Thirty-one years later, the Brooklyn of Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It” is unrecognizable. In the film, which is almost entirely shot in black and white, Fort Greene is poised on the edge of a gentrification boom that would turn an impoverished, black neighborhood of Brooklyn into one of the epicenters of post-millennium yuppie Brooklyn. In the film’s one color sequence, the Prison Ship Martyr’s Monument at the center of Fort Greene Park is tagged with graffiti — a sight that is unfathomable now, unless it was a particularly cool and arty kind of graffiti.
Brooklyn has changed, but that film’s resonance hasn’t; if anything, as the rest of the world has caught up to the radical independence of Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns in the film; DeWanda Wise in the Netflix series), her quest to live free, bold, and unencumbered as a black woman feels more relevant than ever. The 1986 film climaxes on a brutal scene, before depicting a Nola that goes on to live her unattached, artistic existence with or without the men who try to keep up with her. The 2017 series introduces a millennial Nola Darling, with the same three lovers and the same refusal to be tied down.
But thanks to changing times, many of her other concerns are different. In 1986, Nola never worried about rent; in 2017, staring down encroaching hipsters, she’s struggling to make ends meet every month. Wise’s Nola describes herself as queer and polyamorous; she knows her lexicon and her rights, and she engages with her own struggle through both articulated ideals and an enveloping, progressive art scene. In a hilarious early moment, she shies away from therapy, but throws herself into psychic consultations and spiritual healing with the kooky dedication of an arty bohemian. Nola is wearing a $500 dress and worried about her electricity being turned off; she is on friendly terms with both the homeless black man on her steps and the new white homeowner next door. She is smoking joints in bed and staggering home drunk and crying during an especially transporting orgasm; she is very, very Brooklyn.
For Lee, who founded his production company 40 Acres and a Mule in Fort Greene, the Netflix retelling of “She’s Gotta Have It” is an opportunity to return his lens back to the neighborhood he knows and has chronicled so well. It’s joyful, in a way, to discover Brooklyn the way Lee sees it; he finds a visual language for the borough that brings together the sometimes painful history of black communities in Brooklyn with the plate-glass leading edge of hipster money. Nola, a portrait artist, is beholden to both worlds — she grew up in one, and attempts to sell her work to the other.
Nola’s story is simple enough: She is trying to do exactly what she wants, exactly when she wants. She wants to date three men at the same time, but in their own ways, Greer (Cleo Anthony), Jaime (Lyriq Bent), and Mars (Anthony Ramos) hold her back. (And though their mannered, stereotypical poses are sometimes irritating, it’s even less interesting when they’re given backstory; only Nola, and her gravitational pull, really feel vital to the plot.) The bewitching thing about “She’s Gotta Have It” — show and film — is how simple Nola’s desire ought to be, and yet how complex and even dangerous it becomes. Even in the show’s richly evoked modern Brooklyn, arguably one of the most progressive spaces in the world, Nola’s life in the city is a frustrating maze of obstacles and barriers. In an early episode, Nola buys a short, tight black dress to embrace her own allure. But every man she meets has something to say about it; despite the reality that she should feel safe wearing it, the gazes of men seek to take something from her.
The new “She’s Gotta Have It” is smart, refreshing, and trenchant in some specific ways. Lee, who directs all 10 episodes, is well able to create memorable and even stunning set pieces throughout the season. But for viewers familiar with Lee’s work, too-familiar themes dominate the plotting. The middle of the season suffers from a few splashy subplots that feel like updates of Lee’s “Bamboozled,” including one gross-out gag involving filler injections for butts. And compared to the gorgeously filmed and scintillating movie, Netflix’s “She’s Gotta Have It” is just a mediocre rehash of the same storytelling. Even with Lee’s directorial skill, there’s something almost mediocre about the reboot; his style has become so iconic — and has been so thoroughly imitated — that his signature style feels less like his muscular vision and instead another attempt to be like Spike Lee. It’s hard not to think of Justin Simien’s “Dear White People,” or Issa Rae and Prentice Penny’s “Insecure,” which similarly follow young black women in a jagged but enticing world. “She’s Gotta Have It’s” attempts to be contemporary are often a bit laughable, too: For some reason, every episode title is presented as a hashtag, even though the characters (bizarrely) never use social media. It’s difficult to imagine a bevy of millennials in Brooklyn without even one Instagram account among them.
Netflix’s “She’s Gotta Have It” seems like Lee’s attempt to retell the story of Nola Darling in a way that gives her more of a chance to take up space; with 10 episodes instead of just 90 minutes (and, of course, the possibility of more seasons), the show becomes what Nola’s artwork is about — an unapologetic black female body moving through the world. In both the film and the show, Nola demands freedom. In the show, though, Nola seems to be steadily approaching that glorious openness — more so than the film’s Nola, whose independence is consigned to a post-assault epilogue. The new version of this story is much more optimistic. While several scenes in the show echo the film almost exactly, the Thanksgiving scene takes quite a different — and more fabulous! — turn, into a minutes-long vision of a world where desire is unyoked from possession. “She’s Gotta Have It” presents a world just a few decades later where Nola can, will, and does get the life she yearns for, even if the men around her are figuring out how to come to terms with it. Spike Lee is optimistic about the future of Brooklyn; with “She’s Gotta Have It,” he’s all but saying that future is female.