Spike Lee’s iconic 1986 feature film debut She’s Gotta Have It—a rare coming-of-age tale about a black woman’s sexual exploration in 1980s Brooklyn that was widely raved about and also criticized—has gotten a 10-episode series order on Netflix, with Lee on board as director. Yikes.
What those episodes will look like is to be determined, but already this sounds like a bad idea. I’d heard and read about this movie for years before finally renting it on DVD from Netflix in 2011, super late to the party. Visually and conceptually, Lee gave us a deep and complicated story that on the surface seemed to truly be a film about a black woman in which the protagonist Nola Darling (played by Tracy Camilla Johns) is allowed to be free and sexual, a bold and rebellious project for its time. That the movie was shot in 12 days with a low production budget of $175,000 is considered a major coup, too.
In a 1987 article titled “Why Hollywood Ignores Black Love and Intimacy,” Lee told Ebony, “I’d go to the movies all the time and I did not see black sexuality. I decided this would be a film with that in it.” Unfortunately, his idea of black female sexuality was/is vastly limited.
As much as the film is celebrated, this was the case of a man interpreting a woman’s sexual desire and consequent awakening and there’s been legitimate criticism of that. One notable comment came from bell hooks, who in a book chapter called “Whose Pussy Is This?” wrote that Lee “challenges and critiques notions of black male sexuality while presenting a very typical perspective on black female sexuality. His imaginative explorations of black male psyche is far more probing, far more expansive, and finally much more interesting than his exploration of black femaleness.”
The mere act of seeing a black woman enjoying pleasure on film is satisfying, but there’s no doubt that Lee bungled this execution, namely with the scene where Nola being is raped by one her partners. In the scene, Nola goes from horror to feeling satisfaction. That’s the outcome of her attempted liberation, written and visualized from the male perspective. As hooks wrote: “Though she is depicted as deriving pleasure from the act, this does not alter the fact that she is forced to act sexually without her consent.”
Even Lee said he regretted that scene, in retrospect. “If I was able to have any do-overs, that would be it. It was just totally… stupid. I was immature. It made light of rape, and that’s the one thing I would take back,” he told Deadline in 2014. “I was immature and I hate that I did not view rape as the vile act that it is. I can promise you, there will be nothing like that in She’s Gotta Have It, the TV show, that’s for sure.”
Thirty years have passed. This is a chance at a do-over for Lee. But from the looks of how he tackled violence and sexuality in Chi-Raq, which was rife with thematic problems and not a good movie, this Netflix adaptation doesn’t bode well, especially if he doesn’t have lots of women involved (his wife Tonya Lewis Lee is a co-executive producer). There’s no edict that says men absolutely can’t write about the female experience, but given that Lee already got his shot in 1986 with this storyline and ended up with something problematic, it would’ve been far more audacious and interesting if he hired a woman director and/or writer to handle this. See the film’s original trailer below.