Warning: This contains spoilers for She’s Gotta Have It: Season 1. Not caught up? Read our spoiler-free review of the opening three episodes.
November 8th, in da year of our lawd two thousand and sixteen: the day the world as we know it changed. And the moment Spike Lee’s new Netflix series She’s Gotta Have It starts to soar. Lee opens Episode 8 with a barnstorming update of his music video for Stew & The Negro Problem’s protest song “Klown Wit Da Nuclear Code”. He intensifies what was already a powerful montage with scenes of She’s Gotta Have It’s painfully human characters reacting to the news. If you watch just one sequence from She’s Gotta Have It, make it this one.
The moment comes as a surprise, because, despite the occasional mentions of Obama and a sneaky Fences reference, the show lulls the audience into thinking it’s set right now. The election adds a whole new dramatic layer. Rather than opening the first episode in Trump’s America, Lee establishes the old normal. We invest in that world, only for the characters’ lives to be turned upside down. For Spike Lee’s first post-Trump project to only dedicate a third of its running time to the impact of DT is a display of confidence and a delicious taster for a possible second season.
Lee’s musical experiments date back to a glorious dance sequence in the first incarnation of She’s Gotta Have It, his 1986 debut on which this 10-episode series is based. With a Dorothy-like click of her heels, Nola Darling revealed a candy-coloured dance sequence. The vibrant colour is there from the start, in the series, but Lee’s musicality is no less transcendent. There’s an operatic feel to the series that has been a mainstay of Lee’s best work all the way up to 2015’s masterful Chi-Raq. She’s Gotta Have It doesn’t go full iambic pentameter, but there’s a rhythm to the delivery that’s unmistakably lyrical.
The sexual assault that closes the first episode is just the first in a long line of dramatic triggers. Over this 10-episode run, a relevant-as-ever Lee tackles the likes of racial slurs, “reverse racism”, slut shaming, mansplaining, safe spaces and police prejudice. However, the issue filmmaking is never at the sacrifice of his characters. Episode 4 is a quiet standout. After the first act of the opening three episodes, Nola (DeWanda Wise) escapes the drama and closes her “loving bed” to men – notably, Jamie (Lyriq Bent), Greer (Cleo Anthony) and Mars (Anthony Ramos). She instead opts to spend her time with Opal (a wonderfully composed Ilfenesh Hadera). This is an early example of Lee warming with the time afforded to him by television. Away from a feature’s two-hour blast, Lee softens his manic urgency somewhat and is free to explore life-affirming corners away from obvious cinematic provocation.
Lee’s direction grows with confidence as the season progresses and he begins to play with alternative forms of address. Jamie’s bar scene dream sequence at the end of Episode 7 is a wonderfully self-contained and audacious piece of storytelling. As is Nola’s moving “In Memoriam” walk around the cemeteries of New York to open Episode 9. Even moments as small as a shared embrace are elevated by directorial detail. Lee shoots hugs like explosions in an 80s action movie. He’ll shoot the same embrace from two angles and play out the moment from one perspective, before cutting to the second camera position and replaying the hug. It subverts cinematic realism but feels so right; these shared moments linger like the warmth of a real embrace.
Lee reimagines the film’s iconic Thanksgiving dinner scene as a perfect end to the season, complete with a toe-tapping dance sequence. He’s also found himself a powerhouse lead in Wise and she proves herself beyond a shadow of a doubt. “Who is she?” demands Jamie’s (quasi-ex) wife. Why, she’s Nola Darling, and she’s stolen all of our hearts. Netflix’s filmmaker freedom has never felt quite so good. She’s Gotta Have It is all Spike Lee and it’s glorious.
She’s Gotta Have It: Season 1 and 2 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.