Does She's Gotta Have It Live Up to Its Promise?
Four Atlantic writers discuss the Netflix adaptation of Spike Lee’s 1986 film, and the ways the series exceeds and falls short of its potential.
In his 1986 film She’s Gotta Have It, Spike Lee imagined the life of a fictional young, independent, polyamorous, black woman living in Brooklyn and trying to navigate relationships, work, and adult life on her own terms. Now, more than 30 years later, Lee has rebooted the story as a 10-episode series for Netflix. The plot follows the original movie closely, centering on Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise) and her three male partners, Jamie Overstreet (Lyriq Bent); Greer Childs (Cleo Anthony); and Mars Blackmon (Anthony Ramos).
More than a reflection on a woman and her romantic conquests, the original She’s Gotta Have It helped to expand the way audiences saw black female autonomy and sexuality. The Atlantic’s Adrienne Green, Brentin Mock, Adam Serwer, and Gillian White discuss whether Nola Darling’s character still feels groundbreaking today, how the reboot tackles sexual harassment and abuse, and why the series might have been better off with no male characters.
Gillian B. White: I’ll start by saying that I was frustrated with how inconsistent Nola Darling’s character was from episode to episode—and sometimes from moment to moment. She’s at once depicted as a mature, self-confident artist, and also as a needy, childish, scattered young woman. It’s not that she can’t embody characteristics from both ends of this spectrum; it’s that she vacillates so wildly between the two. It’s jarring to watch and doesn’t make sense given the show is about her trying to live life on her own terms, and to encourage others to do the same.
Brentin Mock: Is this not your typical millennial? Seriously, though, I noticed her split personalities as well, but I didn’t think it worked against Darling in the show. She is quite complicated, but I didn’t feel the need for a tighter construction of her character. If this show runs for multiple seasons, I’m guessing there will be more time for Darling to work out some of her inconsistencies.
Adrienne Green: I’d argue that her alternating personas are the only thing that makes the new Darling relatable, even if she’s annoying at times. In the show she’s 27, and it felt exciting to see a young black woman who’s invested in (and struggling to maintain) her autonomy, who’s vocal about her politics even as they’re evolving, and who’s honest with others (but not wholly with herself) about her imperfections. She’s got three men, at least three jobs, overdue rent, and she feels both shame about borrowing money from her parents and gratitude for their support. As an artist, she thinks she has an articulate vision for her work, but her personal life is unspooling in possibly too many directions. As someone also in her mid-20s, I see the emotional and interpersonal balancing act. But in trying to encompass all these multitudes within her character, the show didn’t allow Darling to have the graceful moments that other, and I would argue better, shows do for their messy female protagonists.
Adam Serwer: I found DeWanda Wise compelling as an actress, and she did a great job with a text that I think was hard to make work in front of a camera (the incredibly awkward Black Lives Matter reference that ends the first episode for example). There’s also the magic-headwrap scene, where Wise emotes at the camera as her headwrap changes from red to white and lyrics from the song in the background appear on screen. I had no idea what was happening there. After a few minutes I just fast-forwarded through it. Other scenes I fast-forwarded through out of second-hand embarrassment: the election montage with floating lyrics, the aftermath of the butt-implant explosion.
Green: I skipped through all of the headwrap scene and most of the scene where Darling spends January 1 taking a tour through the graveyards of New York. What started as an homage to notable poets, artists, and musicians who are buried there turned pretty quickly into one of those “gone too soon” tributes at the end of a televised award show. Much respect to James Baldwin et. al., but the show never connected it to the plot about She’s Gotta Have It’s fictional Brooklyn artists and, like Gillian said, was another example of the show’s lack of attention to pacing.
White: One thing that gets lost in this update is that, since the introduction of Darling in the 1986 movie, the concept of a sex-positive, strong-willed, independent (or trying to be) woman has become more of a norm in pop culture. There are so many successful iterations of this archetype in recent TV that have been more elegantly developed and allowed more nuance. The first that comes to mind are Issa Rae’s characters in her HBO show Insecure.
Part of the revolution of modern female characters involves dismantling this idea of “likability.” She’s Gotta Have It succeeds there; at times Darling is definitely not likable. But the show makes it seem as though any criticisms of Darling are due to the fact that she embraces her sexuality and has multiple partners—and I don’t really buy it. Some of the discontinuity in Darling’s storyline feels like a failure to successfully imagine the inner motivations, ideas, and emotions of a modern young woman. Part of the flaw here is that Lee’s relying too heavily on the framework he created for the character three decades ago.
Green: Yes, Gillian! Darling calls the men in her life out for thinking they know the “real her” when they’re only dating their own contrived visions of her. The irony is, Darling ends up coming off like a middle-aged man’s off-pitch interpretation of a millennial black feminist. The way she lists her rules of engagement—only sex in her “loving bed,” seeing each man no more than twice a week and never two in one day, etc.—gives an impression that she’s playing for sport instead of living in the liberation she tells others about.
She breaks the fourth wall in many uncomfortable monologues throughout the season, which I’d hoped would be a vehicle to get inside her head; but like most of the women in the show, Darling never becomes fully three-dimensional. It’s not surprising then, that in a show mainly about juggling three men, the only dialogue that has depth and advances the storyline comes from Darling’s interactions with the other women in the show: her three girlfriends, a woman that she’s also seeing (Opal), and her therapist.
Mock: I remember the first time I saw the original movie and how it blew my mind. I didn’t see it when it first came out in 1986. I saw it in ’89 or 1990, after I saw Do the Right Thing, which made me want to find anything else Lee had done, besides the Jordan commercials and the Anita Baker video. But, yeah, I think we forget how revolutionary Darling’s character was—not as a black character, but just as a character, period. At that age, I had no ideas about the sexual agency of women, or what polyamory was; these terms weren’t part of the mainstream lexicon.
Remember, misogyny was on the come up during that era of hip hop (’86 to ’91) . Many of the guys I grew up with were heavily influenced by rappers like Too Short, Big Daddy Kane, LL Cool J, N.W.A., and 2 Live Crew, which is to say we were getting a pretty unhealthy education about male-female relationships. I loved how Lee flipped that entire dynamic on its head with She’s Gotta Have It, and we needed to see that. But to your point, Gillian, I’m not sure the TV series did much to advance contemporary ideas about the relationships explored in the ’86 movie. I think that’s why Lee felt the need to flesh out the narrative with this whole gentrification thread.
White: Definitely. Part of the problem is that what made Darling such an innovative character in the 1980s isn’t what makes her so compelling now. And I fully agree with you, Adrienne: The moments where we see Darling undergoing the most growth and becoming most self-aware are all related to women. In addition to Opal, and her therapist, I’d add her boss, Raqueletta Moss to the mix.
Serwer: To go off your points about Insecure, Gillian and Adrienne, one of Spike’s issues here is that the artists he helped influence are actually better at this now than he is. Which is what’s supposed to happen! Even if it’s not something Spike would like to hear.
White: I think that’s exactly right.
Serwer: I found myself most roped in when the show was lingering on Darling and her issues in the art world (the satire of which is funny and brutal), and less so when it was focusing on the love triangle (rectangle?) the original film was centered on. Of her suitors, I found Mars Blackmon the most likable and relatable, in part because he feels like the underdog in a situation that involves a wealthy Wall Street type and a French-speaking model. Also, Anthony Ramos is really good at inhabiting the character.
White: I was scared about how the character of Mars (originally played by Lee) would translate, but in the end he was one of the highlights of the show and unquestionably the male suitor who was best folded into the present day. Ramos did such a fantastic job of keeping Mars’s spirit of absurdity and geekiness while making him feel fresh and original. As for the other suitors, I found Greer and Jamie difficult to stomach—and not just because they’re supposed to be obnoxious. Both characters seem to be relics of the 1980s in dress, in attitude, and in their assumptions about their place in society, and Darling’s.
In a world where talking, hanging out, and hooking up are all far more common in your early 20s (especially in big cities), the idea that Greer and Jamie would spend so much of their time inquiring about the other men Darling is dating feels a little unbelievable. Also the types of men that Jamie and Greer are meant to portray—generalized archetypes of a desirable guy—don’t even work for the present moment. Jamie’s stuffy, wealthy, older, finance-dad vibe, and certainly Greer’s light-skinned, light-eyed, cultured, model vibe went out of style in the ’90s, and they should’ve been left there.
Serwer: Greer and Jamie are really insufferable, and more than Mars, they’re stereotypes: The first suitor is a project kid-gone-Wall Street who still has ties to the drug game (slash a cheating husband in a midlife crisis). The second is a tragic mulatto who literally has a line about how he doesn’t want to choose between one identity or the other. That stuff was played out when I was a teenager. I wonder, Gillian, if the characters simply weren’t rescuable from the time and place they were created (and maybe Mars was, in part because if anything, black geeks are more visible in pop culture now than they used to be). Also light-skinned men are definitely not out of style, shout out to my Blewish brother Drake (or is he canceled? I’m old and can’t keep track).
Mock: As Adrienne said, it was the scenes shared between the women that were most rich. I honestly could have taken a She’s Gotta Have It sans the male characters from the original altogether—maybe keep Mars Blackmon, but only because he’s so iconic. It is weird, though, that for a movie/TV show that is supposed to be essentially about a woman, the character it’s most remembered for is a guy, Mars Blackmon. He’s the only character who has benefited from the marketing of the movie over the past few decades. We didn’t even know where Tracy Camilla Johns (the original Nola Darling) disappeared to, until she made that cameo in the new version.
Of course, there’s the theory that none of these characters are to be taken as literal people, but rather as the multiple shades of Brooklyn. The male characters could be seen as metaphors for the parts of Brooklyn that aspire toward Manhattan-like wealth and prestige (Jamie), the parts that are straight blacktops and hip hop (Mars), and the parts that are that whole metro-self-fellatio-sexual part of NYC that really began blossoming in the ’80s (Greer).
White: For sure, but I’d argue those aren’t even representative of Brooklyn in this moment. Brooklyn is not the Brooklyn of the ’80s or ’90s (so Lee keeps reminding us).
Mock: On another note, I’m thankful that they got rid of the rape scene from the movie. I think the transition to dealing with sexual harassment and assault in the streets was the show’s strongest material, especially as it bled into Darling’s art work, which helped solve some of her financial problems. The personal became political then became personal again.
Serwer: I think part of the reason why that subplot is so strong is that it’s based on a work called Stop Telling Women to Smile by the artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, who was also a consultant on the show. Fazlalizadeh put up a series of posters around Brooklyn with similar anti–street harassment messages she drew from women she interviewed about their experiences.
Green: Spike’s long talked about regretting that rape scene (and as recently as November). I agree, Brentin, that the show did a really good job of making sexual trauma an undercurrent without visually exploiting female characters—from the street-art campaign to Darling’s art student replacing Lil’ Kim with herself on the Hard Core album cover for a school assignment. With the “free black female form” as its thematic throughline, the show subtly deals with sex and trauma, complicating the idea of autonomy and who has access to it.
White: I think that the use of Raqueletta Moss, and her story of abuse as a child and how she overcame it, was a clever way to explicitly deal with the subject without, as Adrienne suggested, having to resort to exploitative rape scenes. Also, Moss’s decision to take Darling on as a mentee, despite having witnessed her immaturity at work, was one of my favorite developments. That relationship, between those two black women, felt organic and important.
Serwer: I liked the Moss character in part because I can remember teachers pulling me aside and giving me that kind of blunt real-talk lecture about how bad life can get, in order to keep you from dealing with things they had to deal with or saw other people deal with. The character’s past isn’t what you’d call original, but again it’s rescued by a strong performance by the actress, De’Adre Aziza.
White: Before we wrap this, we need to talk about that wild butt-implant narrative involving one of Darling’s closest friends, Shemekka. This storyline was alternately framed as a comedy and a serious commentary on the way society values women. But ultimately I thought it presented some pretty major problems for the plot and the show’s portrayal of women.
Mock: I’m not quite sure what they were going for with that thread. It felt like something that got cut from Chi-Raq.
Serwer: Congratulations to Spike for introducing a new narrative device: Chekhov’s Butt Implants.
Green: Shemekka’s storyline, and generally the sweeping nature of Darling’s female friendships, is one of the biggest misses of the show. We went from revealing clothing and little black dresses to Darling resisting being seen as an object for male consumption to … ass injections.
Mock: They could have used Cardi B as a consultant. Also, has anyone missed the irony that Lee went from objectifying Da Butt to scolding Da Butt?
Serwer: The whole Shemekka plotline very much felt like a hotep lecture to women on what they should do with their bodies.
White: What made it worse was that the resolution (the explosion itself) was a weird attempt at physical comedy that then veered into a life-threatening and supposedly poignant reunion between Darling and her friend.
Serwer: And despite the doubtlessly expensive emergency care Shemekka receives after her implants explode, the way she deals with that part of the story line is waved off, because all they cared about was the punchline. That’s a strange choice given that half the show is about the precarious financial circumstances of Fort Greene’s black residents in the shadow of gentrification.
White: Adam, I think that dissonance you just mentioned helps to illuminate one of Lee’s mistakes in updating this story. So much time is spent exploring some of the original themes and tenets of the film, and how they fit into the present day, that the series misses plenty of new chances to advance the current conversation about black womanhood, sexuality, gentrification, power, and community in a deeply meaningful way. And that’s a shame, because the moment is ripe for a truly innovative look at all those issues, no less from an artist like Lee.