She’s Gotta Have It – Thirty Years of Spike Lee
This week, 30 years ago, She’s Gotta Have It released in theaters as the first feature length film by writer/director Spike Lee. The story of Nola Darling’s (Tracy Camilla Johns) sexual independence and polyamorous relationship with three eligible bachelors sets Lee’s debut apart from the independent debuts of those stars of Sundance at the decade’s turn. That summary pretty well sets up the plot of the film; Nola dates three men, they all want to have her for themselves, drama and comedy ensue. Yet its frank discussion of sexuality, and its leading role for a woman, give She’s Gotta Have It personality sometimes lacking in those first outings about arrested development and would-be thieves.
Thinking about this film, it’s hard to set aside Nola from being the first point of discussion. Often, sexually independent or energized women in film are depicted as narrowly focused on turning every encounter sexual. Nola stands apart from that stereotype, with a lot of the film’s focus placed on her laughing with Mars (Spike Lee,) on teasing Greer (John Canada Terell) for his arrogance, on a more traditionally romantic interaction with Jamie (Tommy Redmond Hicks.) She has girlfriends, even if one of them is trying to sleep with her as well. Instead of simple lust, Nola is a woman who lives life well-rounded, her sexual proclivity and polyamory not definitive of her character. In fact, the film goes out of its way to have Nola visit a therapist on Greer’s behest, only to be cleared of sex addiction. Johns gives the character a sense of humor, but the character is neither a joke nor a stereotype; Nola comes across as a woman concerned about her reception by these men but still firm in her desires. This remains on a crossroad between a sex comedy and a romantic comedy, so her actions are defined by her interactions with these men, but she also serves as a valuable and valid protagonist in her own right.
Each relationship is complicated by the shared awareness of the other men; another traditional story device might be to have the men be unaware of one another, but Nola’s polyamory is open, if received unevenly. Furthermore, the men themselves almost seem to be family; when Nola has the three over for Thanksgiving dinner during the second act, they express familiarity with one another beyond what I have with some of my own extended family. There’s a sense of community these interactions creates, and when Mars interrupts an interview with Jamie (She’s Gotta Have It also introduces Lee’s technique for breaking the fourth wall) it’s funny but also entirely understandable. In fact, in some ways, the men predate the ABC summer obsession, The Bachelorette, and the sexuality and comparative veracity (not to mention variety of personalities, and the film’s blackness versus the show’s almost ubiquitous whiteness) make it possible to recommend for those who are turned off by the absurd fantasy presented on the reality show. Both shows gain humor in comparisons between the men; Greer, as the especially handsome and especially stupid villain, is only a funny relationship partner when paired with the romantic, if safe and a bit boring, Jamie. But with that comparison, he gains the specific sort of humor on vapidness captured again by Eddie Murphy in the Soul-Glo ads in Coming to America.
Lee, in the same way as any actually funny or intelligent person on The Bachelorette, stole my heart as Mars. Lee’s not too precious about the character, allowing him to be genuinely immature and as narcissistic as Greer; he’d go on to play something of a villain in his next film, School Daze. But Mars is just genuinely funny; I like spending time with the character. Well, actually, I like spending time with most of these characters, even Greer, if only because he brings out something good in Nola. This is a genuinely fun movie, from some romantic and joyful moments (the highlight being a gift from Jamie to Nola) to some good laughs. A montage of New York’s “most eligible bachelors” giving their pick-up lines illustrates the absurd premise that somehow Nola even found three men worth dating. And yet, unlike other comedy debuts, the film stays away from stereotypes, from slapstick, from simple observational comedy, from “the taboo” being the whole joke. Sex is not funny in this movie, it’s sexy, and Nola is sexy, and Jamie and Greer are definitely sexy, and even Mars is kind of sexy in that he seems like a fun partner. This is a smarter sex comedy and a fun one.
Formally, this is one of the strongest debuts I’ve seen – particularly the management of the three relationships, and it takes a healthy structure and a smart editor to keep these three relationships balanced. Spike Lee’s love affair with New York City, from its streets to its parks and chain link fences, is alive already, and the apartments portrayed here are fantastic. Especially striking is the darkness in Nola’s bedroom which gives it an immense visual power. Getting to see a black and white Spike Lee film, as opposed to his highly saturated or modern 00’s styles, is a delight. And Bill Lee’s score, the sort of throwback jazz found in Do The Right Thing as well, is genuine jazz and not just the sex saxophone thrown into so many awful 80s sex comedies.
The film has one obvious narrative misstep, and it’s one Lee has apologized for in the past. The climactic rape of Nola by Jamie does not belong in the movie. Tonally, it does not match the film, and the scene places She’s Gotta Have It on a list of films about sexually empowered women that have this crude and tragic climax, which easily can be read as punishing the woman for their empowerment. The Lee apology acknowledges the decision of an immature filmmaker and that the scene was treated too flippantly during the remainder of the film. However, the scene’s presence in the film to me comes across as terribly, tragically realistic, and the reconciliation between Jamie and Nola afterward comes across as equally true.
Lee’s characters, for good or ill, are not perfect, and when they hurt us most as audience members, they are being their truest selves. His legacy is partly born of finding a community of love suddenly broken in Do The Right Thing, of studying the evolution of contradictory ideologies in Malcolm X, of men who hate themselves for what they’ve done or what they want in 25th Hour. His most recent film, Chi-Raq, perhaps highlights this style the best, in that its characters all exhibit a degree of ignorance or inability to perceive a hurt in another character, despite all hurting from larger structural injustice. What Lee’s films challenge us to do most is to understand how other people think and why they think that way; his public comments do the same, despite the common interpretation that he believes his word is law. His films have helped expand the definition of the medium, and the past thirty years of cinema have greatly benefited from his presence – and it all began with one humble sex comedy.