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Spike Lee Updates the Feminism of She’s Gotta Have It For Netflix With Help From Female Voices

image: Netflix DeWanda Wise as Nola Darling and Cleo Anthony as Greer Childs in Netflix's "She's Gotta Have It"

No one is perfect, and no one knows everything. The best any of us can do is learn from our mistakes and work toward doing better. It seems that director Spike Lee is doing just that with his 1986 feature film debut, She’s Gotta Have It, which he’s adapted as a 10-episode series for Netflix.

Absolutely shocking in its day, the film tells the story of Nola Darling, a young, black woman in Brooklyn juggling three men and does not consider herself a one-man woman. At the time the film was released, opinions were split. Some saw Nola as a sexually liberated black woman taking charge of her life and body. Others saw her as the male fantasy of a sexually liberated woman, her sexual agency remaining in service of the male gaze and the male characters in the film.

That was over thirty years ago. Times (and attitudes about sexuality and feminism) change, and actions and reactions that made perfect sense in 1986 suddenly seem at best irrelevant, and at worst offensive. This is the great thing about film and TV adaptations. A director like Lee has the opportunity to course correct.

Lee has been open about talking about the regrets he’s had about the film, specifically about one scene in particular. Toward the end of She’s Gotta Have It, Nola invites one of her three partners, Jamie, to her apartment after she’s broken up with the other two. She’s willing to give monogamy a try and has chosen him. However, when she tries to coax him into making love to her, trying to convince him of her sincerity in wanting to be monogamous with him, he gets angry, forces her to bend over, and rapes her. When he’s done, he shoves her down onto the bed, zips up his pants, and leaves, but not before making a snide comment about how he hates that he liked it.

In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter about the upcoming Netflix series adaptation of She’s Gotta Have It, which drops on Thursday, Lee talks about his regret surrounding the scene saying, “We’re talking about She’s Gotta Have It. People always ask me if there’s one thing I could take back, a do-over. The first thing I say is the rape scene in the original film from 1986. So I’ll apologize again right here. That should’ve never been in there.”

Thankfully Lee’s wife, Tonya Lewis Lee, was the one who suggested that She’s Gotta Have It would make a great Netflix series. Even better, Lewis Lee is a writer and executive producer on the show along with other brilliant, black, female writers like Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, Radha Blank, Joie Lee (Spike’s sister), and Eisa Davis.

While Lee directs all ten episodes as “a long movie,” it’s the voices of Lewis Lee and the rest of the women in the writers’ room that make this updated version of She’s Gotta Have It worth a watch. It was a wise decision on Lee’s part, and Lewis Lee explains what a difference that decision makes on the material to The New York Times:

“Nola is a female character created by a man. In the process of making a show, that became even more apparent. So we added female voices to put the meat on the bones of this female character, and there would be moments where Spike was like, ‘I don’t understand what you guys are talking about.’ ‘That’s because you’re a man, and there are things you can’t see as a man, as open as you try to be. So listen to us, and let us help you.’ And he did.”

The female-centric writer’s room, combined with the space and budget that a television show allows gave Lee and Lewis Lee the opportunity to really explore Nola’s character and flesh her out.

Unlike in the film, there’s a focus on Nola’s art and her dreams for her career. She also has female friends, and those relationships are as important as Nola’s relationships with her three suitors. And Nola identifies as pansexual on the show, meaning that her relationships with women could very much be romantic and sexual, unlike in the original film where Nola gets squicked by being kissed by a woman named Opal. On the upcoming Netflix show, it seems that Opal is more of a possibility.

I’ve gotta say that She’s Gotta Have It has never been one of my favorite films. However, with everything I’m seeing and hearing about the series version for Netflix, I think that 2017’s Nola Darling may finally be a true, feminist heroine worthy of us.

(via Rotten Tomatoes, image: Netflix)

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Teresa Jusino (she/her) is a native New Yorker and a proud Puerto Rican, Jewish, bisexual woman with ADHD. She's been writing professionally since 2010 and was a former Mary Sue assistant editor from 2015-18. Teresa's returned to play in the TMS sandbox as a freelancer. When not writing about pop culture, she's writing screenplays and is the creator of your future favorite genre show. Teresa lives in L.A. with her brilliant wife. Her other great loves include: Star Trek, The Last of Us, anything by Brian K. Vaughan, and her Level 5 android Paladin named Lal.