“You were watching that at work?!”
Even DeWanda Wise was surprised when I told her I tried to screen Season 2 of her show She’s Gotta Have It at my desk.
It started out fine, with establishing shots of Brooklyn in the summer, showing us where our cast of characters are now. But then, within the first five minutes, Nola Darling (Wise) and Opal (Ilfenesh Hadera) are entangled in an intensely passionate love scene—and I immediately minimized my screen and made plans to watch the rest of the season from home.
I really should’ve known that She’s Gotta Have It wasn’t ideal for cubicle viewing. Spike Lee’s original 1986 film and Season 1 of the Netflix adaption are known for their portrayal of unapologetic female sexuality through Nola, who defined herself as a “sex-positive, polyamorous pansexual who doesn’t believe in monogamy.” In Season 2, we fast forward 18-months to find a newly monogamous Nola. After her viral #MyNameIsnt campaign, the artist, still based in and the gentrified Brooklyn neighbourhood of Fort Greene, is now navigating her newfound success, trying to maintain her core ideals while also figuring out how to be profitable as an artist. This season—which streams on Netflix on May 24—Nola is decidedly more introspective and focussed on her art rather than her romantic partners—but She’s Gotta Have It still works to push how we think about women’s sexuality.
Sex scenes like the one between Opal and Nola raise issues of representation and who these scenes are intended for—is it for the male gaze, or is the way these characters make love actually authentic to real people’s lived experience? What is done to ensure that the actors on set feel comfortable performing intimate scenes? In the context of the Me Too movement and Time’s Up, Wise says some colleagues have told her about new systems getting introduced and intimacy coaches being used to help actors feel comfortable and safe. “But for our production it all comes and stems from me,” she says.
Though She’s Gotta Have It‘s racy scenes earn the show’s MA rating, Wise was very clear in her contract that certain things were off limits. “For example, you will never see any of my co-stars touching or fondling my boobs. There’s no frontal on the show. [My husband, Underground actor Alano Miller, and I] were super specific about our love and marriage, and keeping what’s special and intimate, special and intimate [to us],” Wise told Cassius Life last year. “What turns me on, only Alano knows that.”
Beyond what’s in her contract, Wise also orchestrated how her She’s Gotta Have It sex scenes look and feel—which isn’t always the case on other sets. While filming Season 2, Wise recalls that other actors on set were surprised when Lee would go to her and ask “What are we doing?” prior to shooting an intimate scene.
In choreographing each scene, Wise says is was aso important to her that the way Nola engages with each of her sexual partners reflects that specific relationship. In Season 1, she explained to Backstage , “Mars should feel fun, super fun. Greer, for lack of a better way of saying it, is her f-ckbuddy, so it should look like it and feel like it. And Jamie is very sensual and traditional, so the positions were pretty traditional.”
Wise recognizes that the relationship between Nola and Opal, and the intimacy that is shown in Season 2, is particularly sensitive because it depicts a “very, very underserved community” of queer women of colour. In preparation for filming, Wise researched images of intimacy that she felt were “real and beautiful,” drew from personal experiences and collective consultations with her friends. In addition, she was careful to make sure that in the same way Nola’s sex scenes in Season 1 were appropriate for each character, the opening montage between Nola and Opal felt true to their relationship, too.
“The way that Nola and Opal have sex and enjoy each other, not just in the kind of physical intimacy but even the comfort that Opal has to allow Nola to sketch her, which can feel more vulnerable and intimate for some people than sex,” says Wise. “We concerned ourself with the specificity and the quality of their relationship. And some people will be like ‘Yes, me too!’ and some people will be like ‘Nope!'”
This isn’t the first time Wise has played a queer woman. Aside from She’s Gotta Have It, she also played Erin, who struggled with committing to a girlfriend in Netflix’s BFF comedy Someone Great, and she was recently the voice behind the New York Times essay “Talking to My Fiancé About My Girlfriend” for the Modern Love podcast. But given the industry’s propensity to typecast, Wise has made a conscious effort not to disclose her personal information, such as her age or whether she personally identifies as queer.
“I’ve already walked through the world as a Black woman so there’s a certain section of opportunities that are completely shut off and unavailable to me, so far,” she says. “So anything beyond what you see and you look at with me, I’m like nope, that’s for me to know and you to wonder.”
That said, Wise is drawn to characters like Nola and Someone Great‘s Erin because she saw them as fully fleshed out as opposed to one-dimensional tropes.
“With Nola and Erin, when I read the scripts I recognized whole humans,” she says. “And, no matter what your identity is, you know, whether talking sexual identity, racial identity, I respond to characters that I recognize as fully lived out, living, breathing, already existing humans.”
Even so, Wise knows that the Nola and Opal’s relationship, and the opening scene, may not resonate, or feel authentic, for all audiences. (The depictions of queerness in Season 1 were both celebrated and criticized.)
“I think it will be divided. I think there will be people who feel like we got it right, and there will be people who feel like we did not,” says Wise. “It’s kind of impossible to do that nowadays because there isn’t any one way.”
After a speaking with Wise and learning about the thought she personally put into each scene, she made me want to rewatch the entire series of She’s Gotta Have It to look for the nuance that I may have missed the first time around. Before we got off the phone, I asked her what the title She’s Gotta Have It means in Season 2 compared to Season 1—her answer parallels the agency that she has over how her most intimate scenes are constructed and filmed in this series.
“In Season 1, it kept coming back to she’s gotta have it all. I felt that she was kind of juggling and figuring out how to balance her personal life, her family life and her art,” says Wise. “I think Season 2 there’s far more specificity in terms of really narrowing in, and naming, you know, what the ‘it’ is. Because it’s not enough sometimes to have the thing without thinking of success, thinking of having her art in the world. It becomes more about the quality of the dream and the longevity, and having things in our own terms. I would say Season 2 is that she’s gotta have it her way.”