This a spoiler-free review of the opening episodes of Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It.
It’s not often that a director gets to remake their own film, and even less common that they get to experiment with a different medium. With Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It, Spike Lee makes a welcome foray into television fiction, directing a 10-episode remake of his debut feature.
1986’s She’s Gotta Have It may be a blistering 84 minutes, but it’s got the ingredients for a long-form expansion: an engaging set-up, fun characters and confrontational ideas. The show follows the film’s premise and tells the story of Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise), a confidently promiscuous African American artist living in Brooklyn, as she juggles the anxieties of her three lovers: square Jamie (Lyriq Bent), narcissist Greer (Cleo Anthony) and joker Mars (Anthony Ramos, taking over from Lee in the original).
The opening episode sticks firmly to that template. Scenes follow the big screen version beat for beat, albeit in crisp colour (versus the film’s black and white) and with gentrified backdrops. There’s a thrill to the repetition, but that soon gets tiring. However, as the first episode nears its close, Lee begins to introduce new ideas, which develop with the second and third episodes.
Despite its micro-budget origins, Lee assembled a terrific ensemble for the film. The imitation asked of his new cast exposes them, but the expanding story does start to give them room to make the characters their own. Wise leads the show powerfully, and Anthony hams it up gleefully. It’s Ramos who struggles the most trying to fill his director’s looming Air Jordans. 1986’s Mars – and his following Nike commercial appearances – were the world’s first exposure to Lee and established his persona in the public eye. Ramos matches his words-per-minute, but lacks the iconic director’s enigmatic spark.
The series’ dialogue is also less convincing and doesn’t pop in the way it did in the original, despite strong writing otherwise. The series leans more towards drama than the largely comedic feature. The first three episodes range between 32 and 37 minutes and, although this is ostensibly a half hour “comedy”, as opposed to an hour-long “drama”, it has an in-between feel that it occupies effectively.
The series dilutes the film’s experimental visuals for something more traditionally televisual. That’s not to say Lee’s blend of hip-hop aesthetic and documentary realism doesn’t take flight, at times. The film’s to-camera addresses are now pitched as urban hipster vlogs and have something of the Humans of New York photoblog about them (an account inspired, of course, by Lee and other New York auteurs). The needle drops are reliably excellent, however, as are the returning tracks. Lee treasures the music and honours it with album cover inserts between scenes, which gives the series the feel of a visual mixtape.
The series also adds a layer of overt metatextuality the film did without. While most of the characters’ movie references are simply postmodern quips, Nola also mentions Akira Kurosawa’s classic Rashomon, a film that inspired the original feature’s study of a central subject from a variety of subjective viewpoints. In the film, Lee replaced Rashomon’s focalising crime with a character (Nola), but he reintroduces that key element here. A crime is committed, but rather than dealing with witness accounts, Lee is more concerned with how the victim is treated.
This couldn’t be more timely, as accusations expose a swelling number of sexual abusers in Hollywood’s hallowed halls. Lee and his gender-balanced team of writers tackle the likes of victim-blaming head on, with Nola the fierce warrior artist at its centre. Superficial 21st-century updates are all here – hashtagged episode titles, emojis, Greer’s selfies – but this essential cultural discussion is the modernisation that ultimately justifies this remake, and hopefully the rest of the season continues to explore these issues.
She’s Gotta Have It brings another great American filmmaker to the small screen. Based on the opening three episodes, Lee hasn’t quite found his feet with the long-form format, but there are promising signs that the remaining episodes may turn this remake of his debut film into a vital update.
She’s Gotta Have It: Season 1 is available on Netflix UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription.