Wednesday, June 19, 2013


Film: She’s Gotta Have It
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

I like a lot of Spike Lee’s films. I think sometimes he loses himself in his message, but I appreciate what he is capable of. When Spike Lee is on, he’s as good as any other director out there. When he arrived on the scene and especially with the release of Do the Right Thing, he became the de facto voice of the urban African American filmmaker whether he deserved or wanted that title or not. His first full-length feature was She’s Gotta Have It, which shows both the potential and the mistakes of a young filmmaker capable of doing some pretty great things.

Fortunately for Lee and his audience, this film, while filled with the ambition of a new filmmaker, restrains itself by keeping the story extremely simple. The ambition is everywhere else outside of the narrative. Put simply, She’s Gotta Have It is the story of Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns) and the three men in her life. Each of the three men have a sexual relationship with Nola and each of them wants her exclusively. Nola, however, finds no reason to choose between the three of them and finds something of value in each of them.

The first of the three men is Jamie (Tommy Redmond Hicks). He’s a nice enough guy and genuinely appears to care for Nola, but is also incredibly possessive of her. The second we are introduced to is Mars (Lee himself), a sort of out of work bicycle courier who is less possessive, but also less successful. Our third suitor is Greer (John Canada Terrell), a successful male model who wants Nola but is also agonizingly self-centered.

Really, the film is nothing more than her relationship with the three men and, once we get the Thanksgiving dinner with all four people, between the three men. Like I said, this is not an ambitious story in terms of narrative. But it is ambitious in a lot of other ways. For starters, it’s one of the first films where an entirely African-American cast is, for lack of a better way to put this, middle class. These are not black stereotype characters but characters who merely happen to be black. It shouldn’t be as surprising as it is—and with a moment’s thought it isn’t surprising. However, given the typical Hollywood depiction of the urban community and the content of the previous decade’s Blaxploitation films, it is surprising.

Second, and this is really key, it’s one of the first films around that deals with female sexuality in the way that films typically deal with male sexuality. Ten or twenty years previously, Nola’s behavior would brand her as a slut or a whore. Here, we’re given the words of a psychologist (played by the vastly underrated S. Epatha Merkerson) that Nola is an entirely and completely healthy young woman with a completely normal and natural sex drive.

It’s also ambitious in the way it tells the story. We spend a good deal of time with the characters speaking directly to the camera as if we are interviewing them, having just asked them a question. This is particularly true of Jamie and Nola herself, who talk to the camera frequently. I love the burst of color film as well—it comes as a sudden surprise in the middle of something otherwise in tasteful black-and-white.

These are all of the positives of She’s Gotta Have It. There’s one major problem with the film, and it’s an unfortunately damn big one. That’s that the delivery of almost all of the dialogue is so stilted that I unconsciously wanted to turn around to see if there was a live theater audience behind me watching this on stage. It frequently reads like a stage production instead of a film. The dialogue is incredibly unnatural throughout as well. No one talks like these characters. The cute closing in which each of the actors says his or her name over a clapboard is far more natural than any of the speech within the film.

Because of that, it’s difficult to watch sometimes. The line readings are completely unnatural, and that makes a lot of what’s going on here feel unnatural even though it shouldn’t. It actually would play pretty well on a stage, but it’s far too stilted to come across well on film.

I will give it this, though—it ends exactly as it should. The conclusion really pissed me off until I realized that it wasn’t the actual conclusion. That saved the film.

Did I like it? I’m not entirely sure. I like what it led to in Lee’s career. I like its ambition a lot. It shows the promise that many of his later films fulfilled. But it’s too raw and a little too amateurish to be a really great film. Still, there have been far worse debuts.

Why to watch She’s Gotta Have It: The cinematic birth of Spike Lee.
Why not to watch: It’s far more wooden than you might expect.


  1. I saw this way back when it came to Cinemax. A lot of people liked to make fun of the channel as "Skinemax" because of a single softcore movie shown on Friday nights during this time, but it was far more than that. Not only did I see this first film from Lee, but I also saw Clerks, El Mariachi, Roger and Me, and Hollywood Shuffle from other, young, promising writer/directors. By the way, Robert Townshend's Hollywood Shuffle makes an interesting double feature with She's Gotta Have It. Both make the point of how Hollywood tends to portray blacks, but they take very different approaches.

    The one negative I have with She's Gotta Have It is that it unleashed on the world the Mars character, which Lee then played to death in a ton of Nike commercials - "It's gotta be the shoes!!!!!!"

  2. Mars is an annoying character, but I don't really mind him. I didn't even mind the Nike commercials. Then again, I'm predisposed to like Spike Lee in general. I know he's made some dogs, but I like the films of his that I've seen.

    For a damn good one that's not on The List, check out Inside Man if you haven't already.

    1. I like Inside Man a lot. Lee toned down much (but not all) of his themes of racism and instead concentrated on telling a damn good story. I really liked the scenes with Owen and Washington. This is actually the film I would recommend to someone who had never seen a Spike Lee film - mostly because it is the most mainstream one.

    2. I agree, although my favorite Lee is Do the Right Thing. It features his favorite theme of racism, but it's remarkably even-handed (my opinion) rather than simply pointing fingers and placing blame. It asks hard questions and offers no solid answers.

      However, the only Spike Lee film I actually own is Inside Man. I'm a sucker for a great narrative. And, of course, all of the bank robbers are named Steve (or a variation), so it's got that going for it.

    3. I had forgotten about the Steve thing in Inside Man. That's funny.

      I'm in the minority (no pun intended) on Do the Right Thing. I felt it had one big weakness that kept it from working and that was that Lee cast himself in the pivotal role of the person who finally sparks the riot. I felt he just wasn't a good enough actor to pull it off. Maybe he thought he was. On the other hand he might have felt that that character would be a lightning rod for criticism and he didn't want to ask anyone else to play it for fear of reprisals. I do agree with you on what you said about the film not taking the easy way out but instead asking a lot of good questions. Lee's big scene just didn't work for me and that affected everything that came next.

    4. Oh, I forgot to mention: if you haven't listened to Lee's commentary for Inside Man he points out that the pizzas that get delivered to the bank are from the same named shop as the Italian guys from Do the Right Thing. He jokes that they apparently re-opened in Manhattan.

    5. I can see that point of view on Do the Right Thing, but I see it differently. I think it's really important that the man who is presenting the film to us is the one who touches off the violence at the end. Does that mean he approves of it? I don't think so. Do the Right Thing is actually really even-handed in its treatment of race. There's no "I'm right, you're wrong" in the film, and Sal, in the view of the film, is justified in putting on his wall exactly what he wants on his wall.

      Agree to disagree on that, I guess. I think it can be taken a lot of different ways.

    6. Just a clarification - I do agree with you on everything that makes this a good, complex film. I didn't have a problem with Lee in the role because it was Lee. It was purely that I felt his acting just wasn't up to par with the fine jobs being done by the others. I would have had no problem with him in the role if he could have had more skill as an actor. In She's Gotta Have It he's just one of a cast of inexperienced actors. In Do the Right Thing he's sharing scenes with people like Danny Aiello and John Turturro.

      And none of this is to try to convince anyone that they should not like Do the Right Thing; most people do like it. It's just to explain why it didn't work for me. If only he'd have cast a young Denzel Washington, who he used the very next year in Mo' Betta Blues, I probably would love this film.

    7. Gotcha. I didn't really have a big problem with him as an actor, but I can understand your point.

  3. The »unnaturalness« was so severe I thought it might be inteded for some obscure reason. Brechtian Vervremdung, anyone?

    1. I'd love to think it was that, but I'm going with "mainly amateur actors."