She’s Gotta Have It was Spike Lee’s first feature film, and few movies feel so joyfully first. It tracked free-spirited Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns) navigating relationships with three men, but that sounds too plot-structural, halfway toward a Mamma Mia! prequel. Lee had a New Wave director’s supernova energy, breaking the fourth wall, carrying handheld cameras onto the streets, capturing cheerful promiscuity, nude African-American bodies shot worshipfully, glorious Brooklyn! Coming out in 1986, the year Out of Africa won Best Picture, it may have seemed gritty in comparison, but Lee was building his own kind of luscious fantasy. In a scene shot at the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Fort Greene Park, the black-and-white film suddenly cuts to brilliant color for a dance number. The Dorothy-in-Oz effect is beyond cinematic, almost synesthetic: The monument’s covered in graffiti, and you can smell the paint.
A lifetime later, Lee returns to She’s Gotta Have It, directing all 10 episodes of a Netflix remake. There’s no more graffiti on the monument — no graffiti anywhere if the gentrifiers have their way! The new Nola is the radiant DeWanda Wise, and her lovers (don’t call them boyfriends) are a disparate trio. Jamie Overstreet (Lyriq Bent) is a businessman, married with child. Greer Childs (Cleo Anthony) is a self-described “biracial Adonis,” a photographer who loves himself more than Kanye loves Kanye. Anthony Ramos is chatty Mars Blackmon, the character Lee later made famous in Air Jordan commercials. “I’m not a freak,” explains Nola, a line from the film that sounds outdated now. (Multiple partners: What a concept!) And there is some reboot hyperbole. In the original, Mars was a Michael Jordan fan with, like, one poster on his wall. Ramos’ Mars has a whole Jordan shrine. It’s pastiche, maybe too retro. Wise’s Nola is a cinephile, so her idea of a put-down is telling a dude, “You think you’re Guido from Fellini’s 8½?” It’s a line that brings happy tears to this cinephile’s eye, but there’s something fuddy-duddy in the execution, these twentysomethings who worship old heroes and never mention Tinder.
But the show quickly asserts itself as a generous rom-com, granting Nola and the boys their own journeys. Lee’s returned to this material with a purpose. At the end of the premiere, Nola’s assaulted on the street, a moment that spurs artistic-romantic evolution. It also symbolizes, maybe, a greater sense of a culture invaded. This Fort Greene is more expensive, much whiter. Its conflicts are going national. Late in the season, Lee shows his characters on Election Day 2016, living through history with deep fear but also a sense of community.
Lee can preach, of course, but the mood is always fizzy, sparkling with incidents. There’s also a subplot about buttock augmentation, a couple of dance numbers, a complete visual staging of Sinatra’s “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road).” Like fellow ’80s auteur David Lynch, Lee has found a new gear through self-revival. The premiere ends with Nola posting street art over an advertisement for the original film. It’s a meta moment, but also a mission statement. This new series isn’t an adaptation. It’s a profound act of cinematic graffiti, gentrifiers be damned. B+