We needed Nola Darling in 2017. We just didn’t know it.
Nola Darling is the protagonist of Spike Lee’s 1986 feature directorial debut “She’s Gotta Have It,” which starred Tracy Camilla Johns as a young Brooklyn woman who unabashedly maintains a rotating cast of suitors. The veteran director has brought Nola’s story into the present with a captivating and adventurous 10-episode Netflix series that began streaming Thursday.
DeWanda Wise (“Shots Fired”) is effervescent as Nola, a struggling artist and self-dubbed “sex-positive, polyamorous, pansexual.” Her “loving bed” (adorned with an alarming number of candles, as it was in the original) plays host to three very different men — the nurturing businessman Jamie Overstreet (Lyriq Bent), the narcissistic model/photographer Greer Childs (Cleo Anthony) and the basketball-obsessed bike messenger Mars Blackmon (Anthony Ramos).
The film version was shot in black-and-white, save for one scene, and on Netflix Lee quite literally expands Nola’s world into full color. As in the film, the series explores the inherent complications of Nola’s unconventional sex life — and the way society reacts to a woman who dares to enjoy sex. In that regard, not a lot has changed in the past three decades.
But over 10 episodes (all helmed by Lee), we get to know Nola in new ways. There’s more emphasis on her art — we see her creative process and the hustling she has to do to support it. And we get more intimate portraits of the other people in her life: her close friends Clorinda (Margot Bingham) and Shemekka (Chyna Layne), whose own story unfolds with an air of tragicomedy similar to “Bamboozled,” Lee’s underappreciated 2000 sendup of the entertainment industry.
Nola’s Fort Greene neighborhood also helps make her story feel of-the-moment. Lee never lets us forget that this is gentrified Brooklyn, and we see the effects of a changing community on Nola and her artist parents, Septima (Joie Lee, who played Clorinda in the film) and Stokely (Thomas Jefferson Byrd). It might seem heavy-handed, but Lee, one of gentrification’s most outspoken critics, knows Brooklyn better than anyone.
“She’s Gotta Have It” is full of cheeky references to the director (who makes an amusing cameo) and his work. In one scene, Nola and Greer riff on Denzel Washington’s 1993 Oscar snub for “Malcolm X,” which Lee directed. Ramos (of the original “Hamilton” cast) does a fantastic job of filling Mars’ trademark Air Jordans — a necessary win for the iconic character that Lee himself originated. This time around, Mars’s cycling hat says “Crooklyn” — the title of Lee’s semi-autobiographical 1994 dramedy — instead of “Brooklyn.”
The series marks a feminist triumph for Lee, whose most recent feature film, “Chiraq,” faced criticism for (among other things) a premise that seemed to put unfair pressure on black women. Nola is as confident as she was in 1986, but she’s also vulnerable in a way that’s refreshing. In one standout episode, while reeling from an violent incidence of street harassment, Nola buys a little black dress that spurs telling reactions from Jamie, Greer and Mars, who suggest that she’s dressing for the attention of men.
Lee also gives a welcome update to Opal Gilstrap, a lesbian with whom Nola experimented sexually in the film and whose character smacked of stereotype. Nola and Opal (Ilfenesh Hadera) share a deeper connection here, and their relationship has a profound impact on Nola’s personal growth.
Incidentally, Lee has credited his wife, Tonya Lewis Lee, an executive producer on the series, with convincing him to adapt “She’s Gotta Have It” for television.
Given the format, it’s tempting to breeze through the installments, but I’d recommend taking your time. The series takes some detours from its largely linear format — one episode reflects on the election of President Donald Trump with a five-minute montage that combines character reactions with Stew’s scathing “Klown Wit Da Nuclear Code,” while another features an unexpected dance break that also functions as a tribute to the late pop artist Prince.
There are a lot of additional touches to appreciate — from Lee’s trademark aesthetic (those well-placed floating dolly shots) to the thoughtfully curated soundtrack.
“She’s Gotta Have It” was shot on a shoestring budget, and clocks in at just over 84 minutes. The TV version has a lot more resources to pull from, and Lee uses them with gusto. And despite its whimsy, the series never loses sight of its intention: to tell Nola’s story in her own words.