Years ago, a guy DeWanda Wise was dating gave her a DVD of “She’s Gotta Have It,” the debut feature by Spike Lee. The film’s heroine, Nola Darling, a confident young Brooklyn artist who boldly eschews monogamy, the boyfriend said, reminded him of her. “I saw it in my early 20s, at that pivotal point of development where you’re really figuring out your identity, and what you stand for, and how to stick up for yourself,” recalls Wise, describing the character as “one of our very few black female cinematic icons.”
That relationship didn’t last, but the vision of Wise as Nola Darling was prophetic. The actress reprises the role originated by Tracy Camilla Johns in a 10-episode series adaptation of “She’s Gotta Have It,” directed by Lee and premiering on Netflix on Thanksgiving Day. Following supporting roles in Fox’s “Shots Fired” and WGN’s “Underground,” the part represents a major breakthrough for Wise, who puts a distinctly millennial spin on a character who was revolutionary in 1986 — and remains so today. Contemporary pop culture is awash in romantically restless young women, but outside a handful of shows like “Insecure” and “Being Mary Jane,” honest, non-sensationalized portrayals of black female sexuality remain a rarity.
“I just feel like she was exceptionally ahead of her time,” says Wise.
A self-described “sex-positive, polyamorous pansexual,” 2017 Nola ekes out a living as a painter in the once-affordable but now thoroughly gentrified Fort Greene neighborhood. In between grant applications and various side hustles, Nola also juggles four different suitors — including a woman. Whereas the original film portrayed Nola as an enigma who frustrates her various lovers by refusing to commit, Wise’s Nola is an ambitious, fully realized woman who finds the nonstop attention of men both suffocating and exhilarating.
“The bait-and-switch of the show is that what she has to have has changed,” says Wise, whose casually bohemian style (flowy jumpsuit, soccer sandals, headwrap, septum ring) at a Manhattan power-lunch restaurant suggests a healthy level of self-assurance. “I always say, ‘She’s got to have it all,’ which is something that I’ve always identified with.”
For Lee, the idea for the original “She’s Gotta Have It” began with an observation. “I had a lot of friends who would brag about the many women they were with. But when word got back to them that the woman they were seeing was seeing somebody else, they would be furious. And I just could never understand that thinking,” says the director by telephone.
Then fresh out of film school at New York University, he decided to make a movie about a woman who was, like many of the men Lee knew, an unapologetic player. A thought experiment in flipped gender roles, it presented Nola through the eyes of the three very different men trying to win her heart — a conceit inspired by one of Lee’s favorite films, Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon.”
Shot in two weeks on Super 16mm on a budget of $175,000, the comedy went on to gross $7 million, kick-starting the independent film movement in the United States and indirectly helping transform Brooklyn into the city’s most fashionable borough. Once a haven for the African American creative class, brownstone-lined Fort Greene, where a one-bedroom can cost more than $3,000 a month, is now well out of range for a struggling artist like Nola.
A native Brooklynite, Lee made news in 2014 with pointed remarks about the borough’s gentrification — or, as he called it, the “Christopher Columbus syndrome” of white people “discovering” long-thriving neighborhoods like Fort Greene.
His wife, Tonya Lewis Lee, encouraged him to channel these frustrations into his work. It was her idea to revisit “She’s Gotta Have It” for a new generation.
The original film also culminated in a controversial rape scene, in which Nola’s paramour Jamie — the seemingly mature one — forces himself on her in anger. Over the years, Lee has repeatedly acknowledged regret over the scene. He also notes that the original is “100% male gaze” — as groundbreaking as Nola is, she’s also understood from the perspective of men.
The 2017 version is, by design, a female-driven enterprise in which “The black woman’s viewpoint is first and foremost,” says Lee. The show’s writing staff was dominated by women of color, including playwrights Lynn Nottage and Eisa Davis.
That female influence is evident in numerous ways. Nola’s artwork deals explicitly with street harassment and portrayals of the black female body. Her friend Shemekka (Chyna Layne) considers getting injections to enhance her backside. And scenes from the pilot were reshot to incorporate more male nudity — at the insistence of Tonya Lewis Lee, who was an active executive producer on the series.
“This isn’t about Nola just looking at herself. It’s about her experiencing her lovers. As an audience, we needed to experience that,” she says, noting that while her husband wasn’t “always pleasantly receptive… our voices were heard and it does make the show better.”
With the story updated for a contemporary audience and 10 episodes written, one small hurdle remained: finding Nola Darling. Just weeks before filming was set to begin, Netflix was ready to postpone production when Wise emerged as a contender. Some writers on the series had seen her in Dominique Morisseau’s play “Sunset Baby,” portraying “a very different kind of Brooklyn girl” — the drug-dealing daughter of a former black radical. Netflix executives were familiar with her work in the indie film “How to Tell You’re a Douchebag.”
“Everybody was in Spike’s ear about me,” she says. Wise submitted a taped audition, and was summoned to meet with Lee in New York, where he offered her the part on the spot. But there was a problem: Wise hadn’t yet discussed the role with her husband, actor Alano Miller. The pair, married since 2009, wed after a whirlwind three-month courtship (Wise does not share her character’s fear of commitment).
“It was a big conversation to have. And so essentially, I walked away,” she says. But days later, she got a text message from Lee, whom she describes as “a consummate pitchman.” “”Are you up?” it read. “This is urgent. This is Mr. Spike Lee.” After additional conversations with Lee and his wife, and outlining a very specific nudity clause, Wise said yes.
Playing the lead role in a series was a major step for Wise, who worked for one stretch for 42 days straight. At Lee’s insistence, her free time was spent in African dance classes, painting lessons from Tatyana Fazlalizadeh— the artist whose work stands in for Nola’s in the show — or catching up on movies he’d assigned. (Nola, like Lee, is a cinephile.) “My weekends were done,” Wise says. “Anyone who wants to work with Spike, just know that he will take up your entire life.”
Luckily, Wise, raised in a working-class family in Baltimore, is no stranger to long hours. Her grandfather ran what was, for many years, the largest junkyard on the East Coast. (“I remember seeing reruns of ‘Sanford and Son,’ and being like, ‘Did they just rip this?,’ ” she says.)
To help pay her way through NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, she stocked shelves at Trader Joe’s and worked as an RA in exchange for room and board. She also took an entire class on Lee’s film “Bamboozled.” (Though her favorite Spike Lee joint is “School Daze,” which, like “She’s Gotta Have It,” she describes as “edu-taining.”)
While still an undergraduate, she was cast in “Spinning into Butter,” an independent feature about race relations on a college campus — the first of many roles in projects dealing with fraught social issues. “As a black woman, I am inherently politicized,” she says.
Wise has also been reluctant to accept lightweight roles just to pay the bills — “much to my husband’s chagrin,” she jokes. She recalls a minor meltdown during an audition for a tiny part on the CBS police procedural “Blue Bloods.” “My body was literally like, ‘This ain’t you, so I’m going to go ahead and give you an anxiety attack right now.’ “
The actress, who declines to disclose her age because “the minute you give Hollywood a box to put you in, they will find the packing tape,” says that “She’s Gotta Have It” is the first time she was offered a part playing a character specifically described as attractive. Hard to imagine, given her striking looks, yet also “For years, it was like, ‘Oh, is she sexy enough?’ It’s code for my [dark] complexion, and for being a small-busted woman.”
And while she’s keenly aware of the many think pieces and conversations about respectability politics that “She’s Gotta Have It” will almost certainly inspire, she’s excited to be playing a black female character who remains provocative. “We really don’t see expressions of our sexuality. We sit at the sidelines of stories,” she says. “So I’m just thrilled to play people who I recognize as fully human. To say, ‘We are here. We are full.’ And in Nola’s case, ‘Yeah, we are sexually liberated.’ ”
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