The star of Netflix’s adaptation of Spike Lee’s groundbreaking film talks about working with the feted director, Sex and the City and the black female gaze
DeWanda Wise has the kind of relaxed self-confidence that is infectious. She feels so good about herself, that she makes everyone else in the vicinity feel good too. As she laughingly tells the story of her first “general” with Netflix – a sort of informal industry chat – it sounds, at first, disastrous. They were scoping her out for a role in She’s Gotta Have It, Spike Lee’s 10-part TV update of his own groundbreaking debut feature film. Wise was well aware of the 1986 film, which tells the story of Nola Darling, a young Brooklynite artist who openly rejects monogamy, choosing to date three different men at once. She knew nothing of the logistics of Netflix’s remake plans, however. “They were asking me: ‘Do you miss New York?’ and I was like: ‘No! Especially not winters, it’s freezing!’ [It turned out] we were shooting there in winter.” So how did she bag the highly sought-after lead role? Wise’s tone turns serious again; her own worth no laughing matter: “I think they were like, ‘Yes, she’s a strong, independent-minded woman, like Nola.’”
Baltimore-born, Los Angeles-based Wise has been a working actor for more than a decade, popping up in shows such as The Good Wife, Law & Order and Boardwalk Empire, but it is only in the last couple of years that she has come to the fore. Despite her distinctive good looks, she’s evinced an impressive ability to submerge herself convincingly in very different roles.
In the antebellum Georgia-set drama Underground (which also co-stars her husband of eight years, Alano Miller), she played an ambitious, enslaved woman named Clara; she was the grieving mother of a police brutality victim in Fox’s compelling series Shots Fired; and now she’s reviving feminist pin-up Nola in She’s Gotta Have It. It’s quite the run of progressive projects, but Wise says this is purely coincidental. “I would love to say that I was this really noble person, choosing roles for these great reasons … I don’t know if it’s because as a black woman that I’m inherently political? It could be that.”
As for why playing Nola Darling appealed to her, she says that’s fairly straightforward. “I can count on one hand the number of strong, black, feminist icons in film and she’s one.” She also identified with the character. “If I had not chosen a life of committed monogamy, then I would probably be Nola today. I’m friends with some Nolas … I remember dating and being like: ‘Yeah, he’s my composer’, y’know, you’d call them by their occupation or their place of residence. They’re all fully rounded guys, but that’s just not how you experience them.”
In its brightly hued, female friendship-celebrating, fourth-wall-breaking depiction of NYC, the show recalls Sex and the City. It’s a comparison that delights Wise. “Finally! I love Sex and the City! Everyone else has been talking about Insecure and I’m like, right …” she says, with gentle sarcasm, “because that’s the only barometer for us, is it?”
But if this is Sex and the City: 2017, there are some instructive differences. Firstly, in this show, it’s the sex-positive Samantha who’s in the lead role, not the wussy, indecisive Carrie. Secondly, Nola’s work as an artist is shown as genuinely important to her. In one SATC-esque scene, she meets up with her three female besties, but then steers the conversation by saying: “What we’re not gonna do is discuss my sex life over cocktails … not gonna do that cliche,” before proceeding to tell them about her latest art project instead.
Perhaps the most apt comparison for She’s Gotta Have It is neither SATC nor Insecure, but Amazon’s I Love Dick, another show about a horny artist, which privileges the female gaze. Notably, though, I Love Dick is directed by the nonbinary-identifying Jill Soloway, while She’s Gotta Have It, is, of course, directed by a man, Spike Lee.
For Lee, achieving a specifically and authentically female voice wasn’t just a happy byproduct of good casting, but a key motivating factor behind the whole endeavour. In a 2014 interview with Deadline Hollywood, he described the original film’s controversial rape scene as his “biggest regret”. In it, Nola invites one of her boyfriends, Jamie, over to her apartment following a period in which their relationship has cooled due to his discomfort with her polyamorous lifestyle. After she attempts to seduce him, Jamie then rapes her, as – the narrative implies – just punishment for her behaviour. “If I was able to have any do-overs, that would be it,” Lee has said of the scene. “It was just totally … stupid. I was immature. It made light of rape, and that’s the one thing I would take back … I hate that I did not view rape as the vile act that it is.”
Now Lee has had his do-over and, happily, the resulting show is still unmistakably his work. It is still set in Lee’s long-time neighbourhood of Fort Greene, Brooklyn, but now takes in the gentrification that the director has been publicly railing about since shortly after rave reviews of 1986’s She’s Gotta Have It put the area on the gentrifiers’ map. According to Wise, the creative community spirit that characterised Fort Greene in the days before rent hikes and pop-up bars, lives on in Lee’s work. “On his set, it’s a combination of people who have worked with him for years and years, and these wonderful young film-makers and people just out of school. Part of his work on set is teaching and I’d never seen that before.”
This atmosphere suited Wise because of her own background in independent film-making. She wrote the script for a short film called Where You Go in 2016 and it was her work as a star and executive producer of the micro-budget romantic comedy How To Tell You’re a Douchebag that first brought her to the attention of She’s Gotta Have It’s producers. “I’ve worked in indies for so long and I prefer it, because I feel like it’s a forum where I can do my real work,” she says. “It’s just my style to be like: ‘This is what I believe to be true’ and that’s how we worked [on She’s Gotta Have It]. There were only a handful of times where Spike was like: ‘OK … that was ‘a choice’… Maybe don’t walk out of the room like Mary Poppins?’” She laughs. “But he always said it with humour and I’d be like: ‘You’re right, you’re right.’ There was a lot of freedom and a lot of fun and definitely the trust went both ways.”
It’s only post-Weinstein that Wise is starting to understand how unusual total career autonomy is for women in her line of work. “I’ve experienced some shitty shit,” she says, “but not nearly as bad as some of the crazy stories that I’ve heard coming out lately, and so I’m grateful … I think the pervasive mythology is that when you’re starting out, you have to say yes to everything and take everything, and no one ever gave me that memo. So I didn’t know I was supposed to, y’know? I’ve always just been very clear and polite about it, but if something doesn’t speak to me or I don’t want to do it, it’s very simple: I’m just like, ‘I’m not going to do that.’”
It is a very Nola-like response and it’s tempting to think, that in the decades since the original film, the world has become more accepting of a woman who knows who she is, how she wants to live, and refuses to give into pressure to be otherwise. Wise isn’t so sure. “Most women don’t feel like much has changed, especially in the United States,” she says. “Our bodies are being policed, our choices are being policed and, unfortunately, I don’t think we’re in a better place. I feel like She’s Gotta Have It was super-progressive and ahead of its time back then, and it still is.”
She’s Gotta Have It is available now on Netflix
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