Title: She’s Gotta Have It
Release Date: August 8, 1986
Director: Spike Lee
Production Company: 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks
I watched She’s Gotta Have It way back in the 1980s and remember liking it, except for THAT SCENE (but we’ll get to that latter). This was Spike Lee’s first feature film as director, shot in black & white (except for one brilliant burst of color mid-movie), and has more of an arthouse vibe to it than any of Lee’s later work.
The movie focuses on Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns), an artist in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, and her romantic sexual relationships with three different men. Jamie (Tommy Redmond Hicks) is presented as the “good guy” and I think the narrative wants the audience to believe that until the rug is pulled out from us later on. Greer (John Canada Terrell) is a vain model. Mars Blackmon (Spike Lee) is a goofy sneakerhead and basically a Brooklyn hipster before his time. Lee has also portrayed Mars in commercials and his own identity and the character’s are sometimes intermingled.
The movie basically does a good job of deconstructing the double standards of a woman who wants to be sexually active with more than one man. In the documentary-style interviews with the men, they basically “self-own” themselves with their hypocritical views. This movie is also sex positive in the way that it depicts how Nola is sexually fulfilled in different ways by each of the men. Still though, this movie fumbles at times where it clearly feels it was written by a straight man. One of the worst is examples is a lesbian character portrayed by Raye Dowell acts like a male fantasy of a lesbian woman.
And now we come to the end of the movie for which I will have to discuss SPOILERS. Angry that Nola won’t choose to be only with him, Jamie brutally rapes her. Later Nola calls it a “near rape” which is an understatement at best. She decides to break it off with Mars and Greer and be exclusive with Jamie but also to be celibate for a time. Now, it is not unrealistic for a seemingly “good guy” in a patriarchal society to become a rapist, nor is it unrealistic for a woman to internalize abuse and feel that she has to be the one to change her behavior but it does seem to send the wrong message that undercuts everything that came before. In the final shot, Nola abruptly admits that her period of celibacy was short and she eventually broke it off with Jamie, which, good for her, but it also feels like this movie is trying to have it both ways.
Despite its flaws, She’s Gotta Have It, was a groundbreaking film. It kicked off Spike Lee’s career, and was in the vanguard of movies by Black filmmakers that shook off the Hollywood stereotypes of Black stories in film. The movie depicts Brooklyn as home to successful Black people pursuing their interests in careers and personal lives in a way that sadly hadn’t been seen in movies before. It was also a big boost to independent movies at a time of major studio dominance, and the indies still flourish today because of it.