of it is so jarring — like the end result of Nola’s friend Shemekka (Chyna Layne) exploring bootleg cosmetic surgery option to further her dancing career — it’s a wonder nobody talked Lee out of it. And a lot of it is utterly stunning in how it combines words and music and pictures to create what feels like a new audiovisual language.
In other words… it’s a Spike Lee Joint. The creative disasters and triumphs come from the same emotional place, and you have to accept one to get the other. Even the direct address from Nola (or other characters) to the audience is a mixed bag: intimate and bewitching sometimes, stilted and distancing at others. But when it works… man oh man.
Though Lee’s new to series television, one of the series’ most pleasant surprises is how much it manages to feel like a TV show. Every episode has a distinct conflict and theme, whether it’s Nola sweating over an art gallery show attended by an influential critic (Wallace Shawn), third-person-speaking teacher Raqueletta Moss (De’Adre Aziza) trying to school visiting art instructor Nola, or Greer breaking Nola’s dating rules in an attempt to convince her that he’s all the man she needs. Like Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick, it’s a major director coming to TV and taking the medium for what it is, rather than what he assumes it to be. (Also like The Knick, it features shot after shot so expertly composed, it may not matter if you care about the stories or characters.)
Besides deviating from the movie’s rape twist, Lee has said he appreciated the chance to actually feature Nola working on her art, which the movie had little room for. Here, the show takes her craft — both the moments of dazzling inspiration and the ones where she feels like a fraud who will forever live on handouts from her parents and others — at least as seriously as the state of her relationships, and articulates the struggle of creativity more gracefully than all but a handful of modern TV shows.
“Very often, beautiful art is created in very ugly times,” the art critic suggests during a segment about the election. The new She’s Gotta Have It is responding to far more than just this one ugly moment in national politics, but at its best, it’s a work of beauty so deep that both Nola Darling and Spike Lee should feel proud to attach their name to it.