RECOMMENDED: "SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT" ON NETFLIX
Fort Greene, Brooklyn has changed a great deal since Spike Lee first depicted it in 1986's "She's Gotta Have It," his debut film. In many ways, the Netflix series rebooting Lee's breakthrough hit is about the nature of these changes. This time around, fiercely independent Nola Darling doesn't just struggle against the expectations and limitations of the men in her life, but the gentrification of her neighborhood and constant cultural attempts to co-opt her identity. It's not a coincidence that, in the original film, Nola's artistic ambitions take a backseat, while they become a key part of the Netflix show's narrative. It's been 30 years and the scope of Lee's vision has expanded over time.
He's also found a superlative new Nola in actress DeWanda Wise, the singular voice around which these 10 episodes pivot. Nola has about 5 times more dialogue than any other character in "She's Gotta Have It," much of it delivered straight to camera as part of Lee's singular, confrontational style. There's not a ton of plot driving "She's Gotta Have It," particularly when compared to other binge-happy Netflix content. If viewers are going to stay tuned for the first season's full 5 hour runtime, it will be because of Wise's confident delivery and energy. Even when she's not speaking, this Nola is thinking and puzzling things out and making bold decisions; it's all in the eyes.
Like the film, Nola starts off the series splitting focus between her art and the three men in her life. Lyriq Bent takes over the role of the wealthy (and married) Jamie Overstreet, Cleo Anthony plays the narcissistic photographer Greer Childs and, in a daring performance that I sense a lot of agents probably would have steered clients away from, Anthony Ramos steps in to the Mars Blackmon role. This was, of course, a character made not just famous but iconic in the 1980s by Spike Lee himself. ("It's gotta be the shoes!")
The new series has transformed Mars into a half-black/half-Puerto Rican hipster (he's still a motormouth), and Ramos dives in to the recreation and never looks back. He mostly pulls it off (even when recalling the "please baby baby please baby" bit from the movie), but modeling so much of his look and personal style on the original Mars may be more distracting than completely reinventing the guy from the ground up. Still, it's bold, and you have to respect the generosity of Lee turning over the bit that made him famous to another performer.
A few more quick pieces of praise for Spike Lee, who directs every episode of the series, and his team.
- He doesn't really treat this like TV. Episodes have their own structure, but there's a looseness to the storytelling that more closely resembles a Spike Lee film, especially a later, more experimental Spike Lee film. The show's visually dynamic, and Lee takes full advantage of the freedom allowed by Netflix. If he wants to pause the story for a bit and take in a burlesque performance, or cut away to a montage of Nola trying out questionable holistic medicine purveyors, he goes for it. It's refreshing.
- Nola is a film buff, and usually when characters on TV drop a lot of movie references, they're either show-off obscure or thuddingly obvious to everyone. But Lee, a cinephile himself, consistently nails these interludes. Nola sounds like a real film geek. And the brazenness of having characters debate the Oscar-worthiness of your OWN movies in the PILOT for your Netflix show! That's why he's Spike Lee.
- Lee directs, but he brought in a number of women writers to work on the individual episodes, and what a revelation it is. The series tackles a lot of Hot Button 2017 Issues - from catcalling to sexual assault to representation in art to surgical enhancement - but never feels like an After-School Special or a Very Special Episode, and there's a directness and an honesty and an anger to the series that's unlike anything else on TV right now. It doesn't sound, and I recognize I'm a white guy saying this, but it doesn't sound like it was written by a well-intentional male writer approximating how women might discuss these topics, and then congratulating himself afterwards. Even in 2017, that's still kind of a big deal.
Title: "She's Gotta Have It"
Where to Watch: Netflix
Episodes: 10 (1 season)
Running time: About 30 minutes each