Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Films of Spike Lee: She's Gotta Have It (1986)

She's Gotta Have It (1986) 
Directed by: Spike Lee.
Written by: Spike Lee.
Starring: Tracy Camilla Johns (Nola Darling), Tommy Redmond Hicks (Jamie Overstreet), John Canada Terrell (Greer Childs), Spike Lee (Mars Blackmon), Raye Dowell (Opal Gilstrap), Joie Lee (Clorinda Bradford), S. Epatha Merkerson (Doctor Jamison), Bill Lee (Sonny Darling), Cheryl Burr (Ava), Aaron Dugger (Noble), Stephanie Covington (Keva), Renata Cobbs (Shawn), Cheryl D. Singleton (Toby).

The importance of Spike Lee’s debut feature She’s Gotta Have It cannot be overstated. It is a key movie in the history of both African American Cinema and Indie Cinema. In terms of a film about black people, it was one of the first that wasn’t about gangs and drugs and violence but it is also wasn’t a phony inspiration message movie either – it was simply a film about normal black people living their lives. As an indie film, She’s Gotta Have It had a ton of stylistic choices that were daring at the time – it showed that indie film didn’t have to be dire or neorealist - you could do a film with almost no money, and still have style. And yet, while I would never question its importance and influence, I will say I’ve never really seen it as a great movie. It’s a good one, but it’s got a few problematic elements to it that have not aged well (those are too be expected, but at least one of them never really worked). Bur even more than that, I’ve always felt that while the film seems to be about a black woman standing up for her independence and completely unwilling to be shamed about her sexuality, it’s more of a film about three men who don’t understand the woman in question, made by a writer/director who doesn’t understand her either.
The film is about Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns) an artist who works for a magazine (even though we don’t really see her do either) living in Brooklyn. She has three boyfriends, and makes no effort to hide that fact from anyone – even the men. There is Jamie (Tommy Hicks), the most down to earth of the trio, who says he loves Nola and wants to settle down with her. There is Greer Childs (John Canada Terrell), a successful model/photographer (I’m not sure which to be honest) living in Manhattan – he is more refined and cultured, and hates comes out to Brooklyn which he looks down upon, and as is a raging narcissist. Then there is Mars Blackmon (Spike Lee himself), a goofy, unemployed, motor-mouthed kid who simply will not shut up. The film navigates through their relationships for a few months, as she juggles the three of them, all of whom become varying degrees of jealous, and try to be controlling – although she refuses to be controlled. There is another love interest of sorts – Opal (Raye Dowell), a lesbian whose entire character is defined as being “the lesbian” in a way that would be seen as offensive now (and probably always should have been).
Like many an indie film from the 1980s or early 1990s, the film was shot in black and white, over a period of a couple of weeks, for almost no money. Lee’s skills as a director, while limited by the budget, are still on full display here. He has characters directly address the camera, has a couple wonderful montages, and even a stunning dance number in full, bright, shocking color. While the film is concerned with regular black people living their lives, Lee shows right away that he is a director not afraid of taking chances visually. He knows film is not just photographed conversations, and finds interesting way to shot everything.
There are some elements of the film that have aged – none of them well. Opal’s character is seen as one note, and always on the make – like the men, she wants to sleep with Nola constantly, but unlike them, she is never allowed to be more than a sexualized object. More problematic is what happens near the end of the movie – what the film describes as a “near rape” – that comes out of nowhere. It really strikes me as the move by a young director trying to be shocking and provocative, without fully considering why. It doesn’t work, and derails the movie as it heads into the homestretch. I’m also not quite sure why Lee gets the two characters he does back together or screen in the second last scene, only to break them up in a direct address to the camera in the final scene.
The bigger problem really though is that I don’t think Lee ever really understands Nola – his central character. He understands Jamie and Greer and Mars – gives them complex characters to play, who are all very different from each other, even if none of them can get over their own hang-ups regarding Nola – and all of them lash out angrily, though in different ways, to her. But Nola herself is a character I just don’t think the movie ever really gets to know – ever gets under her skin to see what makes her tick, and why she does what she does. It is refreshing that the movie doesn’t shame her at all – but the fact that it doesn’t understand her doesn’t help.
I will say that most of my issues with the film were pretty much resolved in Lee’s 2017 Netflix series of the same name that updated and expanded the story for 2018. Part of that I think is maturity on Lee’s part, seeing what didn’t work or was problematic, and part it may well be that he added women to the writers room to help flesh out all the women characters – not just Nola, but also Opal (who is now as complex as the three men) – and a few other characters as well. That show flew under the radar, and I don’t know if it will get a second season – but I think it’s a major improvement of this film.
Still, you have to respect She’s Gotta Have It – both for what it did accomplish, and what it inspired and set in motion. It remains one of the key films of Lee’s career – even if it’s nowhere near one of his best.

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