Spike Lee: She's Gotta Have It (1986) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Spike Lee: She’s Gotta Have It (1986)

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What's got Nola Darling in a twist?  She's got a beautiful apartment, a great job, and is the toast of New York.  The problem is these three men dogging her and trying to control the one thing that she wants no one to have a say in - her sex life.  She's Gotta Have It is Spike Lee's first feature-film, and the starting point for the next of Andrew and Kyle's director projects.

NolaKyle Commentary BannerThere are a lot of boring ways we could start talking about She’s Gotta Have It, and most of them would involve praising young Spike Lee’s technical filmmaking prowess as a way to put off talking about A) the reasons this movie caused him to reach an at-the-time stunning level of exposure for an indie filmmaker, and B) the potentially very problematic points in the film. I think the formal and aesthetic control here is pretty striking, don’t get me wrong—but the major feeling I had in the hours after the movie ended was unsettling more than anything. For me, that’s the major discussion here.

Here is a filmmaker who obviously knows how to tell a story in new and interesting ways, and one clearly concerned with exploring stereotypes head-on. The movie is never for a second dull or ordinary, even as it deals with familiar domestic issues, but it ultimately makes a pretty disheartening statement about gender roles after spending roughly an hour trying to convince the audience it’s doing the opposite. If the movie were focused more directly on the men that Nola surrounds herself with, it may be able to play more strongly as a critique of their different stereotypical (and all in some way insecure) forms of masculinity—but since it seems so concerned on the surface with giving us a portrait of Nola, the end result is more complicated than that.

Had you seen this one before, and if so, can you help me unpack how I’m feeling about it having just under 24 hours at this point to think on it?MarsAndrewCommentaryBannerThis is my second time hanging out with Nola and her beaus, and before this rewatch only the beautiful dance sequence and the montage of the dogs had a strong presence in my memory.  Everything else was in a pleasant haze, something that shattered under the scrutiny of this second watch.  The highs, like Ernest Dickerson's superb cinematography seen best in illuminating Nola, or the brash and hilarious entrance of Mars, were problematized by a dim view of homosexuality and a borderline fascist take on male / female sexual relationships that didn't stick with me after the first viewing.

Even with those highs and lows, it's important to remember that there was nothing else like She's Gotta Have It when it came out in 1986 to a hostile political and cultural climate.  Worries about crack cocaine and welfare weren't exactly enticing black communities to embrace the political mainstream thanks to Reagan and this is depressingly reflected in cinema.  Two films that out-grossed She's Gotta Have It were Soul Man, which showed that all a white man needs to do to get ahead is use his privileged background to pretend to be a black man, and the reissue of Song of the South, which makes slavery seem to darn appealing.  As we go forward with Lee's films I'll need to continue to reinforce just what terrible stereotypes and exploitation pass muster in the mainstream while Lee continues to build his career.

That's what made Lee's films so important right off, and the phrase "A Spike Lee Joint" is necessary.  He made a film that was specifically for black audiences at a time they were being ignored and, because of that specificity and Lee's raw skill as a director, created a film outside time that anyone can enjoy.   At it's best, She's Gotta Have It is a hangout story  with people you'd like to get to know better, which is both a strength and weakness of Lee's film.  It presents a side of America that, at the time, was barely touched on in a city that most countrymen considered a foreign environment up until 9/11, when tragedy forced us to take it back into the fold.  The people of She's Gotta Have It are charming, sometimes in their own difficult ways (especially in the case of Greer), but Lee's film has New York shine as a character in its own right, filled with bustling stores and sweet jazz that greet people on sunny days.

There's just so much that's great and important about She's Gotta Have It that it intensifies all the other, less pleasant, aspects.HolidayTiny Kyle CommentaryYou hit on a few points there that stuck with me as well: First being New York as a character. Even though the basic events of the movie could essentially have taken place anywhere, the sense that we’re getting a distinctly big-city way of life on display subtly creeps into every moment of the story. In certain ways, not least of which is the excellent black and white cinematography (I was wracked with disappointment when I thought the movie was going to switch to color for more than just that one scene around the midpoint), this reminded me of Woody Allen’s Manhattan.

That’s a film also concerned with criticizing, at a distance, its characters expectations of one another by using the seemingly much more open world of New York City as a canvas—with She’s Gotta Have It, though, Lee’s direct-address approach is more dramatic than Allen’s. While something like Manhattan charms you with it’s courting of contemporary (borderline hipster?) culture, Lee doesn’t want you to be able to put his characters into general molds other than the very specific ones he carves out for them. That’s a strength when considering the portrayals of the men, and a telling weakness when considering the character arc Nola goes through.

Newer Andrew cutout commentaryWhich is where the way Lee builds that wish to know more about the characters becomes frustrating and, while I hate the term hipster, there is a faux-boehmian way that he handles both Nola and Opal that rubs me badly.  Nola's art is the one real glimpse into what she does outside of the bedroom and it looks like the kind of collage that you'd see in a middle schoolers backpack.  Lee at least handles the scene beautifully, letting the camera rest of Nola and her work and giving us a musical break from the endless chatter and cross cutting of her conversations with the suitors.  Opal doesn't fare nearly as well, and her explanation for why she's a lesbian sound almost exactly like what you get from sexist liberal types who just want experimentation to be free and open so long as it's with other liberal men.  Jamie's frustration, of course, being that he couldn't entice Opal away from Nola even if he wanted to.

But with the men, we get such a specific, and different, slice of their personalities and by extension the city.  Jamie's charm is unexpected to Nola in a world of dogs, and is at first a gentle surprise on a normal day on the streets.  Mars talks a big game and hits the giant slopes of the city where his accessories stand out against the plain backdrops.  Then there's Greer, whose  ego is certainly enhanced by the robust gardens and rooftop dining establishments where he gets the finest steaks.

What's unusual is that Lee seems to be aware of the possibility of painting a shallow corner for the men but doesn't do the same for the women.  Jamie's terrible poem gets an appropriately harsh, but damn funny, counterpoint from Mars while Nola's art seems to exist as a scene to show the detractors that she totally has a personality before going back to the sex.  It's not a hurdle that completely tears me away from the film, and after reading Lee's writing he was very paranoid and defensive in the fundraising stage about female cinema financiers criticizing his script (no matter how justified), but it's disappointing that all the invention around the men and their lives only really gets extended to Nola when she's in the bedroom.A lot of fun togetherTiny Kyle CommentaryFaux-bohemian is a great term to use there—there’s a posturing of personal freedom in Nola’s lifestyle that the film later betrays as false. Having not read Lee’s notes and/or script, I wonder how much was originally focused on the men, with Nola as the kind of deliberately stereotypical “experimental woman” you mention—a falsely idealized thing for the men to orbit around.   Where the movie works really well is in its (mostly) unflinching look at the three male characters you already summarized above. It struck me early in the movie how terrifyingly intense Jamie is as played by Tommy Hicks. When he’s with Nola, he often comes across as very sweet—even when he’s overly possessive and homophobic, he seems like real person with deep insecurity propelling his flaws. Yet when he addresses the camera, he is, at best, a threat simmering barely beneath the surface. He delivers his lines with an anger and intensity that foreshadows the rape later in the movie. That he becomes a harmless, flawed-but-caring person again after the act is baffling.

Greer is interesting in how he seems so unaware of himself in his projected security—some of the funnier moments in the movie come from Nola shooting him down, and him responding with some cool revision of his initial advance. Still, there’s something off about scenes where he so directly and viciously puts her down—reminding her often that he’s “only with her because she’s fine”—as her reaction is one of casual, almost amused dismissal. The movie seems in these moments to be wishing to illustrate and criticize Greer’s abuse of a woman as a means of bolstering his own confidence, but what are we to make of Nola’s reaction? She’s not given enough range as a character for us to know.

Newer Andrew cutout commentaryWhich is why Nola's response to her rape at the end is so damning on Lee.  It's technically flawless and perfectly synchs into the now screwed up dynamic that Nola has with her three suitors.  The way that Jamie morphs into Mars and Greer, all while Nola tries to enjoy herself, is from her perspective but shifts rapidly to Jamie when he yells, "Who's pussy is this?" and we're back seeing the rape for what it is as she yells, "Yours!" in return.  That answer takes it from a moment that, played differently, could have been the liberating act and instead puts it caddy-corner to the violent sexism of Straw Dogs.  bell hooks, in her essay on the film, uses Jamie's question as the title because that's where any illusion that the film is really about Nola falls apart.  The second viewing made me painfully aware of everything that is going on between Nola and Jamie, a fact that did not escape hooks' eye, as she noticed that anyone who wasn't a black woman failed to notice the rape as well.

But what bothers me so much about that transfers back into the many wonderful sensations I get watching other parts of the film.  While I never tried to talk many women up, I had to feel a bit of embarrassment for some accidental pickup lines I realized I appropriated, in part, from all the dogs reciting them directly into the camera.  That's also a pristine moment for touting Lee's strength as a writer since, "Baby, I would drink a tub of your bathwater," is simultaneously pathetic and heroically endearing for the lengths this man is willing to go to get a woman's attention.  Then there's that dance sequence which you are a bit more apprehensive about, but when she clicks her heels and Bill Lee's composition starts I get so tingly because that's the moment I realized the camera isn't just moving around with a mind of its own, Lee could transform the entire world at his whims and give a fresh look at the beauty of New York.Don't hurt yourselfHe also does a fantaTiny Kyle Commentarystic job giving the movie a sense of momentum. The various characters addressing the camera directly has a kind of mixed documentary/stage play effect—we understand that we’re getting a manipulated version of events, not just on a narrative level, but in the form of the film itself. He’s literally giving his characters a voice directly connecting with the audience, and it’s all the more interesting since he’s set the stage in the opening with a series of still photographs of New Yorkers posing for the camera.

He also delivers my vote for not necessarily the best, but most memorable line of the film, which is when Mars describes Jamie to Nola as having “a fucking 16-piece chicken McNugget head.” Lee has a great, distinct ear for dialogue—I actually can’t believe we haven’t mentioned that yet.

Newer Andrew cutout commentaryIt goes back to what I was saying about Lee wanting to make distinctive black characters and to the double-edged nature of the film.  One of the most potent lines of dialogue, expertly written from a specific perspective, is when Greer says of Nola, "A nice lady doesn't go humping from bed to bed."  That's a brutal line and I wish that the conclusion didn't go along with that perspective.  His ear isn't always tuned well, as is the case with everything Opal says, but even when I don't like the ethical conclusions of his dialogue I still have to give respect for its construction.What is good for you may not be good for meTiny Kyle CommentaryThis is an interesting first film considering that we’ve hit on most of the major points, both positive and negative, that always crop up when Spike Lee’s movies are discussed. It’s also a pretty strong testament to his general power as a director—with a still-overriding discomfort over the blatantly misogynistic conclusion, the movie is still more interesting to me than many I’ve seen recently.


Newer Andrew cutout commentaryI think that's why this continues to be such a revelation for people who watch it for the first time.  Lee tries, and fails, to make a compelling story for women but ends up delighting the audience in the multiple personalities that New York can foster.  His reputation is that of a constantly political guy who's annoying at basketball games and makes nothing but agitprop, but I've never gotten that from either his personality or his films.  She's Gotta Have It shows that he's capable of making stories that delight in exposing people to under-looked facets of American culture suppressed in plain sight.

I think it all comes down to Mars.  I like Mars.  Even when he's lying it's because he's trying to be honest about what he wants.  He's got a quick sense of humor, a unique fashion sense, feels like he can descend from the heavens to pleasure women (overrated), and justifies things badly after the fact like most of us do.  We wouldn't have gotten a look at this kind of hilarious but flawed person without Lee, and we're all the better because of it.Don't leave me hangin' JTiny Kyle CommentaryThe fact that he is flawed in his execution of a movie that has, if not in form then in potential effect, significant cultural and political significance here may be a great context for looking at how his later films either affirm or refute that general reputation you mention. For someone who has such talent and obviously intelligent, insightful things to say, it can be that much worse when he veers (offensively) off course. Of all the first films to start on, this one seems pretty fitting.

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Next time, School Daze.Spike Film Selection

Posted by Andrew

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