Spike Lee’s breakout feature remains as odd, daring, and significant in 2008 as it was when first released in 1986. An intellectual treatment of sexuality, identity, responsibility and, yes, race, Lee’s mostly black and white homage to his filmmaking heroes is as entertaining as it is thoughtful. Suggestively titled so as to trick people into thinking it might be porn, shot in 12 days for less than $200,000 (much of that cash put up by black cultural critic Nelson George), and yet grossing more than $7million, She’s Gotta Have It is a classic of successful guerilla filmmaking.
A fairly straightforward story about a young, beautiful, and sexually frank woman named Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns) and her three suitors (Lee, Tommy Redmond Hicks and John Canada Terrell), She’s Gotta Have It is an archetypal “art film”. Indeed, a principle joy in revisiting this film – only now available on DVD for the first time after languishing for years in Criterion Collection laserdisc format – is to observe a very young filmmaker’s combination of fresh, innovative techniques and blatant borrowing from his forebears.
In terms of the camerawork and editing, Bergman, Felinni, Truffaut, Antonioni, and film noir master Howard Hawks are all influences worn on Lee’s sleeve. But most significantly, as a pseudo-documentary (characters are introduced with titles, speak into the camera as though being interviewed) supported by armchair psychology, a jazz soundtrack, and a healthy concern with sex and relationship anxiety, She’s Gotta Have It plays like a Woody Allen film across the bridge.
As Nola attempts to balance her three lovers – they all know of, and detest sharing her with, the others – we begin to see the (perhaps too obvious) ways each represents a facet of the “ideal” or complete man. There is Lee’s character (instructively named Mars Blackmon), the motor-mouthed, gold-chained, selfish, but ultimately fun, guy; there’s Greer (Terell), a man so arrogant, so obsessed with propriety, money and success that he repeatedly reminds Nola that he only dates “fine” women; and there’s Jamie (Hicks), the sensitive, safe, and kind man who might just be the one, if he weren’t so damn boring. A post-Freudian play on the id/ego/superego concept (roughly transposed to gratification/self-worth/conscience), each of her suitors adds up to the one, complete man – or, as Greer puts it late in the film, a “three-headed monster”.
The movie bounces around between Nola’s affairs with each man, in and out of bed, as they struggle to come to terms with just which one of them really has Nola. Throughout, the concept of ownership – sexual, physical, mental, personal – gets deliberate treatment. During the climactic scene, one of them demands to know: “Whose pussy is this?” As we circle ever closer to the answer, the question (however horrifically posed) seems more and more appropriate. It’s hers, of course, or nobody’s. As she comes to understand this, through abortive psychoanalysis, painful self-reflection, and an awkward lesbian encounter, Nola comes ever closer to self-actualization. A woman (or, at least Nola) can be a sexual being, doesn’t have to belong to a man, and perhaps shouldn’t even wish for such a thing.
In the post-blaxploitation 1980s, the silence of black filmmakers was amplified by the persistent on-camera representation of urban black America as drug-crazed, violent, and shallow. Lee’s approach to She’s Gotta Have It, thoroughly elaborated in his 1987 book on the subject (“Spike Lee’s Gotta Have It”), was to represent the kinds of people he actually knew, not hollow stereotypes and expected role-players. And so, his simple gambit was to present a film about a black New York comprised of educated, sophisticated urbanites.
Indeed, Lee’s Brooklynites share much more in common with Woody Allen’s New Yorkers than, say, Martin Scorsese’s. No less necessary today amid the calamity of racial backstepping which underwrites such so-called “black” movies as Norbitt and Big Momma’s House, wherein the celebration of ignorance acts as a stand-in for culture and community, She’s Gotta Have It revitalized the idea of a black filmmaking that didn’t emphasize a despairing blackness as the dominant trope. Lee’s characters are black, yes, and so much more..
Although casual references to Malcolm X and to black appropriations of “whiteness” pepper the script – when Nola dumps Greer he responds by declaring that he is going to go “get a white woman” – unlike in Lee’s later and more aggressively polemical films they are just subtle enough to remain suggestive. In what is surely the key scene, Nola bakes a Thanksgiving turkey for her three men, and they sit together awkwardly for supper. The streetwise Mars (id) wants dark meat; the fastidious and upwardly mobile Greer (ego) wants white; and the centred, calm, and caring Hicks (superego) doesn’t seem much to care. Race, Freud, performativity, and a foundational American holiday: Spike Lee had arrived.
The historic arrival of an American master with such a lush, entertaining, and intelligent piece of work deserves a far better DVD treatment than this. MGM here offers exactly no special features at all. Even the DVD release of 25th Hour, Lee’s post-9/11 masterpiece, had a documentary on his legacy. Shameful.