Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It is back on Netflix for a second season starting Friday, May 24th. Once again, we’re following the life, love, and art of Nola Darling (played by DeWanda Wise). This season is only 9 episodes long and could be finished in an afternoon binge, but it might be hard. Full disclosure: I was not a fan of the first season, but I wanted to give the show another try. It promises sex positivity, Blackness, and politics and that’s my favorite song.
But Does It Bop?
I got through all nine episodes, but I was left with a lot of unanswered questions. Without any major spoilers, it’s hard to fully explain what I mean. Generally, I’ll say that a lot of the time the characters’ motivations were a mystery to me. Someone has an impulse, acts on that impulse, and then we never hear about that action —- or its repercussions -— again. It’s hard to root for someone when you don’t understand how or why they’re doing what they’re doing. Furthermore, how can characters grow if their actions have no real consequences?
It’s particularly disconcerting when these are characters we know and they are characters we know: Nola’s season 1 romantic interests Jamie Overstreet, Greer Childs, Mars Blackmon, and Opal (played by Lyriq Bent,Cleo Anthony, Anthony Ramos, and Ilfenesh Hadera respectively) return; her best friend, Shemekka (Chyna Lane); her manager and friend Clorinda (Margot Bingham); her neighbor Papo (Elvis Nolasco); and her parents Stokes and Septima (Thomas Jefferson Byrd and Joie Lee). Hell, even Raqueletta Moss (De’Adre Aziza), Nola’s former boss who has one of the standout moments in Season One manages to reappear.
I think that’s partly where Season Two loses me. At times, the show seems to want to be an ensemble, but never makes it there. Each of these characters introduces someone new to the story to the point that the narrative feels crowded. Added to that, characters we already know like Skylar and Virgil have expanded roles. Yes, we learn more about these characters, but they are stage pieces for Nola Darling’s voyage of self-discovery (neither of which goes anywhere).
Now seems like a good time to discuss the dialogue. Skylar and Virgil are both young enough to need an adult to pick them up from school, but somehow transform into 45-year-old therapists in select conversations with adults. I get that “out of the mouth of babes…” but no, not like this. While we’re on tropes that I wish would die in a fire: Every time women get together, they do not sit around in a semi-circle, discuss, and judge each other’s sex life. That’s what the no-eye-contact group chat is for, but here we are at Nola’s apartment trapped in a cliché. I guess I should be thankful they didn’t have an impromptu pillow fight.
At times, I did enjoy the ‘documentary’ feel that I’ve grown accustomed to from Lee’s work. Here we get the signature photo stills that set the mood, the tone, and — in a show about an artist — the standard. Lee interjects the album covers from the soundtrack in between scenes in a way that feels intimate and important. It’s easy to forget that these sounds and songs are themselves art worth noting (and purchasing). These interjections work really well.
The documentary style could be frustrating as well. Mild spoilers: Esteemed artists Carrie Mae Weems and Amy Sherald make an appearance in an episode. Weems speaks directly to the camera just like almost everyone in this show does at some point. She is far more interesting than the characters in the show, however, and I ended up just youtubing a talk she gave so I could hear more of her.
Nola is an artist, but she doesn’t change. Any maturation during Season 2 is questionable. Some of it comes as a result of unearned epiphany, some (like her faltering relationship with Clorinda) is earned. Without repercussions, however, it feels hollow. The thread of their strained relationship is present throughout most of the season, maintaining its relevance among the disjointedness of episodes. Resolution comes too fast and too easy to be believable for the story, though.
Surface Relationships Don’t
My biggest critique is the way Nola’s queerness is handled. Again, mild spoilers for the first two episodes: It’s 18 months since season 1. Nola and Opal have been in a committed relationship this whole time. They’re in love, happy, and cute. All of this happens off-screen, except for the sex scene (there are several graphic and entirely unnecessary sex scenes this season). The intersections of her Black queer woman-ness are mentioned, but we barely see her pursue or be pursued by anyone besides cis dudes. She says offhandedly that women are attractive, but so do most women I know (regardless of who, if anyone, they welcome into their beds). Opal is Nola’s romantic partner long enough to bridge the time between the seasons, set up Nola as capable of monogamy, and then break up. As in Season One, Opal and Nola’s sexual/romantic interest is treated as disposable.
The positivity I choose to take away from this season are the questions that Lee and the writers attempt to tackle about art: about its potential to harm or heal communities (sometimes, both). These questions are large and hyper-relevant in a world where making and uploading art is as easy as having internet access (waves in the key of grateful at libraries and librarians who offer services way beyond borrowing books).
Overall, these new episodes of She’s Gotta Have It are better than Season One. They offer up an amazing soundtrack and raise important questions. If only the show was capable of delivering on its promise.