Love yourself, even if society doesn’t want you to.
That seems to be one of the many underlying messages of “She’s Gotta Have It,” the refreshing television adaptation of Spike Lee’s (“Oldboy”) 1986 debut. For Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise, “Underground”), the show’s striking protagonist, self-love comes at the price of being fetishized by her romantic suitors, objectified by male strangers and traumatized by her own demons. But toward the end of the first episode, Nola rejects the negative labels attached to her identity. She stares down the camera and says with fierce conviction that she’s “not a freak, a sex addict and damn sure nobody’s property.” Though this show may not be for everyone, Nola’s unrelenting confidence and exuberant charm in moments like these make “She’s Gotta Have It” worth watching.
While it shares the same premise as the original film — an independent Black woman from Brooklyn entangles herself in a love quadrangle — the TV version of “She’s Gotta Have It” explores much more than its tantalizing plot suggests. From polyamory to sexual fluidity, psychotherapy to self-acceptance, sexual assault to feminism, the show juggles an array of heavy topics, creating both a stimulating and disorienting viewing experience. But by focusing on one specific theme at a time in each episode, “She’s Gotta Have It” dedicates a healthy amount of attention to how these complex topics propel Nola’s character arc.
Particularly during the third episode (so far my favorite), Nola faces her biggest challenge when she buys a skimpy black dress to boost her self-esteem and subsequently draws mixed reactions from the three men she’s dating — thoughtful businessman Jamie Overstreet (Lyriq Bent, “Saw IV”), playful biker Mars Blackmon (Anthony Ramos, “White Girl”) and narcissistic photographer Greer Childs (Cleo Anthony, “Transparent”). On a fancy dinner date, Jamie becomes overprotective of Nola, telling her dress is too “night-clubby” for a nice restaurant and shielding it from strangers with his sports coat. Mars gives Nola flak for provoking an aggressor at a reggaeton concert because of how sexy her dress looks. But perhaps the most effective damage on Nola’s ego comes from Greer, when he photographs her while commenting her dress and looks in a lecherous, Terry Richardson-type manner.
Each of these encounters leaves Nola deeply uncomfortable, but also empowered to turn her suffering into art. She takes the dress and pins it to a blank canvas, signifying how the dress doesn’t define her and that she has the willpower to control how she responds to what people think of her. Wise’s impeccable performance also perfectly captures the emotional intensity and gravity in these scenes. She channels anger, frustration, happiness and longing with such nuance that it’s almost hard not to recognize and empathize with her character’s pain.
For all of its enchanting acting and mesmerizing social commentary, “She’s Gotta Have It” is by no means a conventional watch. The show frequently breaks the fourth wall without warning, a technique Lee has employed in the original film and in his other 1989 classic, “Do the Right Thing.” In some moments, having characters address the viewer directly benefits the dynamism and urgency of the show’s monologues. In one brief but stunning scene from episode five, Nola’s boss Raqueletta Moss (De’Adre Aziza, “The Breaks”) tells both Nola and the audience about how she conquered the traumas of her past to make it as an elite elementary school principal for at-risk students of color. It doesn’t necessarily propel the plot in any way, but the power of Moss’s words speaks volumes of the level of depth Lee and his team of writers imbue in each of the characters, no matter if they are secondary to the story.
That being said, other scenes that break the fourth wall can elicit an entirely different reaction, such as when Nola ends a speech about her defiance against a man who assaulted her in the pilot episode by saying, “Black Lives Matter.” Even though the statement emerges may seem jarring in the moment, Black identity is part of who Nola is and mentioning the BLM movement doesn’t negate that whatsoever. This is Lee’s attempt to emphasize how Black solidarity is always an intrinsic part of being Black in America, regardless of the context. And however the message is intended, Lee’s portrayal of modern-day Black life through Nola Darling is undeniably admirable and remains a testament to his acute storytelling style and inclusion of actors of color in primary roles.
As meticulous as the show may be about identity and art, “She’s Gotta Have It” isn’t without its faults. The pacing of each episode is slightly sluggish and other ongoing subplots — Nola’s friend Shemekka (Chyna Layne, “Precious”) receives butt implants to enhance her burlesque dancing — don’t hit the same emotional beats as the main story.
But part of what makes the updated version of “She’s Gotta Have It” so enthralling is how it portrays Nola’s many layers as an autonomous Black woman. The show’s selection of hip hop and R&B music — some include The Roots, Solange, The Isley Brothers and Prince — both shape Nola’s cultured aesthetic tastes and evoke the spectrum of emotion she carries throughout the show. Nola’s relationship to Brooklyn also enhances the core aesthetic of “She’s Gotta Have It”; the show itself is also a love letter to Brooklyn, incorporating images that portray the borough's rich past and present in its collage-like opening title sequence.
For Nola Darling, the only way to navigate through the scary, intimidating male-dominated world is by finding the beauty in it.