She's Gotta Have It (1986) by Spike Lee
Retro Review by Andrew Swafford
The legacy of Spike Lee has been constructed by films that are colorful, inflammatory, and sprawling—the ones that might most exemplify him as a stylist include the 3.5 hour Malcolm X, last year’s politically charged Chi-Raq (my vote for best movie of 2015), and the heat-drenched Do the Right Thing (one of my favorite films of all time). However, his first film—She’s Gotta Have It—is in many ways antithetical to Lee’s aesthetic. It’s shot (almost) completely in grainy black and white, it is entirely divorced from the racial conflicts that have informed many of his films, it’s less than 90 minutes, and it’s an intimate character-study with only four main players. I think it’s also fair to say that She’s Gotta Have It is not expertly acted—the film was shot over the period of 12 days for less than $200,000—and the staccato-like rhythm of the dialogue feels more like local theater than the hip-hop-inspired spitfire vocalizations of a movie like Do The Right Thing. Despite all of the elements that make this movie an outlier in Spike Lee’s filmography, She’s Gotta Have It is a raw and messy masterpiece that features a non-conventional storytelling structure, sensual cinematography, and an overall perspective on sexual politics that still feels like a shock to the system thirty years later.
The title of the film suggests a bawdy mockery of female promiscuity, but this couldn't be further from the truth, as Spike Lee has sincere respect and love for his lusty protagonist, never making her the butt of a joke and always giving her voice and agency in a story that could have easily just been a crass disaster. The titular “She” in She’s Gotta Have It is Nola Darling, a bohemian collage muralist who lives alone in Spike Lee’s own Republic of Brooklyn with a shrine-like bed, surrounded by dozens of candles. One of the opening shots of the film is a slow zoom-in on the bed, which at first seems to be inhabited by multiple heaving bodies before Nola alone emerges from the covers. It’s a clever and spartan optical illusion that captures almost everything that’s great about the film—it’s simple, unconventional, visually striking, and all in service of character and theme.
When the camera first meets Nola’s eye-line, she immediately breaks the fourth wall and begins explaining her story, both in hindsight and in pointed opposition to other, more dissenting perspectives of her character. In 2016, Nola might categorize herself as polyamorous—one who engages sexually with multiple partners separately, with the consent of all involved. However, the men in her life call her a freak. The word is meant strictly to shame her sexual choices—but unfortunately, a definition is still probably unnecessary due to continued use of it and other analogs today. Nola herself, refreshingly, considers herself to be “normal”—“whatever that means,” she adds. That small line says so much about the spectrum of sexuality--all forms of sexual preference comes from a natural, instinctive place, but the overwhelming diversity of sexual identity that exists goes to show that "normal" hardly exists in the first place.
Unsurprisingly, most of the film’s runtime focuses on the candlelit experiences of Nola and her partners (of which there are three) to satisfy her appetite. I’m a big proponent of the idea that a great film should be visceral, giving the audience the experience of its characters and have a tone that complements its ideas. Therefore, a film about sexual pleasure should be an erotic experience for the audience (ex: Blue is the Warmest Color), and She’s Gotta Have It is definitely steamy. The sex scenes that Lee films here are by turns minimalist and maximalist, sometimes consisting of extreme close-ups on faces in ecstasy or specific body parts such as bellybuttons and nipples (including a shot he alters for re-use in Do the Right Thing), all exceptionally well-lit for maximum brightness against a pitch-black backdrop, making the two characters cinematographically alone in the world, a complete void apart from the sexual pleasure of the present moment. In other moments, Lee frenetically edits together multiple cuts of a single shot to showcase the sheer length of time (and number of positions used) in an encounter between Nola and her partner. The context of sex is where the film gains much of its beauty, but this is where Lee mines for humor as well—one moment in particular kills me, in which Nola quickly strips for a partner and must wait while he delicately folds each individual article of clothing before jumping into bed.
Gags like this one not only complement the film’s central theme (juggling one’s personal sexual needs with those of various partners), but also helps reveal character—and the characters in She’s Gotta Have It are vibrantly written and acted (despite the fact that some line delivery feels a bit off). Aside from Nola, given the self-assured presence of Tracy Camilla Johns (who sadly never worked with any directors aside from Spike Lee and Mario Van Peebles in her short film career), the other main players are the three male competitors for her undivided loyalty: (#1) Spike Lee himself plays Mars Blackmon, a hilarious deadbeat bopper who earns his spot in Nola’s heart with a singular brand of humor that audience members will find either charming or insufferable; (#2) the excellently arrogant John Canada Terrell plays Greer Childs, an snobbish narcissist who has graced the cover of GQ but harbors a lot of deep misogyny and internalized racism, negging Nola into eye-rolling oblivion—this awful character is brought to life so earnestly that it baffles me how Terrell is not a superstar today; (#3) finally, Tommy Redmond Hicks plays Jamie Overstreet, a poetic and old-fashioned chivalrous type, who at first seems to be the obvious choice of the three. Crucially, Spike Lee (as a writer, not an actor) both develops Jamie into a character much more flawed than he initially appears AND upends the “choice” conflict entirely in a way that I will try to both leave vague and analyze in-depth below.
Branching off from from the opening shot of Nola speaking directly to the camera, the film’s storytelling structure is somewhere between Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (investigating failed relationships through fragmented and non-linear memories) and a biopic documentary, with multiple talking heads giving their subjective experience of a central figure. In She’s Gotta Have It, most of the talking heads are Nola’s three jilted lovers, presenting jealous and possibly unreliable accounts of her sex life. The film’s structural brilliance, however, comes from the way the film is bookended by Nola’s own voice, proud and unapologetic. In the third act of the film, a progressively-minded contemporary viewer might start to cringe a bit at the way the narrative seems to punish Nola in the film’s climax and try to resolutely “fix” her sexual deviancy, but Nola’s figurative snatching-of-the-mic at the last minute to speak truth feels like an absolute revelation, preternaturally nonjudgmental and celebratory of the sexual spectrum.
There are still more elements that deserve essay-length writing in She’s Gotta Have It, including the film’s brief and unexpected foray into full high-contrast color for an interpretive dance sequence, how Nola’s encounters debunk myths and double-standards about bisexuality and lesbianism, as well as multiple detours taken by Lee into still-image slideshows that highlight both the idyllic and harsh aspects of black life in Brooklyn. To do so here might be taking on too many subjects at once, so I’ll close by saying that She’s Gotta Have It represents so much of what good independent cinema can (or should?) be. It’s tightly and carefully written, with every line and sequence contributing to character development and overall thematic purpose. It’s unconventionally told, despite being a simple story at the core. It’s beautifully photographed on a low budget, and made all the more charming for its less-is-more approach to visuals and editing. It’s also wonderfully counter-cultural, tackling the touchier aspects of modern life that are pushed to the sidelines of mainstream life. Lee’s steadfast dedication to bold singularity in the film has paid off; She’s Gotta Have It still feels like a fresh and inventive approach to cinematic storytelling thirty years later, and it stands out as one of Spike Lee’s absolute best.