Thirty years ago, a young Brooklyn filmmaker named Spike Lee catapulted into the mainstream with his breakthrough first feature, She’s Gotta Have It. Set in the borough that’s been the source of so much inspiration, the black-and-white shoestring production starred Tracy Camilla Johns as Nola Darling, a confident, successful black woman happily carrying on relationships with three very different men who are much less comfortable with the situation than she is. Radical and progressive for its time, She’s Gotta Have It nevertheless also has some dated elements, most notably a jarring rape scene that Lee has since expressed regret about.
That may be one reason he’s chosen to remake She’s Gotta Have It as a 10-episode series for Netflix. Premiering on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 23, it’s still set in Brooklyn and still follows Nola Darling (now played by DeWanda Wise) and her three beaus, but there are some noticeable differences as well, from the gorgeous color cinematography to the introduction of new characters. “Whenever anyone asks, ‘What’s new about it?’ I say, ‘There’s a lot that’s new,” Wise tells Yahoo Entertainment.
We spoke with the actress about those new additions to Nola’s universe and how her story is still relevant today.
What’s your history with the film version of She’s Gotta Have It?
When I was 22, a guy I was seeing gave me a copy of it, and that was the first time I ever watched it. He said that I kind of reminded him of Nola. I didn’t know how to take that! [Laughs] But that was my history with it up until I auditioned. Initially, I was like, “Why are we doing a remake?” But in the process of accepting the role, I was sent all of the scripts, and the scenes that are explored in the TV series are so present and contemporary that they felt really necessary. It’s the reason why so many filmmakers are flocking to TV; that opportunity for Spike to explore the lives of these characters outside of the two-hour narrative feature format.
Over the years, Lee has expressed complicated feelings about the original film. There are things about the movie he’s said that he’d do differently now. Did you talk with him about that?
We have talked about it. We watched the film the weekend before we began filming, and I didn’t remember that you’re watching the movie, it’s going along, and all of a sudden there’s this rape scene! And, you know, the character doesn’t qualify it as rape. [Spike] has qualified it as very immature, and there is an assault in our series, but we don’t go that far. I feel like one of the major updates of the series is taking Nola from being a character constructed by a 22-year-old Spike Lee with his thought at the time being, “What would it be like if the woman behaved like a man,” and really fleshing it out and making Nola a whole woman with all that entails and all that implies. Instead of the assault being something that’s dismissed, it’s thoroughly processed in our series, which brings this added layer of depth and humanity to the character. It makes it not just a sexy rom-com, you know? The assault happens in the pilot, and then we deal with the aftermath of what it is to have your physical body assaulted and, later on, your whole world assaulted. It’s this sense of being attacked on all fronts, and for Nola the journey is how do you retain yourself?
One would think that Nola would be celebrated today for not being shy about asserting her sexuality. But 30 years later, there still seems to be trepidation about a woman expressing herself that way.
Oh, for sure. You can’t win for losing. We’re still super-divided; a woman is either a Madonna or a slut, you know what I mean? And the policing of women’s bodies — you see it more on social media. Like Rihanna gains weight, and all of a sudden people are [judging her]. It’s her body! Why are we even talking about this? Everyone always qualifies the film as being immensely ahead of its time, and it was ahead of its time. And now you see this adaptation and you’re like, “F***, are we still ahead of our time?” More people I know are dating and having multiple partners, but we’re still lacking communication and transparency.
There’s a great scene in the first episode where Nola and her friends are having brunch and one of the characters makes a self-aware Sex and the City reference about how they’re not going to do that thing of sitting around talking about their sex lives in public.
You know, I’ve never had that conversation! [Laughs] In my personal experience, I’ve never gone into graphic detail about anything. It’s clearly a construct of what writers in Hollywood think people talk about. Me and my friends talk about dumb s***, I can assure you. Like what we ate for lunch. That scene was written by Lynn Nottage [a playwright who is also a producer-writer on the series], and it was a reshoot. We wanted to make sure we celebrated Nola’s birthday, even though I don’t celebrate my birthday like that. Her female friends are hands down my favorite addition to the series.
As you said, the film is very much a reflection of who Spike Lee was at 22. It seems like he’s reaching out to involve more women in the series, especially from a writing perspective and behind the camera.
He really did. I’d never worked with him before, and he’s such a big presence in the mind of society and Hollywood. But it was the best artistic process I’ve ever had. He sets up his actors to win. That means you’ll be busy on weekends, but it also means that, for example, when you have a dance scene, you won’t look like an idiot! [Laughs] Overall the whole process was very collaborative, and [I appreciated] his humility of going, “You are a 20-something black woman so I’m going to trust you and trust your knowledge and expertise about what it’s like to be you, now.” There was a tremendous amount of collaboration and trust, which definitely made things very easy and fun.
Did you talk to your predecessor as Nola, Tracy Camilla Johns? She’s moved away from acting in recent years and also has a complicated relationship with the role.
I talked to her, and it was really funny and beautiful. I was super-moved when we met; she’s still very pretty and is also a pastor. I’d known a lot about the aftermath of her experience and how hard it was for her. I got married super-young, so I was walking into the project from a different vantage point. I’m really thankful for that. Had this role come any sooner into my process and my life, I don’t think I would have been able to handle it.
There are some very good interracial love stories being told today, which are important stories to tell. But it’s strangely rare to see love stories about two nonwhite people in a healthy, happy relationship.
Right. It’s kind of crazy how rare it is. I don’t know if [Spike] is being open about this, but here it goes: He was insistent on Nola being my complexion. He was insistent on her being a woman of color and a chocolate woman of color. Because there is still a huge issue in Hollywood of colorism and of women of a certain complexion being desired. Which is fine — I want everybody to work. But it’s imagery we don’t see. It cropped up last year with Issa Rae’s character in [the HBO series] Insecure. There was this collective breath of fresh air, like “Wow, the object of desire is this chocolate black girl!” Even if the romance is just implied, it’s rare that we get to see the imagery. And in our show, it’s fun to explore relationships among people from all over the diaspora: One of our male characters is mixed-race, one is black, and one is Puerto Rican. So that was very much in the back of our minds when we were filming. People have their favorites, and I’m very interested to see who people prefer to see Nola with once the show is out.
How did you approach getting to know your three male co-stars?
When I worked in theater, I had this co-worker who said, “DeWanda, you are just this nonprejudicial flirt!” So I’ve never had an issue with chemistry. I’ve never had to do that thing where we hang out [off camera]. You can work through the brains and the lens of the characters without getting ridiculously method. And our cast is very pretty, so I didn’t have to pretend to be attracted to anyone! [Laughs] It was really important for me to just be very specific about the reflection Nola sees in each man, and I like to believe that shined through because I admire all three of them as actors and as men.
Because Spike Lee played Mars Blackmon in the original film, was he extra hard on Anthony Ramos as the new Mars?
No! Spike loves Anthony Ramos, that’s all there is to it. Anthony is from Brooklyn and Spike saw Hamilton eight times! That character is so wild and definitely holds a special place in Spike’s heart, so the glee he had working with Anthony — gleeful Spike Lee is the best Spike Lee. Whenever he was really happy, mischievous, and childlike, nine times out of 10 it was when Anthony was on set. But he also knew it was important to go in a completely different direction with that character, so we improvised a ton.
What can we expect as the season unfolds? And are there plans to continue the story in future seasons?
I don’t know yet. In many ways, our first season is a complete story, but there are a number of things left super-open. So I could see it going either way. In terms of what to expect this season, we discuss body issues, which we don’t discuss a lot in our community. It’s just presumed that black girls are super-confident. And part of our drama is that she’s a struggling artist, so her career is a huge element. We were filming last year, and we had to shoot a party scene the day after the election — I just remember my co-star and I being rather inconsolable. Having to party and sweat on the dance floor was so cathartic and necessary. I also remember this scene where Nola painted a portrait of the Obamas, and I was weeping. Spike walked out from behind the monitors and just went, “You good? You got it out?” And I was like, “Yeah.”
She’s Gotta Have It premieres Thursday, Nov. 23 on Netflix.
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