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I’ll admit it, I’m old.
So old, in fact, that as a 30-something African American woman, “She’s Gotta Have It,” Spike Lee’s feature directorial debut, is a personal touchstone. Sure, I was all of 5 years old when the film was first released in 1986. Yet somehow its star, Nola Darling — a young, gifted and, most of all, free black woman — was a heroine of mine, a blueprint for what life could look like as a grown-up unburdened and unbothered by convention.
For three decades, Darling remained the gold standard of a new type of representation for women of color on screen. She wasn’t Clair Huxtable. She wasn’t Maxine Shaw. She wasn’t Joan Clayton. She was unmatched in both her flightiness and fierceness. A flawed black woman who wasn’t stereotypically invulnerable or, in other cliched terms, strong.
So far ahead of her time was Darling, a 27-year-old “sex-positive, polyamorous, pansexual,” that it feels like a no-brainer to tell her tale now. A broke artist trying to figure it all out in Brooklyn while juggling three very different lovers in one of those fabulous New York City apartments that only exists in the movies? Cue the Instagram followers! The retweets of her every deep thought! The snaps of her navel-gazing witticisms!
Yet three decades later in Lee’s hands Darling 2.0 is a dud. She feels as fresh as a flip phone, as modern as a mood ring (or a septum ring in this case).
At the start of the series Darling, played by DeWanda Wise, speaks directly to the camera (vintage Spike), “I would like you to know the only reason I’m doing this is ’cause folks think they know me. They think they know what I’m about, and the truth is, they don’t know me.”
Here’s the real problem: We do know her. Or, at least, several other depictions of the “her” Darling represents on the small screen. There’s Olivia Pope, Annalise Keating, Issa, and Molly. A short list certainly but one with the kind of three-dimensional characters audiences starved to see themselves reflected in that black mirror deserve.
Ten episodes later we still don’t know anything deeper about Darling or her world than we did five hours ago. Darling, who hustles as many jobs as she does boyfriends to make ends meet, also tells us she’s “abnormal.” Really? How? In the gig economy and the age of Tinder, Darling has to evolve past her “freak deaky” shtick (also no one says “freak deaky” anymore).
Everybody’s juggling something these days. So when Darling declares, “I don’t believe in labels,” the sentiment is hardly revolutionary. It’s more like “Okay, annnnd?” We never get the rest of that sentence.
She’s an artist painted in broad sweeping strokes at a time when HD portrayals are in — and necessary. All of Lee’s signature vibes are here — the floating dolly shots, the talking heads and loud soundtrack. Everything’s just slightly off-kilter, like the awkward auto-correct in a text from dad. Solange playing in the background? Yes please. But 2012’s “Losing You” and not a song (any song!) from her 2016 black female power opus “A Seat at the Table”? You lost me. It’s as if a real-life Darling should’ve consulted on the show.
I wanted to like her. I really, really did. Darling’s struggles — street harassment, bills, boys and a gentrifying Brooklyn — are so familiar. She could slide right on in a brunch session on any given Sunday. As Darling herself explains (during a brunch scene with her girl, no less) an artist has to do more than just use a paintbrush. She has to “guide that brush to places no one has ever been.”
That’s how it feels to be gaslighted by the Netflix redux of Lee’s 1986 feature debut. As if you’re missing something critical just beyond the surface that anyone gushing about the series can clearly see. Thing is, in this case, there’s nothing there besides wistfulness, a longing for something as groundbreaking as the original. A character that breaks it down so it can forever and consistently be broke. Darling barely scratches the surface.
Perhaps that’s Lee’s most notable contribution to the table with this redo, proving once again that black audiences are so starved for content that reflects their experiences that they’d be willing to sit through hours of microwaved nostalgia to get fed.
Although Helena was disappointed in the reboot of “She’s Gotta Have It,” Teresa Wiltz loved it. Read her take here.
Helena Andrews-Dyer is a columnist in the Style section of The Washington Post. Follow her at @helena_andrews.
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