She's Gotta Have It: How Tonya Lewis Lee creatively challenged her husband
Returning to the character of Nola Darling marked the perfect opportunity for Spike Lee and his wife, Tonya Lewis, to work together.
Nola was the protagonist of Spike Lee’s 1986 film She’s Gotta Have It, a groundbreaking portrayal of black female sexuality set in Brooklyn and the movie that launched its director’s career. While Spike has been off directing movies of his own since then, his wife of more than 20 years had been getting into the producing game. Tonya Lewis notably backed the 2005 series adaptation of Miracle’s Boys, for which Spike directed multiple episodes. A decade later, they were looking for their next collaboration.
She’s Gotta Have It presented itself as the ideal project for the couple in more ways than one: It gave Spike the space to explore issues of gentrification in Brooklyn, as he’d been itching to, and Tonya Lewis the opportunity to bring a feminine perspective to the story from the very top. She challenged her husband to consider the story’s female perspective in different ways, from sex scenes to notions of empowerment, and together they created a vibrant reboot for Netflix. In his review for EW, Darren Franich called the new series a “profound act of cinematic graffiti, gentrifiers be damned.”
Tonya Lewis Lee spoke with EW about working on the series with her husband, who directed all 10 episodes, as well as updating Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise) and her Brooklyn community for 2017. She also touched on Nola’s experience of sexual assault in the series, a storyline that has inadvertently emerged as strikingly timely in the wake of the ongoing wave of sexual misconduct allegations against public figures.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How you did you personally get involved with this as an executive producer?
TONYA LEWIS LEE: This was a couple of years ago. Spike and I had worked together before. It’s been a while and we were thinking about what we could work on coming up. At the time, Spike was really passionately talking about gentrification in Brooklyn and I said, “You know, maybe there’s a way to put what you’re talking about into the work, so that people can see what you’re talking about as opposed to just hearing what you’re saying,” which led us naturally to a conversation about what that would look like. It just seemed to make so much sense to me to revisit Nola Darling 30 years forward, because so many things have changed — not just Brooklyn — that would be a fun exploration of who she should be today.
I rewatched the original movie and Nola (Tracy Camilla Johns) is such a fresh, surprising character for a 1986 story. How did you keep her fresh for this moment in time?
It was really just about focusing in on who is this young woman who is an artist, who’s trying to make her mark on the world and figure out who she is and where she wants to go. At the same time, she’s got to pay the bills and all of that. And she’s living in gentrified Brooklyn. The show is really specific. Fort Greene, Brooklyn, is a very specific place and I think it was an opportunity to really explore the neighborhood and this character — which is very unique in and of itself.
You really capture Brooklyn in a distinct and specific way. How did you approach it?
As I said, gentrification is a big character here. The idea to really show how there are people who move into neighborhoods where they feel they’re sort of — well, there is a sign that calls it “The New Fort Greene,” right? As if it’s brand new. It’s been here, people have lived here. People don’t understand the humanity of the people who were already there. Often, people think of poor people and they don’t ascribe humanity to them. What the show does is, it gives you that. I think it shows you how we can coexist. I think Nola’s a great example of how she’s been there and grown up there. But she also understands the people there, and through her, we get a sense of who the people are who were from there. And maybe that helps in a conversation about gentrification. I think, too, it’s about really seeing the people who were there: Nola, her parents. This is a real community that goes back generations. They’re amazing, great people who deserve to be treated fairly as everybody does. That really was important to us.
How were your collaborations, between you and Spike and staff like Lynn Nottage, who’s a great playwright?
Spike was really wonderfully collaborative. I’m not saying that it was always easy, but the bottom line is that Nola was created by a man and I think that Spike knew and realized — and again, this was a concept that I really came up with to him, and he was like, “Okay, that’s interesting, how do we do that?” In looking at an episodic, doing 10 episodes at least, this character needed to be a really fleshed-out woman. Men have been writing characters forever, but there are things that men don’t know about women. Spike recognized and appreciated that. Having me there, having whether it was Lynn Nottage or Lisa Davis or Spike’s sister, Joie, who’s a writer, having two female executives from Netflix who were on the show — there were a lot of female voices. What was wonderful is we didn’t always communicate with each other, but in communicating with Spike, often we were coming to the same things so that Spike could understand, “Okay, maybe I didn’t get it. Let me listen.” And he did, and it was really wonderful. It was not always an easy experience but truly collaborative in the best way that film and television should be.
You mentioned it wasn’t always easy. Did these conversations inform his direction at all? He did take on all 10 episodes, which is still pretty rare for TV.
I know that it did. For example, I will tell you, the sex scenes that we did. We had a conversation about what it should really look like. Because it’s coming from Nola’s point of view: How are we showing that? Men — they look at women. But if this is really through a woman’s eyes, we need to see how she’s intimate with her lovers. That was a conversation that we had, and I know that some of the direction was informed by that for sure.
Nola’s someone who claims her own sexuality and asserts her own voice, and her experiences in the show feel particularly resonant in the current climate, with so many stories of sexual assault and harassment being made public.
It’s interesting because we had no idea we’d be having such a broad conversation around sexual harassment and sexual assault when we set out to make She’s Gotta Have It. It’s interesting because, as you know, Nola does face an assault early in the season and that sets her off on a path. I think that what is so great about what we were able to do with it is that, as women, we are vulnerable to certain things. Things do happen. But Nola is able to find her voice and power, and take back her power, after she has been assaulted, through her art. It’s a way of showing that we can claim our power. We can claim our voice. Nola is saying, “No man has that much power over me, even if he tries to grab me in the street, and this is how I’m going to claim my power.” I think she’s a great hero for all of us as we think about these issues and how we as women take back our power. I think she’s a hero for us. And she does it in her way. As an artist, her way of claiming her power is through her art. For other women, it’s about figuring out: How do we claim our power?
She’s Gotta Have It launches Friday on Netflix.