Spike Lee’s groundbreaking first film, 1986’s She’s Gotta Have It, proved big enough for the big screen, but TV is another matter entirely. The interview-based examination of a woman — Nola Darling — and her relationships with her three male lovers, as well as the few friends that satellite her, is perfect for an 84-minute night at the movies. But there’s not enough character depth to sustain more than five hours of TV.
That’s why, when Lee was considering turning She’s Gotta Have It into a Netflix TV series, he decided to remix it with the express intention of growing out his Brooklyn universe. “It’s up to [Netflix]. I hope to see two or more [seasons],” Lee said during a roundtable discussion in mid-November. “I never had the mindset this was going to be a one-and-done thing.”
The soul of the Netflix series is still the film’s dramatic discourse, but now it has a quicker, comedic heartbeat. Nola is now played by DeWanda Wise, who is able to balance sass, humility, goofiness, intellect, and sexual allure — sometimes all in the same scene — to mesmerizing results. Lee directed all 10 episodes of the first season, and each feels like a mini-movie.
Lee, along with Wise and She’s Gotta Have It executive producer Tonya Lewis Lee, Lee’s wife, discussed the upcoming Netflix series to talk about the series escaping the male gaze, how it was made for Netflix but not your phone, and much more.
Spike Lee and Chill
“The great thing about Netflix is there wasn’t a time limit,” Lee said, likening the lack of time constraints to a wider canvas for him to flesh his characters out on. “I don’t remember Nola doing any art in the film. There’s a mural behind her the first time Mars comes into her apartment, but other than that, you don’t see her being an artist,” Lee said. “In this one, there’s struggle.”
Nola being an artist in the TV series leads her to a feminist street art campaign, art teacher gig, and being arrested. Besides fleshing out main characters from the film, Lee also introduced new ones to stretch the She’s Gotta Have It world far enough to cover 10 episodes — at least. Shemekka Epps (played by Chyna Lane) and Raqueletta Moss (De’Adre Aziza) are among the new characters, and they carry the emotional core of two of the most riveting story arcs of the entire season, which would have never existed in the film.
Directing every episode of your first TV series would be a daunting undertaking for most filmmakers, but not Lee. “It wasn’t hard,” Lee says with the languid disposition of a seasoned TV showrunner. “I never approached it as TV. I was just making a long movie.” Lee said he filmed the series with a cinematic feel, and “if people want to watch it [on their phones], they’re missing out.”
Lee’s adherence to traditional movie viewing is shared by fellow legendary filmmakers such as Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino. “I like something hard and tangible in my hand. And I can’t watch a movie on a laptop. I don’t use Netflix at all,” Tarantino said in a 2015 interview. When I asked Lee if he shared Tarantino’s position on Netflix, he was more than eager to set the record straight. “I don’t think Mr. Tarantino is the knower of all,” Lee said with a hearty chuckle. “So, we can take what he says with a pinch of salt.”
Tarantino’s insights may have fallen on deaf ears, but a central reason why She’s Gotta Have It succeeds as a TV show is because of all of the outside opinions Lee allows to guide the series.
She’s Still Gotta Have It
As beloved as the original She’s Gotta Have It is, a prevailing critique of the film was the fact that a woman’s story was largely told by men. “We didn’t want to be hit with the ‘this whole thing is told through the male gaze,’” Lee said. “The original film was, because I wrote it. I directed and I was in it. This is totally different.”
For the Netflix series, Lee only wrote the season premiere and finale, with six of the 10 episodes written by accomplished black women writers such as House of Cards regular Eisa Davis, and Radha Blank. This infusion of predominantly black female voices catalyzed the series’ venture into topics seldom discussed on TV. Gentrification in Brooklyn, life-threatening butt injections, and body shaming are a few of the issues explored in the Netflix series that expands the original film’s scope while maintaining its core examination of the black experience.
There were some growing pains involved with trying to expand the original film. “It did get a little intense, because men don’t know what they don’t know, and sometimes they don’t even understand it when you explain it to them,” Lewis Lee said about the She’s Gotta Have It writer’s room.
In the fourth episode, Nola stumbles home drunk after she is forcibly grabbed on the street in an earlier episode. Lewis Lee says that was a point of contention for her and Lee. “As a woman, when you’ve been vulnerable like that, you tend to be more aware of yourself,” Lewis Lee said before Wise interjected with “you sober up real quick.” According to Lewis Lee, “that was one point that we had to work on.”
Lead actress Wise also recalled a scene Lee envisioned where Nola talks back to those who incessantly harass her on the street. In Nola’s typical in-your-face fashion, Wise informed Lee about why that’s not realistic. “No one does thaaaaaaaaaat. No one wants to get punched in the face.”
The Next Spike Lee Joint
She’s Gotta Have It could be the launching pad for Lee to take more of his films to the small screen.
My next thing, it’s not going to be no movies, but I have to find time to do School Daze on Broadway,” Lee says. The prolific director, who directed a film of the Broadway play Passing Strange in 2009, has had a School Daze sequel script for years.
His wife thinks he should turn his epochal 1989 film Do The Right Thing into a Broadway play next. The suggestion almost immediately inspires the 60-year-old filmmaker to harmonize, “Sal, put some brothers on that motherfucking wall,” referencing one of the film’s most memorable scenes. By the sound of it, the next time you see another Spike Lee Joint, you’re likely to be singing along.
By turning She’s Gotta Have It into one of the most engaging TV series of the year, on his first try, Lee proves that no matter where or how you see one of his creations, they will always be recognizably a Spike Lee Joint. Now, let’s hope Netflix opens up its $8 billion a bit to make Lee’s vision of multiple She’s Gotta Have It seasons a reality.
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