With funding for movie projects being drastically polarized between dirt cheap indies & international blockbuster behemoths, many directors who used to thrive as mid-budget risk-takers have been driven to television & streaming platforms to finance their works. Even names as big as David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, and *shudder* Woody Allen have had to recoil to outlets like Showtime, Netflix, and Amazon to secure proper funding for their midbudget creative projects. Spike Lee has now joined their ranks, with an upcoming Netflix series adapting his debut feature, She’s Gotta Have It, to a streaming television format. In some ways, the basic idea of adapting this film to television makes total sense; She’s Gotta Have It is already episodically structured & relaxed in its candid, direct-to-the-camera discussions of youth & sexuality in ways that feel ripe for televised storytelling. In other ways, though, the news is a little bit of a bummer, mostly in what it means for the current status of Big Name directors who used to be the gods of indie cinema and the vibrancy of the independent filmmaking boom She’s Gotta Have It helped instigate.
She’s Gotta Have It is essentially a sex-positive hangout film. Our POV character is Nola Darling, a young Brooklynite who openly & honestly maintains three simultaneous sexual partnerships. Despite each partner’s urging for her to go monogamous, she refuses to apologize for or back down from her sexual autonomy. She introduces herself & her plight to the audience in a series of Bergman-esque, direct-to-the-camera monologues, as do her three opposing beaus: an uptight business prick, a well-meaning but toxically jealous romantic, and an immature goof (played by Spike Lee himself). There isn’t much plot outside the tension of this premise, which is amplified by scenarios like all four players sitting down for a shared Thanksgiving meal, one of her beaus demanding she see a psychiatrist for sex addiction, an act of consensual rough sex that darkly transgresses into rape, etc. Mostly, we just sympathize with Nola as she struggles to remain an independent, antonymous person despite all of the outside pressure in her life, which even comes from her female best friend (who also has the hots for her) & an endless parade of male strangers who deliver corny pickup lines in a photo shoot void. It actually sounds more like the plot of a TV show than a feature film when you consider it in that context, but as a D.I.Y. debut from a young, scrappy filmmaker it does work surprisingly well as a one-off feature.
A lot of She’s Gotta Have It is understandably rough around the edges. The unprofessional acting is charmingly scrappy, but also awkward & misshapen. There’s a music fantasy sequence that could be transcendent & lovely, but feels a little corny & flat instead. The movie desperately wants to have an open, progressive mind about sex, but often falls prey to the same toxic masculinity it’s critiquing, especially in the way it handles the aftermath of a sexual assault. These stray quibbles do little to poison the overall mood, though, if not only because the just-getting-started Spike Lee displays so much giddy excitement for the material. For all of its awkward missteps as a debut feature, She’s Gotta Have It just feels incredibly cool. It conveys a 90s Attitude™ about casual sex years before pop acts like TLC & George Michael would define what that even means. Its stark, black & white cinematography & slideshow photographs frame Brooklyn as a vital, artistic neighborhood where black culture is thriving as a natural echo of the Harlem Renaissance (decades before Brooklyn was a hot commodity). As many young filmmakers do, Lee throws as many of his personal passions & influences as he can at the screen: hip-hop, jazz, The Wizard of Oz, Malcolm X, Zora Neale Hurston, etc. Individual moments may falter within that aesthetic but it’s such an infectiously rich framework for this film’s snapshots of youthful sexuality & black masculinity in 1980s, big city America. Lee pays special attention to the craft of his personal brand within this cool aesthetic too, already introducing the film as A Spike Lee Joint & a 40 Acres and a Mule production, as if that meant anything to an audience who never heard of him before.
I’m not sure that She’s Gotta Have It is going to be able to retain that cool cultural cachet & artistic vibrancy as a Netflix series. However, a television show should easily be able to stay true to the spirit of its source material without much trouble. I’d much rather that Spike Lee have the opportunity to continue to make weird, outlier projects like Chi-Raq & Da Sweet Blood of Jesus than have to return to early career nostalgia for online “content,” but at least he’s chosen to adapt a project that’s already primed for a TV format. The only real difference is that if he casts himself in a role this time, he’ll have to play the uptight business prick instead of the youthful court jester. In so many ways, it’s not 1986 anymore.