‘We Are Too Rare’: The Importance Of Inclusivity Behind Spike Lee’s ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ Reboot

‘For the first time, I was with people of color occupying both sides of the screen, stamping our perspectives on history.’

I n 1985, a young man by the name of Spike Lee had the audacity to write, direct, produce, and star in a film about female sexuality. The plot revolved around a young black woman — Nola Darling — who, Lee described, is “living her life like a man,” a woman deftly toggling between three lovers, unabashedly voracious for sex.

I speak of course of She’s Gotta Have It, the black and white, Brooklyn-set film made for $175,000 that pulled in $7 million. As The New York Times wrote in 1987, “For an independent, shoestring production, this was remarkable. For an independent shoestring production by a black man about black people, it was astounding.”

The film’s candor, humor, and unrelenting examination of gender, race, class, and sexuality rocketed Lee not just into the arts scene, but placed him at the nexus of black culture.

Lee has gone on to direct 76 film projects—from documentaries and video shorts, to feature length films including Do The Right Thing, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, Chi-Raq, and Rodney King. Throughout his career, he’s tasked himself with taking aim at some of the most complicated sociocultural dialogues on the goddamn planet.

The kind of pressure related to such work is, of course, largely untenable. How does one remain the proverbial provocateur, the voice of a generation, of a race?

One answer would be to return to your roots, to the very thing that begot the vision that put you on the map. And so, 30 years later, we find ourselves on Netflix, poised for the revamp of She’s Gotta Have It, a 10-part series that will plunge us back into Brooklyn, back into Nola’s bedroom, to see just how far we’ve come.

Or … to see just how much we’ve stagnated.

The original and new poster for ‘She’s Gotta Have It’

Ironically, if we’d all evolved as much as we would have liked in the past three decades, She’s Gotta Have It would be terribly passé.

But alas, it perhaps feels more poignant than ever. And in no small part due to the fact that Lee, a man, is writing Nola’s story again—a story predicated on what many now call “Black Girl Magic” — surfacing complicated criticisms that have haunted the film since its inception. bell hooks took aim at She’s Gotta Have It in her scathing essay “Whose Pussy Is This?” which examines the infamously humiliating and brutal rape scene of Nola in the original film.

“Overall it is the men who speak in ‘She’s Gotta Have It.’ While Nola appears one-dimensional in perspective and focus, seemingly more concerned about her sexual relationships than about any other aspect of her life, the male characters are multidimensional. They have personalities. Nola has no personality…Her one claim to fame is that she likes to fuck. In the male pornographic imagination she could be described as “pure pussy,” that is to say her ability to perform sexually is the central, defining aspect of her identity.”

Disturbingly, in the wake of being raped, Nola—at first—insists upon her own celibacy, and then monogamy with her lover Jamie, the very man who raped her.

To his credit, Lee has spoken at length about how problematic this rape scene was, calling it his “biggest regret” and promising, “there will be nothing like that in She’s Gotta Have It, the TV show, that’s for sure.”

The film remains — like much art — confounding, fraught, and for many, in opposition to feminist ideals, despite also being visionary, progressive, and at least intending to advance the dialogue around gender equality.

Which is to say nothing of its undeniable power in placing black voices at the center of cultural commentary.

This is all to say, I wanted to talk to someone behind the project who had similar stakes to Nola — a Black, queer, sex-positive artist who was tasked in recreating Nola Darling, a compelling and provocative heroine for the 21st century.

The Establishment caught up with Janis Vogel, an assistant editor on She’s Gotta Have It, who worked hand-in-hand with Lee to make this show one of the most hotly anticipated of the season.

Katie:
So much and so little has changed since 1986 — society is strange that way. But if these themes on race, power, sexuality, feminism and “success” weren’t still potently relevant, the remake wouldn’t be happening. What are you thoughts on how these themes have evolved between the original film and this series? Why is Nola’s story still important?

Janis Vogel at the BAM premiere of ‘She’s Gotta Have It’

JANIS:

It’s true, so many themes touched on in the original are still painfully relevant today, and whether it’s narrative or documentary work, as many voices as possible need to be shedding light on the fact that the world has not improved enough for people of color, women, the LGBTQIA community, and so many others.

In She’s Gotta Have It, Spike Lee has created and recreated a strong black female lead, played by the powerful DeWanda Wise. She’s Gotta Have It was made in 1986 and is the story of a woman who is labeled a freak for having multiple lovers. He has started a conversation, which I have been a part of, a conversation that continuously needs to be challenged.

Spike is challenging viewpoints that, as in 1986, are still predominant oppressive areas of culture today (monogamy, sexuality, gender expression, career choice, fashion, rape culture, police violence). This narrative is still relevant thirty years later and means a lot to me personally. As part of the next generation of filmmakers I want to continue this conversation, and want to challenge all media to continue pushing the boundaries and shattering the narrow viewpoints that perpetuate a toxic environment. Spike wants to challenge the status quo, and continuously states that Nola is just one woman’s story and there is room for many more.

I look forward to the discussions that arise when the show airs on November 25. I can’t wait to experience the heated debates the show will inspire knowing that I was a part of making the world talk about black women, race, gender, slavery, Trump—and so much more, everything that must never be swept under the proverbial rug.

The painter, the minx, THE Nola Darling played by DeWanda Wise

KATIE:
It’s no secret that film and television (as with almost every occupation on earth with the exception of nurses, teachers, and social workers) is dominated by white men. Having a queer woman of color like yourself work on the post production team for this story feels particularly poignant. What are your thoughts on how your personal identity intersects with the content of the series, as well as how it disrupts the demographics of this industry writ large?

JANIS:

Women of color behind the camera—we are too rare. People trust what they’re familiar with, and editing is a position of trust. Editors are trusted with the images of the film, entrusted with the task of making meaning of disparate frames of action and sound. The two editors on She’s Gotta Have It, Hye Mee Na and Randy Wilkens were both people of color and were the ones who initially brought me onto the project. I in turn was able to have a hand in hiring two additional women onto our team, Jacqueline Basse and Briana Stodden. I have worked on shows where, I am the only woman or only woman of color in the room, so this was a rare opportunity to be in an environment where that norm was basically reversed.

At one particular screening I remember being very conscious of the fact that for the first time in my career, I was in a room with solely people of color occupying both sides of the screen. We were making films, making cultural currency, stamping our perspectives on history. I relished it all in a silent inner high five.

That experience was invaluable, necessary, for me as a person of color to not just know that was possible, but to live it. I was having conversations with my coworkers that I had never had on other jobs. Our water-cooler discussions were about race, gender, sexuality — which is not always the case in the film industry. It is our responsibility to normalize these conversations.

While I was working on the show, I was also co-president of an organization, The Blue Collar Post Collective. We advocate for more inclusiveness in the film industry and support emerging and transitioning talent in post production. When there were job openings on She’s Gotta Have It, I was able to pull from our membership, and thereby embody our mission to make the industry more accessible. It’s so important to pull other people up with us as we rise—to not see success as a competitive edge, but as an opportunity for those beside and below us to succeed as well.

In August 2017, scenes from SGHI premiered at the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival, which was held in my high school. Sponsored by HBO, the festival was in its 15th year. At the festival I watched an episode of Insecure with Spike and when I asked him if the show was “the competition” he reminded me that there is room for more than one black female narrative.

Nola does not represent all black women. There is so much room for everyone on both sides of the screen. Spike Lee is using his voice to talk about women of color, men of color, race, and politics in America. There is still a long way to go, a lot more voices to hear from.

KATIE:
I think, to be honest, the biggest distraction for me in the movie were the three male lovers — they were all so infantile and exhausting in their own way. I never believed this brilliant, confident woman would be dealing with any of them. I obviously disagree with bell here, but to me, the men are broadly sketched, their nuances as people unexplored. Does the series better tackle these men as different-but-compelling entities to Nola as there is more screen-time to explore them and their myriad relationships?

The “new” Mars played by Anthony Ramos

JANIS:

Spike asked me one day, “which team are you on?” as in which of Nola’s lovers do I root for most.

It was tempting to say Mars, because Spike played Mars. I said Greer. “Greer?! Greer?!” he said. Spike was shocked. It became a recurring question he liked to ask people—Spike likes teams. He would regularly say to us “6:30am bat-time,” and then later, “bat-time same time tomorrow.” I think this team-orientedness is reflected in his storytelling. He seems to like clear differentiation between characters, while still rendering the characters more than caricatures; his characters end up breaking the molds of stereotype in unpredictable ways.

It’s so important to pull other people up with us as we rise.

KATIE:
One of thee most chilling scenes in the movie to me is Nola’s nightmare that three other black women want to burn her alive for stealing their men…for being a “whore,” for tainting the few “good black men” around. It’s a short but deeply painful and powerful scene that deals with the respectability politics of being black in America — especially as a young single woman of color who is sexually empowered. It’s a brief schism in Nola’s confidence that we get to bear witness to.

JANIS:

Nola’s confidence is definitely tested in the series. Nola demands respect even while she is exploring her options, not just in terms of lovers, but in terms of her whole self expression.

The female characters in this series question each other’s choices. But rather than feeling like a shaming nightmare, the series tries to promote the idea that friends should check each other. They aren’t resentment-free—one friend says, “we can’t all be like Nola, dating three hot dudes at once.” On the other hand, throughout the series Nola is faced with men shaming women and victim-blaming.

And Nola doesn’t put up with objectification or judgment on any level. In this sense, she is a role model to all women. She refuses to be a victim, to hide. Nola wants it all: She wants to be revealing, she wants to sleep with multiple people, and she demands respect—anything less is a waste of her time.

This is not because she is impervious to pain or conflict. She goes to therapy; she is vulnerable; she faces challenges in her every-day life. In this sense, she is a role model to all women, not via invincibility, but via being human.

KATIE:
I’ve never been called “sick” in response to the joy I derive from sex, but I’ve certainly had to explain (
again and again) why it feels important to my own feminism to be really vocal and visible about my physical pleasure…can you talk a little bit about the celebration of female sexuality in the series?

Nola gets her impeccable selfie on with Greer (Played by Cleo Anthony)

JANIS:

The series definitely opens up a conversation about female sexuality — her own sexuality is one of the major sectors of identity Nola is processing. While broadening her definitions, Nola defines her own boundaries and rules very strongly. She defines herself as a “sex-positive, polyamorous, pansexual” person; her therapist reacts with raised eyebrows.

I would say, more than celebrating sexual fluidity, the series plays the role of keeping that dialogue alive. Nola celebrates and defends her own freedom, faces consequences, and ultimately makes difficult choices surrounding her sexuality. She’s navigating obstacles and complications that arise due to her sexuality—she is defining herself against the “norm” represented by the perspectives of her lovers, who themselves vary in their adherence to norms and morals of any standard sort. Still, the series seems to ask, can Nola have everything—even 30 years later?

Three decades later, from rude comments on the street, accusations by close friends and lovers (one calls her a sex-addict), to sexual assault—all the forms of repression explored in the film are included, and rightfully so, in the series.

Nola shares a laugh with Jamie (played by Lyriq Bent)

KATIE:
What can “happen” in a TV series that you can’t achieve with a film? Or vice versa? Why transmute the original film into this medium instead of making a new film…?

JANIS:

Before shooting began, Spike invited us to a screening of the original She’s Gotta Have It from 1986, as well as a documentary about gentrification in Fort Greene where most of the series was shot. Before the screening began, Spike announced “We are not making television, we are making cinema.” It was more than a matter of vocabulary, Spike called the episodes “reels,” but it went a lot deeper than that.

Nola does not represent all black women.

Spike directed every episode, seeing each one through the edit with meticulous care and a passion for the very edges of each frame. We watched dailies together as a team every day. Around seven of us—two editors, Hye Mee Na and Randy Wilkens, the DP, Daniel Patterson, producer Elizabeth Hunter, my co-assistant editors David Valdez and Jacqueline Basse, me and Spike—would squeeze into an edit suite at the end of every shooting day and watch 2 to 4 hours of dailies.

It was like being let into Spike’s brain in real time as he watched every take of his own creation — it was surreal, educational, and often hilarious. Once the episodes were cut we would watch them weekly in the theater, on the big screen. The way it felt to watch it in a theater, the examination of the frame possible on the big screen, were vital in elevating this from television to cinema. If he could he would make the whole world watch it on the big screen. It makes a difference.

This is the first time Spike has created a series for television. It was Executive Producer Tonya Lewis Lee’s idea to base a series on She’s Gotta Have It. Spike’s work spans many genres, so it makes sense that he would foray into the ever- popular world of binge-watching.

In terms of the differences between the mediums, episodic storylines can branch off further from the centerline. More themes can be developed and a wider cast of characters can be explored. Spike took advantage of having more time; his films are almost never shorter than two hours, so having five hours to tell this story was still not enough. Give that man a canvas and he will fill it and paint on the back, too.

Give Spike Lee a canvas and he will fill it and paint on the back, too.

KATIE:
Greer (one of three lovers) says Nola, “has no devotion, allegiance, or loyalty.” At the end of the film, we find her happy, alone, scores of candles burning behind her. I think of Ella Fitzgerald singing, “I’m all alone when I lower my lamp. That’s why a lady is a tramp.” There is something even more subversive about Nola going to sleep alone, rather than with three different lovers. It defies even a need for sexual satisfaction from someone else….

JANIS:

I love this ending for the film. As a feminist, it’s among my core beliefs that I can have people in my life, but I can also be happy alone. In fact, being happy alone is the prerequisite to having others in my life. I think the “new Nola” reflects this belief, saying “I have to look within to feel what makes me happy.”

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