It’s sad because Spike Lee’s TV reboot really should be good but unfortunately, it misses the benchmark that it set for itself
Any critique of the new She’s Gotta Have It show should acknowledge that the original movie is the biggest regret of Spike Lee’s career. Nola Darling and her insatiable sexual appetite for men and women was a forward-thinking premise but one lingering detail ate away at the filmmaker. When asked about his biggest regrets from his impressive career Lee, now 60-years-old, has one: “The rape scene in She’s Gotta Have It”.
In the original, Jamie Overstreet, one of Nola’s lovers, grows frustrated at her lack of commitment and overpowers her in her own home, asking her if he’s as good as her other lovers. She is punished for her sexual freedom, dumps the other men for her rapist, before cheating on him with other men – all in the name of trying to convey that monogamy is slavery. It’s a reach.
Keen to put right his past wrongs, the new series is his way of updating the story so that it resonates today. But herein lies one of the biggest problems with the series: it’s going backwards in order to move the conversation forward. At times it feels like it is playing catch up – especially since it is literally set in 2016.
This could and should have been good but, ultimately, there are too many holes, too many monologues and too many things for me to get over for me to actually enjoy it. Like the original, it had all the ingredients to be a good show but was executed badly, right down to the Word Art-like font and clashing colours of the onscreen text which is inexplicably in title case.
The contrast between She's Gotta Have It and really setting the agenda for black female womanhood and sexuality on screen. We’ve had the hilarious exploration of the “hoe phase” in Issa Rae’s Insecure, sexual repression in black religious households in Chewing Gum, before that we had Kerry Washington as a powerhouse in Scandal, and Gabrielle Union’s Being Mary Jane.
Here are all the things that should have been good about the reboot that ultimately are not:
BOUNDARY PUSHING FEMALE LEADS
New age Nola is still anti-monogamy. She is seeing three men and one woman. The show does a good job at debunking common misconceptions about women who have multiple sexual partners – she doesn’t have daddy issues and has a very stable and functional home life, having grown up in a harmonious brownstone with two artist parents and a close set of friends. She doesn’t like one-word labels like “freak” but she does reel off a few with ease: she’s a sex-positive polyamorous pansexual. Much like the entire show, there are aspects of the main character that feels like box-ticking. Young viewers want to see alternative lifestyles, multi-dimensional characters and realistic relationships but Nola’s polyamory is arguably less about sexual freedom and more about her own unchecked selfishness. For example, one of the men used to be her friend's boyfriend and it still bothers her.
From episode one, it’s clear that the men in her life don’t really accept her lifestyle and want to be exclusive. Yet she continues to be emotionally unavailable to them while demanding they are there for her emotions constantly. Her treatment of her lesbian lover Opal Gilstrap is awful. She’s a buffer for when Nola is tired of men, and as soon as she is feeling less fragile she is abandoned. It’s in keeping with how she barely ever takes her partner’s wants and needs into account. She goes out of her way to make her sexual partners feel uncomfortable: talking to another lover on the phone while in bed with Jamie, inviting them all to spend Thanksgiving and compete for her attention, just so she can announce that she is the only man she wants and loves. That is definitely sadistic. Ultimately she confuses polyamory with gluttony, and her sex life becomes a burden she endures rather than enjoys.
Nola's friend Shemekka is self-conscious of her small bum (something I truly identify with on a spiritual level) and how do the scriptwriters handle it? They turn her into a joke. As some sort of grim allegory, they abuse, mutilate and humiliate her. Nola, who spends the majority of the series saying she hates the boxes other people try to put her in, tries to inflict her own view of what Shemekka is by changing her hair in the portrait from weave to afro. The moment Shemekka is happy and ready to dance in the body she feels comfortable in she’s dragged back into the depths of personal turmoil when she topples over and her arse explodes. It isn’t clear whether you’re supposed to laugh or cry. Is this a comedy or a drama?
DEBATES ABOUT GENTRIFICATION
Lee has a personal axe to grind about Brooklyn’s gentrification since both the original film and this series are set on his home turf. The title sequence in itself is a political statement as he juxtaposes images of Fort Greene 30 years ago to photos from today. The heightened tensions between black “natives” and the intruding white middle class are illustrated when Papo, the homeless man who patrols the block in suspiciously box-fresh sneakers and a number of clean jackets, comes under attack. He’s a stalwart of the street yet the new white neighbour Bianca, a pantomime villain, wants him to stop sitting on her step with his trolley. Bianca then cries reverse racism, a gathered black crowd moan in unison and throw their arms up – for a brief moment it feels like I’m watching a play.
TREATMENT OF RACE
For all the social commentary on the treatment of black people, a drawn-out scene with a lecherous taxi driver is a huge misstep. On her way home the driver begins hollering inappropriate comments to Nola in an accent far worse than Apu from The Simpsons. So what we learn about race is how black people are mistreated and misrepresented – but that Indian people are fair game. There are also some clumsy depictions of light-skinned and/or mixed race black people. One character is so conflicted about his identity and place in a divided world that he films a viral video with his white school friends in blackface rapping a flurry of n-words to the camera to prove his blackness.
THIS GENERATION’S ACTIVISM AND USE OF SOCIAL MEDIA
This show is very markedly issues based. After being grabbed in the street Nola plasters her feminist art around town and declares: “My name is Nola Darling. Peace. Two Fingers. Hashtag BlackLivesMatter”. It’s a bit too much, mostly because no one says hashtag in real life. Thus begins the series’ habit of crow-barring debates from the last couple of years into scenes unnaturally. Whether that’s a feminist debate had with a 13-year-old about Instagram thots or an excruciatingly long song about Trump’s victory and how “a real clown’s got the nuclear code”. Each episode’s theme is set out in hashtags and brackets i.e. #LuvIzLuv (SEXUALITY IS FLUID), #HeGotItAllMixedUp (DYSLEXIA) and #ChangeGonCome (GENTRIFICATION). I mean, really.