The Search For Nola Darling’s Soul, And Spike Lee’s Quest to Stifle It
Mild spoilers ahead
When She’s Gotta Have It was released in the summer of 1986 — it was an immediate hit with critics who embraced the small budget black-and-white dramedy with open arms. It was the very first offering from prolific filmmaker Spike Lee — and it solidified his signature moves and endearing love for painstakingly peeling off the paint from his well-propped characters.
The character of Nola Darling was brilliantly embodied by actress Tracy Johns — and the story was set against the raw streets of Brooklyn, NY, which like most movies with the backdrop of an inspirational hub — provided a depth of personality to compliment the raging themes of the narrative.
The film ultimately became a cult classic for many reasons that include the nostalgic elements of the era that funded it — and also the depiction of a young, attractive woman who delightfully dates three men with no real agenda other than the authority of self-satisfaction.
It’s righteously notable to explore the sexuality of women — who behave like men when it comes to the methods of deception and coercion above and under the sheets. Nola isn’t afraid to acknowledge her ability to effortlessly juggle “the well-meaning Jamie Overstreet, the self-obsessed model Greer Childs and the immature, motor-mouthed Mars Blackmon” — which Lee himself portrayed in the film. And in the end — we can’t help but root for her personalized happiness — even if she’s fated to be alone.
When it was announced that a TV version of the iconic movie was on its way — there was a surge of excitement from fans like me — who couldn’t wait to welcome an updated version of Nola especially at this time when Black women are being feted with rewarding roles — like never before.
DeWanda Wise is the stunning newcomer who has been bequeathed the honor of resurrecting Nola Darling for a whole new generation while giving my peeps the joy of revisiting her delicious exploits. And it’s no wonder that Netflix jumped at the chance of playing host when you consider the high-wattage that accompanies an already culturally-beloved project.
The issue with She’s Gotta Have It absolutely doesn’t fall on its more than capable leading lady — in fact Wise is so delectable that the screen literally lights up when she appears. She also possesses a commanding presence that far outweighs the confines of what she was given to play with — which is both criminal and devastating.
The problem is basically Spike Lee — and his woefully outdated formula, which doesn’t translate with the current climate that is still rotating with ardent fury. Sure, the inclusion of gentrification in Nola’s Fort Greene neighborhood as well as her brave response to being brutally confronted by a heckler on the streets at night — are logical attempts at reflecting the validity of ongoing issues — but the general landscape of the series is disappointingly stale.
First off — Lee seems to have a penchant for lighter-skinned actresses which has been a consistent habit throughout his career. It was a bit off-putting to notice that none of Nola girlfriend’s were darker than her. This may seem like the height of pettiness on my part — but as a woman of color who doesn’t get to see enough of her represented in an industry that refuses to celebrate our desirability — it’s disconcerting when Black storytellers validate those biases.
Then there’s the search for Nola’s soul under the direction of the creator who seems hell bent on stifling it.
Wise’s Nola is a spirited Millennial with a cool as shit apartment that she can barely afford, but hopes to one day — when she gains more recognition for her obvious talent as a portraitist.
While she’s figuring out her career trajectory — her personal life seems to be flourishing from the attention of the three men in her life who are vying for her complete attention. Just like the film — we are re-introduced to Jamie (Lyric Bent), Greer (Cleo Anthony), and Mars (Anthony Ramos). All three men couldn’t be more different, which is a testament to Nola’s ravenous cravings.
In the TV series — Jamie is a business executive trapped in a loveless marriage, Greer is a self-involved model and photographer who is by far the most annoying of the three, and Mars loves to hear himself talk about the things that never interest Nola. The relationships never plateau enough to warrant any concern or excitement from viewers — and this can be attributed to the fact that we just aren’t given enough incentive to care.
The other tryst that garners some level of noteworthiness only does so because it involves a woman. Single mother Opal (Ilfenesh Hadera) fulfills her duty as the lover that’s meant to showcase Nola’s spicy palette, but unfortunately there isn’t much of an onscreen connection between the two — despite enviable output by both actresses.
The issue of connectivity definitely hampered the ten, thirty minute episode package — that featured Nola’s familiar banter with the camera, which proved to be one of the most alluring parts of the series. Outside of that — we never get the opportunity to really appreciate the complexity of a character that should’ve fascinated us into submission — instead of leaving viewers even more confused than ever.
Nola’s quest for self-discovery with the help of a therapist (a dignified Heather Headley) is somewhat revealing, but not invasive enough to provide a satisfactory glimpse of what makes Nola tick. Instead we’re flooded with a debris of cultural references through the mentions and imagery that capture everything from the tragic ascension of Trump to the activism to shed light on the plight of women who are subjected to the woes of street harassment.
There’s also the homage to the Black female form through the gorgeous portraits that are expressive of Nola’s mission to heighten was has obviously been missing in a space that remains crowded by the global default. The vividness of this message correlates with the fact that the writer’s room was dominated by women and this is admirably refreshing.
But, somehow the words and actions loses its luster through the lenses of a director who is incapable of making the material compelling enough — even with the genius prowess of Wise.
The seductive track list that expertly merges the classics with current hits is an awesome diversion, but it’s not enough to minimize the glaring defects that reduce Nola Darling into another “woke” Black twenty-something with witty tendencies aimed at masking deeper layers.
There’s also the frustration with Lee’s unoriginality as we’re once again assigned the task of another show that features young Black Millennials at the height of their awareness who spout out profound verses — while surrounding themselves with the things and people that add vibrancy to their cause.
This is hardly anything to bitch about — except for the fact that the growing number of shows with these themes tend to start merging into one huge production — and the only way to prevent that — is to ensure that each of them has major identifier.
She’s Gotta Have It is definitely worthy of a second chance — and the hope is that we get to discover everything we missed the first time around. The search for Nola’s soul should finally lead to tangible results without the stagey disruptions that transform the effortlessly charismatic Wise into a toneless act — due to stony direction and heavy reliance on the residue of a film that can only carry its new sibling so far.
The friendships need to be refreshed and the relationships need to get past the surface convos in order to compliment the appeal of the woman at the center of all this gorgeous angst.
We need the soul of Nola Darling to come forth and if Spike Lee can’t do it — then he needs to quickly find someone who can.