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The Globe and Mail

She’s Gotta have It is breezy yet serious-minded on urban life and love

The first time I saw Spike Lee's movie She's Gotta Have It was in 1986 at what was then called the Festival of Festivals and later became TIFF.

The film had caused a small sensation at the Cannes festival in the spring and it won Award of Youth – Foreign Film. The film had a buoyancy to it, a rhythm and perspective that was highly unusual. At the time I was freelancing for British and Irish magazines and I met Lee and did a brief interview with him. He had a remarkable assuredness for a first-timer. He was soft-spoken but utterly confident. Some questions he answered by simply cocking an eyebrow in skepticism and answering, " I don't know."

He did know what he was doing, mind you, and within a few years he would be a major filmmaker, a controversialist and a celebrity.

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She's Gotta Have It (starts streaming on Netflix on Thursday) is Lee's own adaptation of the movie to TV series. He directed all 10 episodes of the series, wrote several episodes and those he didn't write are written by women. It's a remarkable series on several levels. The first astonishing aspect is that Lee essentially takes the same story and characters and, in a contemporary space, spins the same magic.

Both the film and series chronicle artist Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise), a self-described "sex-positive, polyamorous pansexual" who lives in Brooklyn. Nola lives her sex life to the fullest, largely with three male boyfriends who compete for her attention, for her admiration and, some of them, for her heart. Each man offers Nola something specific. Each also lacks something that the other offers. Nola is not in the least bothered by the openness of her love life. She is honest and secure in her choices, specifically her issues with monogamous relationships.

The set-up for the series is that Nola has agreed to have her life documented. She talks directly to the camera sometimes, as do other characters. "Folks think they know me," Nola says at the start. "They don't. I consider myself abnormal. But who wants to be like everybody else?"

The resulting series is a heady, often gorgeous, concoction. It is, visually, a love letter to Brooklyn, an area that Lee paints in wistful, melancholy colours. Lee remains one of those directors who take enormous and sensual pleasure in presenting places they love.

There is a lot of sly humour in the series, too. Nola makes plain her impatience at the everyday harassment she gets on the street, from men of all ages, and from women. But even that is done by Lee with a certain air of rueful tribute to the idiocy of men, especially older men.

Nola's three partners also get plenty of time to exhibit their characteristics. The most genuinely engaging and charismatic is Mars Blackmon (Anthony Ramos). He's the character played by Spike Lee himself in the original film, and he represents youth and, in a way, tradition, since he's so attached to his local neighbourhood. There is the preening, conceited Greer (Cleo Anthony), a guy who is fabulously handsome but so aware of it that Nola rolls her eyes before she actually gets down to enjoying his body. The most complex male, in the first few episodes, might be the married businessman Jamie (Canadian Lyriq Bent, who is truly outstanding). And then Nola's occasional girlfriends also get the attention of both Nola and the camera.

It would be hard to say with certainty that She's Gotta Have It actually has a plot. It is simply about Nola and her life and lovers and the conversations they have about life, love and the black experience in the United States. The latter is done with a kind of casualness that is linked directly to the tone of the original film. There are no speeches, per se. There are odd, linked insights and chats about life that casually illustrate lived experience. That's where the buoyancy is – in the almost offhand manner that Lee and his team offer lessons. Those lessons are humourously delivered, even if done with a flinty insistence on truth.

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Lee also uses an unusual method to inject music, literature and politics into the series. Names and even album covers or book covers appear briefly on the screen, as Lee wants the audience to know the history and culture from which he and his characters have emerged.

In some ways, She's Gotta Have It is a retort to another series about a group of young people living in New York City and environs. At times, it seems like a version of Lena Dunham's Girls, but seen through very different eyes and experience. For that alone, but mostly for its breezy yet serious-minded celebration of urban life and love, it is highly recommended.

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