I remember the first time I saw She’s Gotta Have It, Spike Lee’s groundbreaking, critically acclaimed and very first “joint,” which premiered in 1986. When it debuted on HBO a year later, I was 12, a latchkey kid, and the parental controls that would lock me out of my parents’ premium channels after school had blessedly not been invented yet.
She’s Gotta Have It was revolutionary in so many ways: in its frank discussion of sex and relationships, and the loving black-and-white lens it cast on modern black life, evocative of Gordon Parks and Roy DeCarava. (Notably, the film’s cinematographer was future director Ernest Dickerson.) Equally revolutionary, its heroine: the sexually liberated, self-proclaimed “pretty normal,” noncommittal and nonchalant Nola Darling, played with luminous insouciance by Tracy Camilla Johns—who, it should be noted, was an early icon of #TeamNatural.
It wasn’t a perfect film, but it was the perfect debut of a young black filmmaker from Brooklyn, N.Y., who’d clearly chosen his influences well, yet developed his own unique perspective. We’d never seen anything like it.
Of course, at the tender and thankfully inexperienced age of 12, what I recall most is that it was the first time I saw sex between black people depicted on-screen (Purple Rain only half counted in that respect). It was realistic and sensual and, at times, deeply problematic—as I would later learn was true of offscreen sex as well. But most important, it was us, as seen by us.
So when I heard that Netflix and Spike Lee were joining forces for a reboot—this time, as a series—I was intrigued, especially since—full disclosure—I have friends and associates peppered throughout the cast, crew and production team. I couldn’t help rooting for it, but still wondered: What would a new-millennial Nola Darling have to say now, in the age of Insecure and the other black female voices featured in varied nuanced narratives in the 30 years since she originally rocked our worlds?
As a singer who’s covered many songs, I’ve made a habit of asking several questions before attempting to revise well-established work: First, is it necessary? Second, how can I make it relevant to a new audience? And finally, how can I add to and reinterpret the existing work, rather than simply regurgitate it? Doing this successfully is a delicate balance and, therefore, is a necessary exercise.
For reference, I often look to one of my favorite examples: Joni Mitchell, who revisited a couple of her breakout hits in 2000’s Both Sides Now. Hearing a then 57-year-old, smoky, octave-lower Mitchell cover songs that made her famous as an ingenue 33 years before was like hearing a love letter to her younger self. I’d hoped She’s Gotta Have It would offer a similar opportunity, but even though Tracy Camilla Johns makes a lovely and poignant cameo (and still looks amazing), the reckoning and reinvention I was craving from this series simply was not to be.
The character of Nola Darling, an evolved woman in the mid-’80s, seems to have devolved during the decades since, sinking into almost every tired trope of the millennial she represents as a 26-year-old artist living in now-gentrified Brooklyn.
Instead of encouraging us to consider her sexual liberation a new “normal,” she seems intent on being different just for the sake of being different, offering us nothing new or exciting to consider. Frankly, many of us know far more interesting women on our Facebook feeds than this character, who has none of the cool-girl cadence of her predecessor, but all of the entitled angst often associated with her generation.
The writers also added a few plot twists that do the new Nola a disservice from the jump, making her difficult to root for. As for her supporting cast, they’re an attractive and obviously talented group, but her three main suitors—admittedly stereotypes in the original—verge on caricatures in this version.
Even the sex lacks a certain ... sexiness, since it often seems to be played for laughs. We’re supposed to feel that the men in Nola’s life just don’t “get it,” but I’m not sure she does, either. And while Lee has never backed down from making sure his “MESSAGE!” gets across, there is still rhetoric here as problematic as the rape scene in the original, and despite all attempts to confront it, victim-blaming and slut-shaming still seem to be the loudest voices in the room.
In fact, the most nuanced, authentic and sensual relationships in this new version are ones that were never explored in the original. These are the moments that really shine; yet unfortunately, they are far and few between.
Spike Lee, indisputably the premier filmmaker of the hip-hop generation, has mentored and championed generations of black actors, filmmakers, writers, cinematographers and producers. But as André 3000 noted in a recent interview with GQ: “For me, hip-hop is about freshness. You can always hop, but you won’t always be hip. At a certain point, you just won’t ... the potency just moves on.”
Lee does the right thing here (pun intended) by enlisting a variety of both fresh and seasoned voices to script these episodes, including luminaries such as Lynn Nottage, Barry Michael Cooper and Radha Blank. But watching, I couldn’t help wondering how much more interesting a multiepisode arc of Do the Right Thing might’ve been, allowing us to take a deeper dive into the lives of each of those iconic characters.
Because, honestly, this series didn’t convince me that Nola’s is a story worth exploring beyond the 90 minutes of the original—or past the 1990s at all. She was a woman who defied the conventions of her time, (mostly) unapologetically. But perhaps Nola Darling simply doesn’t age well, because three decades later, Brooklyn—and the world—are full of Nolas, in large part because of her.