Are people still talking about Spike Lee’s remake of She’s Gotta Have It which recently aired on Netflix? Cool! I didn’t want to rush to an assessment, so I was sure to watch the full first season. Now I’mma throw in my 5 cents.
I loved and hated it, but ultimately love wins. Amor Vincit Omnia and all that jazz, but let me get the messy stuff out of the way first.
The narration felt forced. The characters were predictable, and sometimes came across as caricatures. The monologues seemed cheesy, often didn’t seem to reflect the way people actually talk, and revealed that the writers may have been working overtime to define the story through the characters’ lines rather than letting the story tell itself. The manner in which important issues were addressed lacked nuance. I could pick the series up at any episode and feel like I didn’t miss a beat.
Whew! I said it. Now let me tell you why and attempt to bring everything back to the happy ending that I ultimately experienced while watching…
Nothing demonstrated the predictability of the series like that smoking scene just after Thanksgiving dessert at Nola’s. From the moment that herb appeared, I could count down to the utterance of that classic and all too played out line from Friday, “Puff, puff, pass”, then something about “the rotation”.
There’s plenty more: Jamie’s an affluent professional, so his wife must be light-skinned and bougie, as all well-to-do light-skinned ladies are. Greer is a handsome model and single with “the biggest member”, so he is, of course, as arrogant and devilish as they come. Mars is young and the most down-to-earth of all the men, so he doesn’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of. Shemekka’s fake booty explodes on her opening night. No surprises here.
Nola’s portrayal as a portrait artist left me annoyed at first, but I understood later what the writers may have been getting at. At one point, Nola’s work is judged by a prominent critic as “Pedestrian”, mundane, boring, lacking imagination. She’s a brilliant illustrator, but does she have the ability to convey original or layered thoughts? Until Nola read the critic’s article, this was exactly what I was thinking.
I tire of what passes for Black Art. I’ve seen enough strong black men and women with idealized bodies wearing loin cloths and carrying each other across the fiery thresholds of white supremacy. Many a talented illustrator can record the literal elements of what they observe. Few can deconstruct, abstract those things into art and inspire us to see them in a whole new light. It’s a reasonable assessment of Nola, but the hope is that she will evolve with time.
And speaking of being literal… can we talk about Spike Lee’s preferred style of driving points home with the force of a sledgehammer? It’s a violation of one of the first rules of writing: show, don’t tell. Sure, rules are meant to be broken, but only when it results in good art.
Listen, if you’ve already conveyed the meaning of a scene through the dialogue, scenery, body language, mood, etcetera, do you really need to drive the point further by playing a song with related lyrics at the very moment of revelation and then flashing the song’s album cover at the end of the scene… Every. Single. Time? Do you, as the presenter, assume that the viewers are so inept that they can’t understand the relevance of a song without the lyrics scribbled across the screen? I just couldn’t figure this out as a creative device, because it didn’t seem creative at all. It seemed heavy-handed, overused, and didn’t add anything to my overall experience of watching.
(I’m a little crazy, but) At times, I was yelling at the screen, “Why such staunch literalism???” The writers don’t just spoon-feed the audience ideas. They tie viewers up, slap ball gags in their mouths and proceed to shove the ideas in wherever they’ll fit. I’m, frankly, surprised some element of BDSM didn’t make its way into Nola’s loving bed.
Just when I thought Mr. Lee was going to keep his tail off screen, there he was in episode 7 at that bar with that Rev. Al coiffe, flashing a nametag that read “Joe” just as Frank Sinatra sang the line “So, set ‘em up, Joe” in the background song, One for my Baby. (Long sigh.)
Now, the “element in the room” (as Mars would say), the one idea that the writers chose not to explain, define, or overemphasize was POLYAMORY. And thank goodness they didn’t. If they wanted to, there are some perfect songs they could have used to shed a blinding, overbearing light on Nola’s opening night or the final dinner scene. Just the Way You Like it or Just be Good to Me by SOS Band, perhaps? In my humble opinion, the final episode revealed that this was one issue that they handled quite well, in terms of artistic style. The fundamental conflicts of polyamory were simply demonstrated in Nola’s attempt to introduce all of her men.
At this point, some of you may be asking, “Who does this Joy Outlaw think she is? Does she realize this is a Spike Lee Joint she’s talking about?” I know! I know this is a Spike Lee Joint! This is why the quality of the story-telling is so incredibly baffling to me. That man is the reason I started reading the dictionary at age 12 after seeing that brilliant creation Malcolm X, and haven’t stopped reading it since!
Lemme just get off my soapbox for a minute and tell you what I liked about She’s Gotta Have It, the 2017 remake:
The scenery was absolutely beautiful. From the vibrant NYC setting, to the interiors, to the characters and their clothing, hair, and makeup, and of course, the art—it was all stunning.
Doc Jamison. That woman is as smooth as two freshly-shaven legs between satin sheets! I mean, Heather Headley came in as Doc Jamison and sprinkled Mature Black Woman Magic all over those scenes. I think every single actor gave a stellar performance, despite what they were working with. But Jamison’s lines were written in such a way that she came across particularly natural. In the words of Nola Darling, “She’s the kind of woman I aspire to be.”
Thanksgiving Dinner. It was sloppy, uncomfortable, inconsiderate, and a complete break from the etiquette of ethical non-monogamy. However, for Ms. Darling, it was necessary. Deal with it. And it made for a pretty good final scene (though I could have done without the appearance of an actual raspberry beret). I liked that polyamory itself was simply presented and neither demonized nor idealized. People are sloppy. No matter the relationship orientation, love is sloppy. Contrary to what Poly Public Relations would have you believe, such young poly relationships, and even those involving the experienced, are rarely executed with complete, polite precision. Nola is a rule breaker, and heroines don’t need to be pictures of perfection. They’re much more alluring when they aren’t.
I loved that the series attempted to tackle a slew of issues affecting women, along with other hot-button topics: Slut-shaming and women’s sexual autonomy, body image, black women’s hair and it’s personal and political connotations, street harassment, the internalization of racism in children, gentrification, and polyamory to name some. However, I felt like an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to tackling the issues left each portrayal feeling rushed and… predictable.
I’m reminded of another series that puts polyamory under the microscope. For an entire first season, creator, Jackie J. Stone, was able to string along a trail of hungry viewers with 10-15 minutes episodes on YouTube in a series that examines the ins and outs of one issue and one issue alone. That series is Compersion by Enchant TV, and we want season 2! (Waiting.) Pardon my digression.
Can we divert from standard narratives for a moment and add a little gradation to the She’s Gotta Have It storyline, for curiosity’s sake? Would that give the characters more depth without taking anything away from the overall story, and add more interest?
What if Greer was bisexual? What if Mars was? Nola is, after all, pansexual, which means that she is not just attracted to cis-gendered straight guys and femmes. What if Jamie was happily married and polyamorous himself? Just for the hell of it, what if he was the kind of guy who worked with his hands, with an average income, but with the same refined taste and the same connections that allowed him to borrow that money for Nola’s painting? How would changing his station in life change the way his wife was portrayed?
What if Shemekka was a fully self-possessed and seasoned sex worker, whose work sprang from a genuine gift and a depth of knowledge in the sexual arts, rather than desperation and low self-esteem? Those women do actually exist. Would she have still chosen the injections? Would she have needed to?
Once I got to episode 5, I sat with a cubic zirconia-lined goblet full of wine in one hand and my remote control in the other. I held up the remote and said, “You know what? Life is short. I don’t have to do this to myself!” Then I turned to Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, Paraquay.
But I was compelled to go back to She’s Gotta Have It, time and again, because it was beautiful and entertaining and fun to see so many reflections of my interests and experiences on screen. I cared because of that, and I wanted to give it a chance, to see what I’d learn, to see where the real value lay.
It is the Day of the Black Woman, and as I contribute to the annals of Black Girl Magic with the creation of my own book series- The Jane Luck Adventures– I’m trying to figure out how to do this well myself. I’ve made my own mistakes. I wonder, as I depict a young woman’s daredevil journey from a struggling college student to a mercenary, as I present to the world the story of a black female Indiana Jones slash James Bond-like character, how do I address the audience? How do I balance the level of abstraction so that readers and viewers are not alienated, but then not dumb things down to the point that I’m talking down to the readers? What do I give away, and what do I let the audience figure out and define for themselves? Will I give them everything on a platter or let them have the adventure of piecing together what the work means for them?
I loved the final episode of She’s Gotta Have It so much I watched it twice. I was absolutely jamming off Prince’s hit, since I’d been teased with it through the entire series and finally got to hear it all the way through. My husband had to come downstairs and find out what had me clapping, and singing at the top of my lungs. (That song just does something to me. You know that song that’ll make you damn near have a car accident if they mess around and play it on the radio while you’re trying to merge onto I-whatever? Yeah, for me, that’s Raspberry Beret.)
That’s the value in the finish. Avid readers often ask each other, “do you finish books that you don’t like or that rub you the wrong way in the beginning?” The ones who understand the value in the finish usually see a book through to the end. I’m glad I finished She’s Gotta Have It, Season 1, and I don’t want to overstep. Spike Lee is clearly doing something right to have garnered a loyal, loving following for this long. It’s easy to sit back and criticize, and I don’t mean to disrespect someone who’s work I’ve come to enjoy and who’s intentions I believe are pristine. But constructive criticism is necessary. One cannot write in a vacuum.
I take my lessons wherever I can get them, and this experience was no different. After watching, here are my notes to self: Joy, you don’t have to try so hard to be artistic if you tell a good story. You don’t have to try so hard to be relevant, to position yourself at the center of the zeitgeist, if you just tell the story that comes from your heart. The authentic story, in its own way, is always timeless.
I think the fundamental story that Spike Lee is telling here is just that. I’m looking forward to season 2 and for both Nola and the series itself to evolve into something that truly does the art, and all of these beautiful artists, justice.