All for one: ‘She’s Gotta Have It’
In Justin Simien’s Dear White People —a superb longform remake of his already fine film, both streaming on Netflix—a sharply opinionated black film student talks about how the canon itself is a white man’s game, and how visionary director Spike Lee deserves to be ranked right up in the American pantheon alongside Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese. This is not in the least bit untrue. Lee is a firebrand, a combustible yet highly cool film-maker who is always convinced of his message and finds increasingly stylized and provocative ways to yell it to the world, loud and proud.
From Do The Right Thing to Malcolm X, Lee has made honest, searing, political pictures that deserve to be learnt from. His last film, Chi-Raq (streaming in India on Amazon Prime) is a gobsmacking work of revolution, a vibrant and fearless hip hop musical that retells a Greek play by Aristophanes called Lysistrata in stunningly enthralling fashion. It’s a play from 411 BC, yet Lee makes it his own through his awe-inspiring audacity, and what emerges is a satirical and sexy masterpiece unquestionably ahead of its time.
Now, Lee turns his ever-questioning gaze towards his own work with the compelling She’s Gotta Have It, his (Simien-like) re-exploration of his own debut film of the same name. This is a milestone for Netflix, with a bona-fide auteur taking on a show and directing every episode—a first for the network. He is telling a story that feels timelier now than it did then.
Lee’s heroine is called Nola Darling, and she’s a defiant and unapologetic Brooklyn-based artist who wants many things but not—not ever—to be regular. She has constructed an elaborate timeshare arrangement with the three men (and one woman) in her life, and she hides nothing. As she tells a therapist she’s been convinced into seeing, “They feed me in distinct ways.”
This show is unmistakably—as the director’s films are labelled—“a Spike Lee joint”. There is a muscular swagger to the shots, there is that inescapable familiarity with New York, and there is also that trademark anger, that idea of injustice and gaze and the arbitrariness of moral norms. One of Nola’s lovers, a ridiculous narcissist who folds his clothes carefully when stripping before sex, and screams his own name when he climaxes, calls her a sex addict. She raises her eternally quizzical eyebrow and asks if that means she should quit him cold turkey, which makes this self-assured fool swallow his question. The realization is obvious: If she’s an addict, all the men in her life are merely different kinds of drugs, different highs, different backscratchers. More than anything, Spike Lee is angry at double standards.
It is a fascinating show, not least because of the way Lee, instead of passing judgement, questions the very idea of being judgemental. There is obviously scorn—Nola’s best friend freezes out a hipster waiter by saying “your beautiful beard and sense of entitlement do not intimidate me”—but there is also reconciliation. In this case, the waiter brings her the right drink and goes back, playfully stroking the beard she had insulted. The concepts of pansexuality and polyamory are addressed with a light but firmly insightful touch, with Tonya Lewis Lee, who happens to be Lee’s wife, leading several female writers to balance out the director’s own gaze.
DeWanda Wise is smashing as Nola Darling, running with the character and creating a woman bold and inspiringly confident. She holds court effortlessly, leads the conversations she is a part of, and drops movie references so often that she’s even referred to as “sister Roger Ebert”. She is also unmoved by bad hyperbole, shrugging off a man who says she is so hot that Jesus would dismount his cross to come and do her taxes. No, she’s just a girl with fierce eyes and razor-edged cheekbones who believes in herself. This doesn’t make her perfect, but she is an inspiration. This is a show about self and sisterhood and standing tall, and Darling is a hero.
The show does frequently feel overwritten, with some of the dialogue intentionally dramatic and theatrical—there are scenes which look like Lee’s going through an onstage David Mamet phase—and some of the subplots involving other characters are downright feeble. Still, there we have Lee ramping up the style, throwing song lyrics on to the screen to underline his fabulous soundtrack and even cutting to album covers as a bridge between scenes, to let us know what we need to add to our playlists. There are songs cut like music videos, and, as evidenced by the triumphant and catchy song by Secrett, this show has got “Melanin, Melanin, Melanin” (oh, and obviously Prince shows up on the soundtrack. Obviously).
It is a fine time for comedies by black creators that inform us about different aspects of the black experience. Like other great shows—Atlanta, Black-ish, Dear White People, Insecure—this show feels current. Because it is by Spike Lee, it also feels electric.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online.