She’s Gotta Have It (1986)

Director/Screenwriter/Actor: Spike Lee

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Everyone who reads me knows my great admiration for Melvin Van Peebles, whose ground-breaking films have created an authentic, modern voice for the African-American experience. His heir apparent is, of course, Spike Lee, the most enduring of the African-American directors to emerge in the 1980s. His debut feature film, She’s Gotta Have It, is a derivative affair—one is constantly reminded of Woody Allen while watching it—but at the same time, it has all the vitality and fizzy, alchemic mix of amateurism and professionalism our best directors demonstrate in their juvenilia.

She’s Gotta Have It is structured in a documentary style, with its central character, Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns), telling the audience that this film will set the record straight about who she is and what she’s about. Nola, a sexy, attractive, independent woman, lives alone in a large apartment in Brooklyn and makes a living in graphic design. She got that apartment, we learn from her friend and former roommate Clorinda Bradford (Joie Lee), when Clorinda complained about all the strange men she would find using her bathroom in the mornings after their evenings with Nola. We go on to meet the three men Nola has settled on since moving out: Jamie Overstreet (Tommy Redmond Hicks), Greer Childs (John Canada Terrell), and Mars Blackmon (Spike Lee). Each man, like Bradford, is introduced with his name overlaid on the screen, and given the chance to tell his version of his relationship with Nola.

Jamie, who seems to have the inside track with Nola, followed her after seeing her on the street and basically threw himself at her feet. He’s solid, sincere, and romantic; when they make love for the first time, it is sensuously choreographed to the wonderful jazz score Spike’s father Bill wrote for the film, with all of the candles on Nola’s many-shelved headboard blazing and melting.

Mars is a nebbishy Woody Allen type, with insecurity and immaturity written all over him. He wears a large, gold, autograph necklace around his neck, rides his bike everywhere, and repeats sentences over and over like he is trying to jackhammer himself into Nola’s consciousness (his famous plea, “Please, baby, please, baby, please, baby, baby, baby, please,” has been a staple on t-shirts since the movie came out). Nola likes him because he is funny and brings out the kid in her, and he seems to have known her a long time from the neighborhood. Their sex scene seems to emphasize Mars’ childishness by focusing closely on him sucking on her nipple in a contrasting style of arthouse chic.

Greer is successful, narcissistic, and lives in the center of the universe—Manhattan. He tells us that he molded Nola, taking her out of her raggedy-ass self and teaching her refinement. She is always very chic in his company, and a scene where Nola and Greer’s exercise routine gives way to sex is a small comic gem. Nola seductively lowers the straps of her leotard and gets into bed. Greer slowly removes each piece of clothing and painstakingly folds it while Nola grows increasingly bored and impatient. This comedic set-up is followed by overhead shots quick-cut to humorous effect as Greer moves under the covers and around the bed almost like an aerobic workout.

But, predictably, the men in Nola’s life don’t like sharing her. Jamie is particularly persistent in trying to become her one and only, literally offering her a song and dance—the only part of the film shot in living color—as proof of his devotion and then taking up with the female in the dance duet to make Nola jealous. In what can only be described as the act of a clueless woman, Nola invites her three lovers over for Thanksgiving, emphasizing that it’s the very first Thanksgiving feast she’s ever cooked. The men squabble—Mars makes fun of Greer’s preference for white meat—and Nola leaves them to their own devices as she goes to sleep. Jamie cradles her on the bed as Greer and Mars finally give up and go home.

Lee seems to have gathered all his friends and family for this one, casting his sister and having his father play Nola’s father. I have to think that Raye Dowell, who plays a lesbian who is interested in Nola, was cast because she was a family friend—she is without question one of the worst actresses I’ve ever seen and spent half of her short acting career in other Spike Lee Joints. Johns is as fine as the men in the film say she is and is very likeable and intriguing in this role, even though her line readings reveal that she probably wasn’t a trained actress either—this was her first film. The male actors have substance, with Spike as the best of them, his energy and sarcasm enlivening the proceedings.

Lee may have latched onto a Woody Allen theme (male insecurity), format, and environment, but he’s a modern man who accords women their own agency, as a number of the better films of the 1980s did, most notably Sea of Love (1989). Jamie, frustrated with Nola’s insistence on following her own desires, rapes her, and Greer sends her to a psychiatrist (S. Epatha Merkerson, the only actor in the film to have made a recognizable name for herself), who declares Nola completely normal. Nola breaks up with Greer and Mars, but can’t make a go of it with Jamie, who we see from the very beginning is too possessive. In the end, Nola declares “It’s really about control, my body, my mind. Who was going to own it? Them? Or me? I’m not a one-man woman. Bottom line.”

The film incorporates a collage of styles Lee must have studied in the Tisch School of Arts’ film program. There’s a little bit of Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962) in Lee’s use of photographic stills, shot by his brother David, to create certain montage scenes, a technique he seems to echo in the collage Nola creates on her wall. He’s goes the full-color route for the dance duet in the park as an apparent homage to the great Technicolor musicals Hollywood churned out in its Golden Age. And his architectural landscapes reflect both Antonioni and Allen’s Manhattan.

Lee would return with more force to the subject of love and independent agency in subsequent films, such as his superlative School Daze (1988) and Jungle Fever (1991), as well as the intraracial politics in the African-American community that he subtly explores here. His body of work is polished, accomplished, and important, but She’s Gotta Have It is an exuberant, homestyle film that deserves respect and affection.

  • Joe Valdez spoke:
    13th/06/2010 to 3:09 am

    As much as I love Spike Lee films, I’ve never seen She’s Gotta Have It or School Daze. Maybe because I’ve read about them and their shortcomings so much, I felt like I’ve already seen the movie. Your thoughts about this one — particularly the acting — are on par with what Lee has admitted as much himself, but after your piece, I’m curious to give School Daze a try. Terrific screen shots as well, Marilyn.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    13th/06/2010 to 8:56 am

    I’m glad I got you interested in early Lee, Joe, because there is much to admire. I enjoy very much seeing the early work of masters, to see what they were experimenting with and the energy they bring to the screen. School Daze is my favorite Lee feature and quite a leap from this one.

  • Doug Bonner spoke:
    15th/06/2010 to 8:53 am

    I really got a buzz off the prose you lay down on this one. I’m still kickin’ myself for not going to see this on its initial release: a buddy who managed the art house where it was playing said “This guys really knows what it takes.”

  • Marilyn spoke:
    15th/06/2010 to 9:12 am

    Doug, I’m glad you enjoyed the review, though it’s not as jazzy and good as the score of this film. I’m not sure why, but I wanted to see this film very much when it came out. It only played in the black neighborhoods in Chicago, so that’s where I went, a rather bold move for this young, white suburban girl.

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