Spike Lee’s reimagining of his movie She’s Gotta Have It; as a television series premiers on Netflix on November 23rd and the question is: should you watch it?
Before I answer that, let me say that I’m pretty sure I’m the ideal audience for this show: I’ve seen the original movie; I’m a woman; I’m black; I’m sex positive; I like politics in my television shows; I binge watch Netflix like a good nerd.
That said, I’m not sure this show is worth the binge. Without spoilers, we can safely say that the series, as did the original movie, centers on Nola Darling played by DeWanda Wise.
The tension in the story focuses on how Nola navigates her sex/love life, her friendships, and her art—all of which are complicated. The men in her life, Jamie Overstreet, Greer Childs, and Mars Blackmon, are played by Lyriq Bent,Cleo Anthony, and Anthony Ramos respectively.
Her beaus are all drastically different. The upside to this is we get to see how Nola reacts to different displays of male affection and, more importantly, there is an opportunity to explain the varied ways in which masculinity is performed—and impacted by colorism, class, and “a sex-positive polyamorous pansexual” woman of color, as Nola describes herself.
But that exploration feels hamfisted. In my first attempt to binge it, I only made it through the first three episodes because it felt at times like a show written by my most lowkey problematic cis-hetero dude friend after he took a Womens Studies 101 course and decided that he “got” it. I know that’s harsh but the series asks a lot of questions that it does not or cannot answer. I say it felt forced because often Nola felt less like a character and more like a mouth piece for the writers. She had that I-was-written-by-people-who-don’t-identify-in-the-ways-I-do unbelievability about her. (Not at all unrelated, the character that felt the most authentic and seemed to give the actor room to shine was the Mars Blackmon character, played by Lee himself in the original.)
It’s not that I didn’t like the character or that the character was unlikable, but she felt forced… a lot. She was a vehicle to make a political statement or offer political commentary on the way black women are forced to navigate this world and suffer the layered oppressions of racism and sexism.
The thing is: I already know that. I already know that it’s hard AF being black. It’s hard AF being a woman. And being a black woman who attempts to exercise sexual agency? Well, that’s three strikes. What the episodes missed was nuance. The conversations operate on a very surface and expected level. For example, Nola gets upset because one of her suitors makes a comment about her wearing a dress and the attention she gets because she wears it. It’s so very “she asked for it” that it’s hard to take seriously. Later, and predictably, that same dress is used in an art piece in which she reclaims her self.
Other subjects are treated with the same blunt force. The group of Nola’s friend includes a white woman who is ridiculed (behind her back) for taking an Afro-Caribbean dance class. A white woman with a lapdog becomes the symbol of gentrification in an aggressive conflict-oriented way. A retail cashier follows black women around a store. Yes, these things happen. Yes, these are valid conversations to have. But, since we have been having them for a while, it’s not too much to expect that the conversations be complicated, and therefore deepened, in some way.
I will say that Lee maintains a lot of his signature moves as he shifts this story to the small screen. Most of it works. We get Lee’s familiar dolly shot monologue.
From the first monologue, delivered by Nola Darling/ DeWanda Wise, we know we’re dealing some serious #BlackGirlMagic meets Grown Folks Shit. Lee sets his intentions to tackle labels like “freak” and “sex addict” and, fine, we’re going to deal with respectability and sexual agency that black women are so often pushed towards and shamed away from respectively. But the omission of words like THOT make the series feel somewhat dated. Why are we revisiting this property if the conversation hasn’t or won’t evolve with the times? Why are we seeing Michele Obama as a part of this conversation but not Amber Rose? Perhaps that’s my largest complaint: this feels like an update that was meant to be released 10 years ago. The conversations about queerness, the gender spectrum, sexual agency, and ethical non-monogamy have largely moved past where the series picks them up.
Further, the conversation that the series attempts to have about (black) women’s bodies, the unreasonable and sometimes culturally specific beauty standards, the lengths woman go to achieve these goals, and the consequences—physical and emotion—is one we need to have, but the series veers into caricature and in that way lets the audience off the hook. The same can be said about double-standards for sexual behavior in gender, which in the series is presented in a very binary way. While queerness is explored, it’s superficial and could be omitted from the plot without impacting the outcome of this first season. Though there are hints that should there be a second season, it might make a more prominent appearance.
There are only 10 episodes so it’s definitely bingable, timewise, but I was hoping for the Women Studies level of wokeness in the series to at least be at a 201 level. If it’s not then the question becomes, is this woman who criticizes the male gaze constructed solely for it as a way to congratulate or educate? If so, what about the WOC who actually need to see a nuanced woman who exercises agency? When does that show premier?