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‘She’s Gotta Have It’ Can’t Make Up Its Mind

The Netflix series, Spike Lee’s adaptation of his 1986 debut feature, presents Nola Darling’s journey from so many angles that it loses focus

Netflix/Ringer Illustration

The two best parts of She’s Gotta Have It exist on opposite ends of the show’s tonal spectrum. On one side, there are the opening credits to Spike Lee’s reimagining of his 1986 debut feature, which juxtapose black-and-white images of Fort Greene—the Brooklyn neighborhood where Lee grew up and where both iterations of She’s Gotta Have It are set—as it existed more than 31 years ago with full-color ones of Fort Greene as it exists today. In the age of the “skip intro” button, the credits sequence has become something of a dying art, but Lee has taken the time to compose his as a thesis statement. A jazz score by Bruce Hornsby, elaborating on the original film’s music by Lee’s father Bill, plays over landscapes and portraits that sketch out a shifting urban ecosystem. The contrast between Fort Greene then and now is drastic, but Lee refrains from exaggeration. There are pointed shots of advertisements for luxury buildings with sky-high rents, yet gentrifiers and longtime residents alike are presented in the same intimate light. The montage takes a heated subject and concisely illustrates the daily lives at hand without resorting to overbroad stereotypes, suggesting that the show it advertises will take a similarly realist tack.

At the other extreme is a gallery-opening scene in the sixth installment, “#HE GOT IT ALL MIXED UP (DYSLEXIA).” She’s Gotta Have It often excels at the larger-than-life parody one might expect from a filmmaker as stylized as Lee, who directed all 10 episodes; this is the same director who opened Bamboozled with a literal dictionary definition of the term “satire,” and whose last feature was a sex farce told entirely in verse. That bombastic strain of humor peaks when Clorinda Bradford (Margot Bingham), curator and best friend of protagonist Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise), introduces a group exhibit that includes Nola’s work. “Welcome to the Diastopian,” she intones. “It is a movement of forward-thinking, Afro-centric artists reaching across boundaries to fabulate, deconstruct, redefine, assert, and expand the breadth and reach of the millennial voices of the people of the African diaspora.” The speech is a buzzword salad, matched in self-importance only by some of the art it presents for sale; Nola’s portraits of herself and her friends are exhibited alongside the works of a sculptor who goes by the name Zora Kneel Hurtin’. The satire extends to the critical aspects of the art world as well as the commercial, with a white writer (Wallace Shawn, perfectly cast as an avatar of intellectual pretension) opining via vlog on various artists’ ability to express an “electrifying political perspective” on what it means to be African American.

Independently, each of these excerpts has the makings of a promising series: a nuanced, subtle exploration of Brooklyn in 2017 on the one hand, a blown-out, borderline allegorical farce on the other. Sure enough, the high points of She’s Gotta Have It strictly adhere to one vision or the other. It’s when the show’s conflicting agendas crash into each other that its problems begin, and those issues are the reason She’s Gotta Have It ultimately doesn’t live up to its significant and admirable ambitions. She’s Gotta Have It wants to communicate the full depth of one woman’s self-actualization, but the show presents Nola Darling’s journey from so many angles that it ends up losing focus.

To be fair, She’s Gotta Have It is far from the boondoggle that sometimes results when marquee film directors attempt the transition to TV. Lee may have made some worrying caveats about not watching television apart from sports and the news, but with help from a writers’ room stacked with award-winning playwrights (Eisa Davis, Lynn Nottage) and family members (Lee’s brother Cinqué and wife Tonya Lewis Lee, whom he credits with the idea for the adaptation), Lee has crafted a season that successfully combines episodic structure with directorial flair. More importantly, She’s Gotta Have It justifies its own existence, answering the inevitable questions about the necessity of remaking an already acclaimed feature. The first incarnation of She’s Gotta Have It tracked Nola’s three relationships with three very different men: buttoned-up Jamie (Tommy Redmond Hicks), self-absorbed Greer (John Canada Terrell), and goofy Mars (the writer-director himself). The show keeps the men, but adds layers to Nola beyond her romantic life. We meet her parents, who’ve lived in Fort Greene for decades, and her friends, who run the gamut from Brooklyn lifer to arriviste. We follow her to work, as an arts educator at a Crown Heights public school. We see her art, in the form of paintings contributed by artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, whose real-life work directly inspired a street-art project Nola undertakes anonymously at the end of the pilot.

Television proves an ideal vehicle for the core thesis of She’s Gotta Have It, both the film and the series. Over and over again, Nola tells the viewer that she’s more than the limited slice of her personality that each partner brings out in her; now, Lee can show us as well. Nola’s primary conflicts have almost nothing to do with who she’s dating: They’re about scrounging together the rent for her studio (which she has a sweetheart deal on from a family friend, in a nice nod to pragmatism), or coming to terms with the changing face of her childhood home, or finding her creative voice. More than 15 years after Sex and the City first pondered if women can have sex like men—a dated analogy Nola herself makes in the finale—swapping out that dated question for fresher ones is probably for the best.

But the sprawl of She’s Gotta Have It also leads to its identity crisis, embodied by its confused characterization of Nola’s lovers. At first, the men are shaded in with biographical detail that makes them more than avatars for Nola’s desires: Jamie (Lyriq Bent) is a well-to-do Wall Streeter originally from Brownsville whose separation from his wife threatens to take a toll on their young son. Greer (Cleo Anthony) is the biracial son of a Black Panther father and French mother who applies his unique perspective on America to his career as a photographer. Mars (Anthony Ramos) is half–Puerto Rican and dyslexic, giving his distinct, rat-a-tat way of speaking a surprisingly touching backstory. Yet the more believable each individual suitor becomes, the less their conflict, and their obsession with possessing Nola, does. Jamie’s patronizing, money-laced infatuation with a younger woman makes sense, but in this age of open relationships and DTR talks, I had a hard time wrapping my head around a playboy like Greer or a free spirit like Mars bringing up Nola’s “other guys” out of the blue every other scene—or, frankly, why Nola didn’t cut them off when they insist on repeatedly expressing insecure jealousy she doesn’t care for. She’s Gotta Have It tries to present Nola’s guys as both blank archetypes and realistic individuals when they can function as only one or the other.

There’s a similar tension at work with Nola’s friend group. The mockery that works so well at Clorinda’s expense backfires badly when it comes to Shemekka (Chyna Layne), a Brooklyn native depicted simultaneously as a single mother trying to make ends meet and a dancer convinced to get back-alley butt injections by a fake game show called She Ass’d for It. (In an odd choice for a show supposedly celebrating women’s complexity and subjectivity, Nola judges Shemekka for even exploring the possibility. Mekka is responding to an entire system of incentives, but Nola and She’s Gotta Have It choose to criticize the individual instead.) The nadir of the entire season is when Shemekka falls mid–dance routine, causing her injections to explode; the sight gag of silicone spraying all over a nearby customer takes a woman’s suffering and exploits it for snide physical comedy. Soon after, we get a heartfelt exchange with Nola at her hospital bedside, but their conversation doesn’t begin to erase the memory of Lee and his writers moralizing about the dangers of beauty standards at one of their characters’ expense.

All these conflicting strands take a toll on Nola herself, who’s tasked with tying all of them together into a coherent whole. DeWanda Wise is practically magnetic in a role that caps off a remarkable year after stints on Underground and Shots Fired. Still, even Wise can’t sell everything Nola demands of her. This is a woman mature enough to enter therapy after an instance of street harassment turned violent assault, but immature enough to blatantly ignore her boss to text a boyfriend back or uncritically cite her Saturn return in the middle of a serious conversation. Because Nola puts a face on both halves of the show, it’s sometimes unclear which one some of her actions belong to—whether She’s Gotta Have It is lightly nudging its protagonist or taking her behavior at face value.

Throughout She’s Gotta Have It, I kept wishing Lee and his collaborators would narrow their focus enough to definitively commit to one version of the show over the other. I can handle Lee’s famously idiosyncratic dialogue in a parallel-universe Brooklyn where community meetings explode into Black Lives Matter protests; I just can’t incorporate it into the same world where Nola gets a sober lesson in the very real challenges facing New York City public school students. Similarly, another character makes a stray observation about Nola’s allergy to commitment. Rather than explore the ordinary psychology behind that ordinary problem, however, She’s Gotta Have It is distracted by staging dramatic confrontations, like a Thanksgiving dinner between a woman and her three love interests no actual person would arrange. She’s Gotta Have It is two fascinating ideas spliced into a hopelessly muddled one, doubling its scope and also its frustration.