Please Baby Please

I’ve been defending the films of Spike Lee for a long, long, long time.  I’m old enough to remember having very deep thoughts (well, as deep as could be expected for a 16-year-old suburban white kid) about the first incarnation of She’s Gotta Have It, his very first full-length feature film, and being fascinated with the book he wrote about it (Spike Lee’s Gotta Have It:  Inside Guerrilla Filmmaking) and how he financed and produced it under extremely precarious circumstances.  Hell, I was one of the few people to defend Chi-Raq, something that very, very few critics were willing to do.  (You suck, critics.)

When I heard that Spike was rebooting his first cinematic feature as a Netflix mini-series, my feelings were, uh, decidedly mixed.  His recent movies have been a mixed bag; they’ve been generally unfocused, but with occasional streaks of the genius that has marked his work from the beginning.  It’s hard to blame him alone for the quality of the films; he’s had a hard time getting financing for his movies, which has been the case for a lot of very established filmmakers in the age of new media and egg-basket blockbusters but is only exacerbated by the fact that he’s black and famously outspoken.  As leery as I usually am about reboots, and as diffident I am about the Netflix binge-watching formula, I held out some hope that the She’s Gotta Have It mini-series would do for Spike Lee what Twin Peaks:  The Return did for David Lynch:  allow him the late-career freedom to indulge his best tendencies.

Well, that’s not what happened.  I’m not completely off the Spike train, but I’ve moved to a more comfortable spot in the observation car where I can look back on his great work of the past without having to spend a lot of time on this, a misguided and sloppily executed effort whose high points are a replay of his earlier work and whose low points are a combination of his worst habits and the contribution of talented writers who directed their skills to exactly the wrong project.  (Let me preface the remainder of this review by saying that the argument can be made that She’s Gotta Have It isn’t made for me, as a non-black non-woman, and that while that’s entirely fair, I’ve read enough reviews by female African-American critics to believe that I’m not totally off base in my assessment.)

Let’s start with the good stuff.  She’s Gotta Have It is stuffed with good performances, and even though the characters aren’t always very well-drawn (hoo boy, aren’t they ever), Lee has found just the right actors to embody them.  DeWanda Wise, who takes over the role of free-spirited artist and polyamorous adventuress Nola Darling, is charismatic as hell and sells even some of the most misguided scenes; Anthony Ramos does the impossible by taking over Mars Blackmon from Spike Lee himself; and there’s terrific small parts for a range of good actors in support, including Ilfenesh Hadera, China Layne, and De’Adre Aziza.

It’s also a gorgeous piece of filmmaking.  If you can make the argument that this is a grand tour through Spike Lee’s previous work, it comes through most especially in the visuals (with cinematography by Daniel Patterson, Spike’s lensman on 2014’s underrated Da Sweet Blood of Jesus).  Elegant moving shots of scenery, transformative and elegant movement in the musical numbers, stunning use of close-up, and fantastic composition are always on display, and there’s at least one eye-popping segment in every episode.  Spike has never been a realist in his visual style, but the artificiality of She’s Gotta Have It works in its favor at every turn.  It’s one of the few Netflix series that’s worth watching for the filmmaking alone.

That’s the good news.  Here’s the bad.  The characterizations, as I’ve noted, are sloppy and confused; over the space of ten episodes that focus almost entirely on Nola Darling (and which strays disastrously when it moves away from her), a clear image of who she is and what she wants — for good or bad — never really emerges.  Her three lovers are one-dimensional at best; only Lyriq Bent’s Jamie Overstreet gets a side story, and it’s ridiculous, involving a shallow diversion about his wife and kids and a ludicrous gangsta diversion featuring the perpetually mumbling Fat Joe that seems like it wandered in from a completely different show.  For a story that focuses so specifically on one character and her relationships with three others, it ends with us having no more of a handle on her than we had at the beginning.  The argument that Nola is supposed to be a house of contradictions only goes so far before you suspect it’s just bad writing.

Which brings us to She’s Gotta Have It‘s biggest problem:  it’s corny.  It’s a big tray of hot elotes with extra mayonnaise.  Spike and his writers are trafficking in a youth culture they clearly don’t understand, currents in culture that they clearly don’t care that much about, and a generation that is clearly not their own.  Everything seems a little off, a little outdated, a little trite; from Nola’s juggling of multiple men (a shocking subject for 1986, maybe, but hardly worth talking about today) to views of gentrification and language that are deeply confused to a far-too-long subplot about Layne’s cosmetic surgery that is both bizarrely over-the-top and, well, kinda sexist.  Spike can’t even absorb much of the blame here, as he brought in a lot of women of color to write the scripts for most of these episodes; they’re all very good writers, but their approach to this material is wildly scattered.  Its views of politics, its moral positions, and its cultural commentary are simultaneous obvious and incoherent, and the character of “Papo” is so wildly predictable a way to deal with police harassment of people of color that it might as well be out of a Punch and Judy show.

She’s Gotta Have It is worth watching, because Spike Lee will never lose his visual flair, his energy, or his willingness to tell stories no one else will tell (even when that’s a bad idea).  It looks great and it sounds great, but it’s not great.  The extra time that comes from the television format is decidedly not his friend, and at a time when the stories of everyday black lives are rightfully in the forefront of our cultural conversation, he’s made a show that recalls not Malcolm X or Do the Right Thing, but Bamboozled.

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