I am an outspoken fan of Spike Lee’s work. To many, he is a blowhard filmmaker who is self-aggrandizing and too preoccupied with racial representation to create a proper film narrative. I, on the other hand, view Lee’s work as existing as a honest commentary of race that is critical of all parties involved, as well as being particularly self-reflective on his existence as a black male in the urban landscape of America. With that being said, I had up until a few days ago failed to view his debut work She’s Gotta Have It, because it was simply out of my points of access. With it’s recent release to Netflix Watch Instantly, I seized the opportunity to view the film and was, as should be no surprise, enamored with its existence. It is a fantastic study of black life in New York City that is critical, hip, and extremely approachable, often mirroring the work of Lee’s contemporary Jim Jarmusch. In the film, as Lee would prove to do countless times afterwards, the characters are vibrant, believable and problematic, reflecting both the pros and cons of any ideology without necessarily promoting a singular idea. On a much more important level though, She’s Gotta Have it focuses on narratives that are still overlooked in Hollywood, and even independent cinema, and at no point in this experimental narrative does the film apologize for lacking traditional images, arguably it relishes in ignoring them, and it is perhaps this that proves to be its most lasting contribution.
She’s Gotta Have It, as the title suggests, centers on a woman named Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Jones) who is so attached to sexual encounters that she is seemingly tied inextricably to three relationships with distinctly different men. The first being the suave and charming Jamie Overstreet (Tommy Redmond Hicks) who clearly desires a meaningful relationship with Nola that involves feelings of romantic love. The second being the self-obsessed and vain Greer Childs (John Canada Terrell) who obviously sees Nola as arm candy meant to be paraded as an object of envy. Finally, there is the sharp tongued messenger boy Mars Blackmon (Spike Lee) whose only concern with Nola seems to be sexual conquest. The three men spend the majority of the film attempting to claim Nola for their own using every form of convincing they deem fit to persuade her to their side. For Jamie it includes romantic outings and words of affirmation, for Greer it is nagging reminders of his physical superiority, while Mars simply belittles the masculinity of his competitors and clings to his black hipness as a point of power. Realizing the mess she has entered Nola seeks advice from her former roommate Clorinda Bradford (Joie Lee) who reminds her that she is in sole control of her life, and that no male persuasion should make her sway one way or the other. After briefly returning to Jamie, Nola decides to pursue a life without the overbearing opinions of the three men and is shown in the films closing shot claiming innocence, confessional style, to any negative claims spouted by Jamie, Greer or Mars. She is a woman who was simply acting out her own desires, and the fact that these men were so upset by the entire ordeal purely reflects each one’s immaturity.
While I am quick to praise what Lee offers with She’s Gotta Have It, like much of his work, it is not void of points of contention. The film clearly walks a very thin line between astute relationship commentary and blatant accusations of women for being at fault in any relationship. As mentioned earlier, the film is partly a confessional documentary in which each of the characters explains their opinions of the events. It is clear that the men depicted think Nola to be of less than reputable character. They find her sexual prowess to be unhealthy to her as a woman, but nothing is made of their own flippant sexual behavior throughout the film. While it is entirely possible that Lee is depicting the absurdity of masculine sexual power, it is never fully dealt with in a manner that assures this opinion. Similarly, Nola is depicted in the nude at various points in the film, often times in direct gaze during the film, suggesting a voyeuristic element that would align more with Mulvey and criticism of traditional women’s images in film than with a new a fresh view of women for which the independent film movement known. Lee clearly enjoys depicting women sexually in his films, an occurrence that would surface again with Rosie Perez in Do The Right Thing. Ultimately, while She’s Gotta Have It has a large amount of problems within its narrative, I find its positive commentaries on the experiences of black urbanite relationships to outshine any issues and it is certainly deserved of the moniker of being one of the first offerings in American independent cinema.
I cannot recommend She’s Gotta Have It enough; it is a rare feat of masterful independent filmmaking and one of the best things offered on Netflix right now. Under no circumstance should you miss watching this film.