Thanks to Spike Lee’s enduring legacy and Netflix magic, Nola Darling, the problematic heroine from the black film pioneer’s bold 1986 indie feature film debut “She’s Gotta Have It,” has been resurrected for the 21st century. This time around, there is an extended look with ten full half-hour episodes.
True to the film, Nola has a rotation of three male lovers. There is Jamie Overstreet (Lyriq Bent), a financially secure, slightly older man who is in a complicated marriage and has a child; sneakerhead Mars Blackmon (Anthony Ramos from “Hamilton” fame); and the narcissistic self-obsessed model/photographer Greer Childs (Cleo Anthony). Unlike the film, which is only 86 minutes long, and alludes to Nola’s relationship with her female lover, Opal Gilstrap (Ilfenesh Hadera), the Netflix series fleshes it out. In fact, Nola describes herself as “a sex positive, polyamorous pansexual.”
Sex isn’t the only thing that defines Nola’s life. She is also a struggling artist living in a gentrifying Brooklyn, N.Y., Fort Greene specifically. This time around, she also has friends, particularly gallery owner Clorinda Bradford (Margot Bingham of “Boardwalk Empire” fame) and Brooklyn homegirl Shamekka Epps (Chyna Layne).
Nola’s rebirth comes through DeWanda Wise, whom some may recognize from “Shots Fired” and “Underground” earlier this year. Lee credits the idea of bringing Nola into this moment to his wife Tonya Lewis Lee who convinced him that the film would work well in series form. Earlier in the year, during a Cadillac-sponsored conversation at the American Black Film Festival in South Beach Miami, Wise and Lewis Lee offered insights about the series, which started streaming Thanksgiving Day.
“The story is specifically about retaining your sense of self and finding yourself,” Wise shared. “It’s now. It’s present and it’s always this thing that is evolving.”
Wise also shared that “It was my job to expound on that character and to glean what I could from that performance and from that film and also see what I could do to update it, to specify it.”
But Wise also admitted to bringing some of herself to Nola Darling and amending the title in her mind to “She’s Gotta Have It All” to really dig deep. “I don’t want to live a compromised life. I feel like I should be able to have love and have a career and have like the fullness of family and that’s what Nola is fighting for–an uncompromised life.”
It was very important to Wise that there was a female community behind the updated Nola. “From the writer’s room to Tonya, who I talked to before I accepted the role, to the women [executives] at Netflix, when you have this story, which is Nola’s story, knowing that there is an army of women surrounding you, I mean, to have that feeling of safety, it’s comforting.”
Lewis Lee, a former lawyer who pulls no punches, was very clear that, while Wise saw “She’s Gotta Have It” as Nola’s story and essentially one that women should and ought to handle, it wasn’t necessarily Spike Lee’s view.
“Spike will be the first to tell you and, certainly he’s told me a million times, ‘I created Nola.’ So it’s from a man’s mind and that’s the thing that has been interesting in working on this with Spike,” she said. “[W]hen he created Nola Darling and made “She’s Gotta Have It,” it came from a man looking at, as he would say, ‘men playing women’ and he wanted to flip the script and see a woman playing men but it’s from a man’s mind.
“So, in a way as we got deeper into the conversation, in some ways, there were things that I think Spike was a little blinded by and frankly some of the men in the writers room who didn’t quite get [it] and then it’s like, ‘well, who is this for?’” she continued. “It’s really for women.”
Instead of eliciting frustration only, however, Lewis Lee reported something different. “So it’s been an interesting conversation and an interesting exercise to really talk about who Nola is with all these women at the table with the man at the helm telling us what it is and us telling him what it is,” she said. “But I think we’ve come to a really great place and really created great conversations.”
“She’s Gotta Have It” is currently streaming on Netflix.