In an era ruled by nostalgia, Spike Lee chose to revisit the bold heroine of his 1986 breakout hit She’s Gotta Have It, reimagining the sex-positive female artist Nola Darling and her Fort Greene enclave 30 years later.
Keeping with the spirit of true modernity, Lee expanded the classic into a 10-episode series currently streaming on Netflix. But unlike the '86 "Spike Lee Joint"—which offered a refreshing take on female sexual pleasure but told from a solely male perspective—the series benefits from a myriad of new, female voices that contributed to the show's making, like that of lead actress DeWanda Wise and art consultant Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, whose 2012 street art campaign inspired the work of Lee's modern-day Nola.
Another prominent voice comes from She’s Gotta Have It executive producer—and the director’s wife of 24 years—Tonya Lewis Lee. InStyle spoke with Tonya about all things She’s Gotta Have It—from expanding her husband’s vision and adapting it for a modern audience to the importance of using art to shed light on issues affecting the black community today. Scroll down for the full interview.
What’s your relationship to the original film?
I originally saw it when I was a junior in college, studying in Paris, and actually saw it for the first time in Paris and was just blown away by it. I think seeing this woman who was larger than life, her multiple relationships, and the way she lived life on her own terms, as a 20-something myself at the time, she really spoke to me.
What inspired the reboot?
Spike and I were really trying to find something to work on together, and at the time he had been speaking very passionately about gentrification in Brooklyn, where he grew up, and I started saying, like, “Let’s figure out how we can put what you're talking about into the work,” which naturally led to a reimagining—not only just talking about Fort Greene and gentrification, but a reimagining of what a young woman in 2017, what her life would be like in a gentrified Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
What was it like working with your husband?
Spike is a very passionate director, and as collaborative as he is—because it is a collaborative medium—he really was very open. Being his wife was a little different. There were days where we did go to bed angry with each other. Looking back, it was so much fun, and we did spar on some things, but I think that’s what makes it better. I do look forward to the next thing we can work on together, because I think we do it pretty well.
She’s Gotta Have It is a strong female narrative, but it’s created by a man—how did you work to incorporate the authentic female perspective into Spike’s vision?
I really appreciate that question, because, it’s funny, Spike did create Nola, and I think in a way it starts with the fact that I’m the one who really did see it as episodic—I don’t think Spike was really thinking about Nola to begin with, and I don’t mean that in a negative way, just he wasn’t really thinking about it. From there, to be honest, we had two female executives at Netflix who loved the original She’s Gotta Have It and loved the idea of exploring this woman today, and then we made sure the writers’ room had a diverse group of voices, specifically several woman weighing in, and I think that was really key. Also, the artist, Tatyana, who did all of the portraits in She’s Gotta Have It, also had a voice. It was her street art. It was a true campaign that Nola starts in the series. And then we have DeWanda Wise, who’s the actress who embodies Nola. She’s a strong actress and strong woman who has a voice of her own and really brought her own ideas to the character. I think this time around, Spike is really surrounded by many female voices, and he listens. I think he realizes that as an episodic he had to have those voices at the table to make her authentic.
Aside from incorporating a more authentic female perspective, how did you and the team work to adapt this work for a modern audience?
Spike says he was thinking of it as a film. He was thinking of it not so much as television that he wanted to make, just a movie. I came to the realization that most directors have a hard time telling the story in two hours. Usually their pre-cuts come in at much more, so to have an opportunity to spend five hours to really tell her story was something that was really exciting to him, so I think, again, the jumping off point was really thinking about: What does Fort Greene look like today? As I mentioned, Spike had seen [Tatyana's work] on the walls, in the street, and was really inspired by her campaign and wanted to bring that to the forefront of what we were doing. And so, I think all of those things really [were] the impetus and the way we initially started thinking about what Nola would look like in 2017.
In the original film, the phrase “She’s Gotta Have It” seems to overtly refer to Nola's liberal relationship with sex, but now that the story has been fleshed out for serial consumption, do you think it goes beyond that? What does the title mean to you now?
I definitely think back in ’86 “She’s Gotta Have It” was more about her sexual appetite. Today, it’s more like “She’s Gotta Have It All” in a way. She’s trying to figure out what “it” is, and what it all means. To me, when I look at this series, it’s really more about this young woman who’s trying to figure out how to make her mark on the world. Being a human being, we’re all sexual, otherwise we wouldn’t be here, so she’s just working that out as she’s just figuring out who she is and where she’s supposed to be in the world.
The series comes at an interesting time in light of the sexual harassment allegations sweeping Hollywood—what is Nola, and the series itself, trying to say to these victims?
It’s interesting. As you say, we had no idea we would be here, and as I said, Tatyana really did come up with this campaign. In a way, it’s like all of the sudden we’re having this conversation, but this conversation has been going on, and I think it’s great that Tatyana’s voice is able to now have a bigger platform in this conversation about sexual harassment. I would think that Nola would say, to the victims, we have to figure out how to reclaim our power, and Nola’s way of doing that is through her art. And I think that for all women who go through whatever they go through, as difficult as it may be, we have to try to figure out how to dig deep and turn that around and reclaim our power.
[Spoilers ahead:] That scene with Shemekka at the club really stayed with me. [The character gets faulty butt injections and becomes seriously ill]. Plastic surgery is rarely explored onscreen in that way—why do you think it was important to include?
I will tell you, it was deeply important to Spike. Spike was very passionate about that. Again, that’s a conversation that’s a part of the underbelly of our society. Women are actually dying from bootlegged butt injections, amongst other plastic surgery operations, so I think for Spike it was really important to make sure that we were also keeping an eye on the fact that that is happening out here and reminding people that it’s a serious thing, and people are literally dying from trying to change their bodies in ways that are just not necessary.
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Do you see that as sort of playing into the title as well?
It’s interesting that you say that because I think to your point, it’s like all of the women. It’s not just Nola. It is Shemekka, who’s trying to hustle and figure out how to be who she is. It’s Clorinda, who is starting her own gallery, trying to figure out who she wants to be in this space. So I think that all of the woman are trying to figure out what "it" is. Unfortunately, for Shemekka, she thought it was one thing … Hopefully she learns.
Do you have plans for a second season?
That remains to be seen. Hopefully people show up and watch and we get another order. Fingers crossed!