To consider anything about She’s Gotta Have It, the attentive Netflix series that modernizes Spike Lee’s 1986 debut feature of the same name, first requires one address its final episode. It’s Thanksgiving night and Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise), a Brooklyn painter and self-identified “polyamorous pansexual” with hypnotic charm, has summoned her three suitors to dinner. Up until this point, they’d yet to cross paths, and only vaguely knew of each other through Nola’s mention of dating other men. All season the show had been building to this juncture, and its occurrence is all the more surprising because it’s Nola who methodically gathers her trio of lovers in one place, the refuge of her Brooklyn apartment.
“What’s the real purpose of inviting all three of us here?” asks Jaime, a sensible and sometimes dull Wall Street business type. Nola’s response, layered and selfish, but not unreasonable, lands like a punch to the gut. She acknowledges having “messed up,” but refuses to linger over past mistakes. Opposed to one man, she instead chooses herself. “What kind of lady,” begins Greer, the most immodest of her lovers—but Nola cuts him off, ironclad and unapologetic, leveraging control: “…Acts like a man?”
The series, much like Lee’s original film was 30 years ago, is a seductive case study in power dynamics, masked as a savvy rom-com. The crux of Nola’s story, the symbolism that is to be mined from her impassioned travails, is really about the redistribution of authority, and the reimagining of female desire as something more entangled, impulsive, and ideologically liberated.
Stretched across 10 episodes premiering tomorrow, She’s Gotta Have It is set in contemporary Fort Greene, a creative hub vulnerable to the tempest of gentrification. All of 27, Nola does whatever’s needed to get by: working as a middle-school art teacher in Crown Heights, paying for therapy with her paintings. The show follows our heroine through a succession of peaks and valleys, some professional, all eye-openingly personal. Early in the series, a verbal assault prompts an anonymous crusade to reassert control; Nola begins to secretly post street art—with messages like “My Name Isn’t Boo” and “My Name Isn’t Bitch”—all throughout the city (Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s “Stop Telling Women To Smile” art series, which began in Brooklyn in 2012, was a sure inspiration).
Still, for the whole of the series, its urgency is extracted from Nola’s romantic attachment to the three men in her life: Jaime (Lyriq Bent), Greer (Cleo Anthony), and Mars (played with spunk and spark by Anthony Ramos). A proud nonconformist, she never commits to just one suitor, upturning the false virtue that allows men to juggle multiple relationships without being harassed or slandered, without being labeled a “ho,” a “slut,” or worse.
If the original film rooted Nola’s agency in man and in her sexual selfhood, a move the scholar bell hooks criticized as a “narrowly defined notion of liberation,” Lee’s remake attempts to be more attuned to the realities of the day. In the form of a feminist equal and a single mother who owns a local nursery, the revamp introduces Opal (Ilfenesh Hadera) into the carousel of Nola’s lovelife. “Unlike the men I’ve been dealing with, she’s not trying to own me,” Nola says of her. “I have the space to be myself.” But while Nola is the sole author of her story, free to gratify her appetite as she sees fit, satiety almost always comes at the expense of another person. During one therapy session, she happily owns up to her sexual proclivities: “Words like monogamy and family have never seemed like a remote possibility.” The only thing better than freedom is control, and Nola won’t loosen her grip so easily.
Even as She’s Gotta Have It makes a convincing case for female empowerment, though, the show at times becomes weighed down by its own ambition (a property Lee has never lacked). One of its least effective components is the writing itself, which erupts in patchy sequences; scenes suddenly cut short or unexpectedly accelerate without having earned the right to. The show, however, comes alive in other strokes of mastery: its stellar score, the periodically breathtaking cinematography, and the fire of Wise and Ramos, two alluring talents.
As I mentioned some months ago, it’s in the intimate spaces, between friends and lovers, where Lee hits his stride narratively. (While Lee directed all the episodes, the show counts Barry Michael Cooper as a screenwriter and revered playwright Lynn Nottage as a producer). The most fascinating aspects of any given episode are its small detours, conversations over the phone or seated at dinner that touched on themes of gentrification, mental health, self-worth, or white privilege.
The most potent statement in any series about transactional power—let alone one with a black woman at its center—is the simple fact of its existence. The batch of new shows that arrive alongside She’s Gotta Have It only magnify its significance. Together with the heroines of Insecure, SMILF, and Amazon’s fantastic pilots for The Climb and Love You More, Nola Darling signifies a reauthoring of womanhood in the public space, a reclamation of ownership and victimhood, an undoing of patriarchal authority. (The news of Charlie Rose, Harvey Weinstein, and others only deepens the substance of these shows.) These are still stories of power, only this time with new, more deserving faces.