In 1986, Spike Lee crashed the US indie cinema scene with a black and white movie shot over twelve days entitled She’s Gotta Have It, about the day to day life of Nola Darling, a young sexually liberated, polyamorous black woman (before such a word as polyamorous even existed).
Nora was a layout designer who would share her bed with three lovers: Jamie Overstreet, supportive and serious, handsome Greer Childs and sweet scoundrel Mars Blackmon (played by Lee himself).
At the time, She’s Gotta Have It was a great step forward in the representation of black people in cinema in general, and black women in particular.
This goes to show that Lee was ahead of his time by breaking the societal codes of white, heterosexual society. Thirty years later, these themes are still relevant, but society has (thankfully) moved on. A bit. Has Nora Darling more to say? How was Lee going to reboot this narrative?
The 1986 movie is one and a half hours long. That's as much as three episodes of the ten episodes-strong new series. That means that Lee has ample time to delve deeper into his main character's complex psyche, her relationship with her lovers and her friends and to anchor the story in today's world.
Art as existential awakening
The pitch remains the same, to such an extent that some scenes (like the one in which various men stop in front of the camera / Nora trying to chat her up), are close to identical to those in the movie. This, of course, highlights how little society-condoned, everyday sexism has changed over thirty years.
In the 1986 movie, Nola was an absent-minded designer, more interested in her multiple relationships than her job. In She’s Gotta Have It 2.0, Nora, played by DeWanda Wise, remains much the same character, but this time around she's a painter. She's a sexually liberated woman who hates to be told she's a freak because her libido is above average and who's more interested in her artistic practice than her lovers.
Art is everywhere in this series: musically (when the camera focusses on the cover of the album playing for instance, which often serve as a link between one scene and the next), as well as pictorially through Nola's paintings.
There's contemporary art when she exhibits her work alongside other black artists, urban art via the #MyNameIsNot hashtag, and even dance through the story of her friend Shemekka (Chyna Layne), who's training to be a professional dancer (and dreaming of having Nicki Minaj's butt, but that's another story).
Visually, Spike Lee's esthetics strongly promotes the healing power of art, like with this musical scene at the end of the season when Nola is swirling around and embarks in a stream of consciousness monologue. Although the rhythm of the series never let go, Lee doesn't hesitate to stretch some scene for up to ten minutes, a technique that brings vitality and originality to the work.
What Nola wants (and what she doesn't want)
She’s Gotta Have It tackles contemporary issues such the Trump administration, the gentrification of Brooklyn, street harassment, the Black Lives Matters movement and of course the most important of all, feminism.
This year has shown how real and global gender inequality is today. It's even more relevant in the case of black women, hit by a double dose of discrimination: that of their gender and their skin colour.
The character of Nola is not looking for some illusory "normality", but at the same time she doesn't want to be considered a slut just because she enjoys a more active sex life than other women either.
At a time when black people are often sexually objectified, the issue is how to have a fulfilling sex life when you're black, pansexual (Nola also has an occasional but passionate relationship with another woman, Opal), without being judged negatively by one's friends or society at large. Nola doesn't want to have to choose between her three lovers, as they each bring her something different.
Although women are at the forefront in She’s Gotta Have It, whether through its main lead or its secondary characters (such as the fun and touching Raqueletta Moss, who speaks of herself at the third person), that doesn't mean men are absent. Greer Childs, Jamie Overstreet and Mars Blackmon (Spike Lee calls them her three-headed monster), each represents a way to assume masculinity, and the more supportive might not be the one we think.
Assuming her sexual and artistic freedom is an everyday fight for Nola, who spends her time trying to talk her lovers out of monogamous relationships. She doesn't lie to them, she assumes her way of life, they each know she's seeing other men, but she feels that they only have one goal: to own her and keep her for themselves.
It's not often that we meet characters who say "no": "no" to her lovers, "no" to these men even though they apparently want the best for her, or "no" to this friend trying to boost her career by sharing a painting she wanted to keep private.
Saying "yes" has been considered as cool for too long, and She’s Gotta Have It, on the opposite, teaches women the power of saying "no" without having to look like a bitch and to do whatever they want without fear of being considered as anything else but a woman in search of herself. It's all done with humour and wisdom, and it's pretty refreshing.