It’s not hard to understand why Spike Lee went back to his early breakthrough film, “She’s Gotta Have It,” to adapt it into a 10-episode season of TV. The movie, released in 1986, was a gust of fresh air, a step forward for independent film that made a claim for black cinema and women-centric storytelling. Now, 31 years later, the influence of the film, and Lee’s other work, is widespread, and TV has become the home to a number of stories about the lives of black women. Now, Lee can take the time to explore the potential tucked into every black-and-white frame of his 90-minute original. It’s one of the beauties of TV — time — when it’s used well.
I’m glad Lee decided to reinvent the film, just as I’m glad Noah Hawley took “Fargo” and made it into one of FX’s best. The new “She’s Gotta Have It,” which drops on Netflix on Thursday, is a lovely expansion of the original, as it explores the eternal clashes between gender, sex, and romance, as well as the current tsunami of gentrification and its racial impact in Brooklyn. The series has the same basic outline as the movie: Nola Darling, played here by DeWanda Wise, is a passionate artist — we see her giant canvases, including one of Malcolm X — and she is currently seeing three extremely different men. But it goes deeper with all of the characters, and particularly with Nola, whose free-thinking and bohemian bent are enchanting.
The show is very sex-positive, as they say, and Nola’s comfort with her lovers — which include a woman — feels pleasingly natural. She’s not playing them, and she’s not driven by a fantasy of monogamy or tormented by which person to choose; she’s simply enjoying a fluid lifestyle. “I don’t believe in one-word labels,” she says at the beginning of the show, unwilling to pathologize her free will. She’s sincere with each of her lovers, and, thanks to Wise’s performance, believably so. We never feel as though Lee is setting her up for a big lesson. When one lover looks at her with yearning eyes, she warns, “Don’t go catching any feelings.” Nola felt ahead of her time in 1986; she still does, as the men still struggle with her unshakeable independence.
Indeed, their bruised egos provide a fair amount of the show’s humor and its drama, too. All three men are well-cast, and they gradually move their characters beyond the simple labels we create for them early on. Greer (Cleo Anthony) is a model and photographer whose vanity is both amusing — “That woman worships me,” he says about Nola — and repulsive. Jaime (Lyriq Bent) is a Wall Street Journal-reading man of wealth whose possessiveness of Nola is even less appealing when you realize he is married. And bike messenger Mars (Anthony Ramos), who is the character Lee played in the original, is a mass of boyish energy. While they exhibit typically masculine weaknesses and sexist leanings, we get a gentler perspective on them when we see an extreme version of their bruised egos: In the premiere Nola is violently grabbed and verbally abused by a man on the street.
There’s nothing nostalgic about the show, which is in color, by the way, and occasionally features characters addressing the camera. It’s not looking back on a Brooklyn of yesteryear so much as it’s giving us the Brooklyn of today, where Nola, who lives in Fort Greene, pieces together a living to pay her rent. The good life takes some work, and some juggling, too, but yeah, she’s gotta have it.
SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT
Starring: DeWanda Wise, Lyriq Bent, Cleo Anthony, Anthony Ramos, Margot Bingham
On Netflix, season one available ThursdayMatthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.