Always an audacious stylist, Spike Lee is now enjoying a playfully virtuosic phase in his career. Creating epic canvases on small budgets, such as the viscerally violent and sensual musical cityscape of Chi-Raq, Lee has doubled down on figurativeness, fashioning erotic chamber dramedies with a handful of characters representative of entire societies. The preaching of his recent work, particularly of America’s endemic racism and sexism, has attained a newfound intensity, as the filmmaker weds theatrical and liturgical orations with methods of storytelling that have been enabled by smartphones, YouTube, and other internet platforms. Lee’s seemingly effortless bridging of the past and the present keeps history alive while spicing it up with the speed-freak tempo of the modern world. He’s become one of our cultural gatekeepers, as well as the great director of the modern American musical.
Lee’s Netflix series She’s Gotta Have It, based on his 1986 film of the same name, is also driven by a contrast between the insular and the communal. Lee’s film concerned the sex life of an aspiring artist, Nola Darling, following her as she juggled the attentions of three alternating lovers in her spacious Brooklyn loft: Jamie Overstreet, an earnest professional; Greer Childs, a vain fashion model; and Mars Blackmon, a misfit Knicks fan with a case of arrested development who has a way of bluntly observing the elephant in a room.
The film took a very 1980s view of Nola’s sexuality, celebrating and fetishizing it in equal measure, and its inability to accept her sexual activity as merely a given hasn’t aged well. In the series, however, Lee complicates these characterizations, using the Brooklyn neighborhood of Fort Greene as a microcosm of an America that’s split between various warring yet overlapping social castes, in a fashion that recalls his use of Chicago in Chi-Raq.
The new She’s Gotta Have It has a vast soundtrack, intricately mixing artists from Miles Davis to John Coltrane to Brian McKnight to Stevie Wonder to Dionne Farris to KRS-One to Oliver Nelson and many others, covering a spectrum from jazz to Latin to hip-hop, pop, and classical music. Epitomizing Lee’s obsession with the power of art to preserve history, this soundtrack is an aural melting pot, and Lee frequently cuts to brief close-ups of the covers of the albums from which he’s sampled, which serves as a televisual footnote in a thesis surveying the last century of American culture.
The preservation of real history for the sake of liberating context has always been one of Lee’s great concerns. In one She’s Gotta Have It episode, Jamie’s son researches the national anthem and discovers its embrace of slavery, an awakening initiated by his own controversial use of blackface in a YouTube video for school, which Lee shows us in a cheeky sequence that suggests an update of the musical numbers in his galvanizing Bamboozled.
Every episode of She’s Gotta Have It concerns systemic prejudice, most notably the dangers inherent to the life of a beautiful woman of color navigating a society defined by Caucasian patriarchy. These plots could offer the tidy lessons that are common to television, yet Lee’s an artist with a social conscience as well as a ferocious aesthetic appetite that must also be fed. Lee’s gotten into hot cultural water in the past for his reductive depictions of women and, though this series exhibit a relatively new empathy for feminine life, he remains a naughty sensualist. He enjoys Nola’s (DeWanda Wise) sexual agency, drinking her in with what might be called reverent horniness, grooving on her power both as an intelligent and self-conscious black woman and as a babe. And Lee owns up to this tendency in an autocritical scene, one of many, in which Greer (Cleo Anthony) gets carried away while photographing Nola, his appreciative gaze growing increasingly leering.
There’s a sense in Lee’s filmography of a scolding intellectual seeking to outrun his demons with the cathartic, free-associative power of style. As with many recent Lee productions, She’s Gotta Have It is so formally exhilarating that the sensorial often overrides the textural. The series is awash in bursts of expressionist color, on-screen text, the breaking of the fourth wall, and riffs that allow Lee to revel in the actors’ chemistry and in the intuitive power of his own imagination, leading to tones that daringly crash into one another. Satire often merges with melodramatic earnestness, and this is how a poignant subplot, in which a woman feels that she needs to get buttocks injections so as to have a booty like Nicki Minaj, climaxes with an uproarious musical number set to Colonel Abrams’s “I’m Not Gonna Let.” This is also how Nola’s comically awkward yet moving Thanksgiving dinner with Jamie (Lyriq Bent), Mars (Anthony Ramos), and Greer can morph into a transcendently blissful dance routine set to Prince’s “Raspberry Beret.”
Lee’s a preacher who can get down with the get down (tellingly, many of his characters embody this very duality), and his simultaneous sense of control and of free-wheeling spontaneity suggests a weary common sense born of experience. It’s an experience that the filmmaker hadn’t yet attained when he made She’s Gotta Have It in 1986. Now, more than 30 years later, his sensibility offers hope for a country riven by ignorance and hatred.