'She's Gotta Have It' is a great-looking Spike Lee production

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
DeWanda Wise in She’s Gotta Have It. (Photo: Netflix)

The TV version of Spike Lee’s 1986 feature-film debut, She’s Gotta Have It, premiered over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend on Netflix. Its 10 episodes follow the life and career of Nola Darling, a painter, teacher, and well-rounded woman living in Brooklyn and played by DeWanda Wise. The role is a huge one for Wise, since Lee directed all of the first season’s episodes and he places Nola at the center of his story, and as often as not, in the center of his camera frame, making her the constant focus of our attention.

We watch Nola at home at her easel, painting large canvases, most often portraits of people she asks to pose for her. We watch Nola with the men in her life, her three primary boyfriends: photographer Greer (Cleo Anthony), businessman Jamie (Lyriq Bent), and bike messenger Mars (Anthony Ramos) — that last an update of the character Lee himself played in the original film. Spike Lee makes a great effort to assure his audience that Nola’s work is as important as the men — that she’s an independent 21st-century woman in every way. When the proceedings are moving along at a brisk pace, that effort is exhilarating. When the show stops to teach us lessons — about feminism, about civil rights, about the history of cinema, art, literature, or music — that effort can feel laborious.

The new She’s Gotta Have It is much more progressive in its sexual politics than the 1986 original was, and Lee’s feature-film visual style feels like a sumptuous treat when viewing Netflix on your laptop or TV screen. The rich colors, the gorgeous shots of New York City, the meticulously balanced compositions in nearly every frame — it’s always a pleasure to watch a “Spike Lee joint,” and the director has spared no effort in his move to a streaming service. But in moving to a different medium, Lee is also open to new comparisons. For example, She’s Gotta’s portrayal of a talented but struggling young black woman raises inevitable comparisons to Insecure, Issa Rae’s HBO series about a woman in similar circumstances, and Lee’s show isn’t nearly as funny as Rae’s show is. Lee and his writers have a tendency to cram the dialogue with cultural references that give some conversations a stilted sensation. Nola educates her boyfriends — and by extension, us — about creators she admires. (In the first episode, she has a monologue about how Denzel Washington was robbed of an Oscar for his portrayal of Malcolm X over Al Pacino’s performance in Scent of a Woman; it feels more like score-settling than natural speech.)

She’s Gotta Have It has a number of continuing storylines, but each episode also feels like a self-contained presentation. As such, it’s both binge-able yet also easy to consume one bite at a time. How involved you become in the show depends on how much you’re beguiled by Wise’s charming performance and her character’s informative dialogue.

She’s Gotta Have It is streaming now on Netflix.

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