She's Gotta Have It

Distressed that so little of the vibrant black life he had experienced as a boy has been portrayed onscreen, Spike Lee determined to dedicate his work exclusively to the African-American experience. Black people were usually portrayed in stereotypically offensive roles. She's Gotta Have It, which he produced, wrote, directed, edited, and acted in, gave Lee a chance to show a slice of black urban life in which white characters don't even exist.

Lee has criticized Woody Allen for excluding black actors with speaking parts from his movies. Nonetheless, there are several similarities between Allen and Lee. She's Gotta Have It has been compared to Allen's early work for its humor and loving treatment of New York (in Lee's other pictures, the city's portrait is not so loving). Lee also resembles Allen in the comic energy he brings to his acting, though the roles he has played, Mars in She's Gotta Have It, or the pizza delivery boy in Do the Right Thing, are far from Allen's neurotic, self-absorbed characters.

There's another, rather unfortunate similarity between the two filmmakers. Allen's films of the 1990s have each grossed less than $14 million, despite exalted status among critics. Similarly, in his recent work, Lee has become a niche director. Yet Allen has a realistic idea of his audience size, budgeting them so that they at least break even, whereas Lee's films have been losing money.

The title of She's Gotta to Have It may have been inspired by Frank Tashlin's camp comedy, The Girl Can't Help It, starring Jane Mansfield. At its center is the sexual life of a young black graphic designer, Nola Darling (Tracy Camila Johns), who can be perceived as a precursor to the attractive black women in Waiting to Exhale (1995). Nolas has affairs with three men, and ends up dismissing all of them.

As a sex comedy, She's Gotta Have It stays close to Nola's bed: The film begins with her rising up from under the bedcovers and it ends with her diving under the covers. In a role reversal, Nola is as self-centered as most men are, though, unlike most men, she doesn't attempt to hide from her lovers the existence of the others. She enjoys her power over men, but apart from sex, she doesn't know what she wants from them. At the same time, she is intelligent enough to understand that her determination to be independent comes at a price.

Lee constructs a strong woman who possesses the same right to sleep around as men. The men perceive Nola as alluring but “emotionally sick,” because she can't choose one man. The film satirizes selfishness and sexual role-playing among men–the ultimate joke is on the men who, hypocritically, are upset by Nola's freewheeling sexuality. In a most poignant sequence, Nola turns to the camera and ridicules their self-love and tired come-ons–a dozen men deliver silly pickup lines like “Baby, you need a man like me to hold you.”

At a benefit screening for the Black Filmmaker Foundation, the women in the audience were laughing louder than the men. During a discussion that followed, one man remarked how unusual it was to see “the shoe on the other foot.” “That's primarily the reason I made the film,” Lee replied, noting that it's the men who are the butt of the humor.

Nola's lovers are each lacking in crucial ways. Jamie (Tommy Redmond Hicks), the solid, sensitive type, loves her, but he's too possessive and jealous of the other men. A fashion model, the muscled Greer (John Canada Terrell) treats his body as a statue, taking so long to fold his clothes before going to bed that Nola loses interest in sex. A little man on a bike, Mars is the smartest, wearing satin baseball jacket and Air Jordan sneakers, which he refuses to remove in bed. Endlessly talking, Mars shows self-confidence while arguing his way into bed.

She's Gotta Have It is set in a world that runs parallel, but doesn't clash, with the white world. For white audiences, it offered the opportunity of seeing how the black middle class lives. For blacks, it was seeing themselves on screen for the first time–and liking what they see. Lee's novelty, as Pauline Kael pointed out, was to break the pattern of casting black actresses with light skin and WASPish features. Lee doesn't deny the blackness of his characters, but once the racial milieu is established, the viewers aren't distanced by it.

Financial limitations were used to an advantage: Made on a shoestring, for a mostly deferred budget of $175,000, the movie was shot on location in Brooklyn in 12 days. Visually, Lee combines a casual style with a disciplined approach. The film is loose and open-ended, relying on characters addressing the camera directly, little photo essays, cameo appearances, comic riffs–and one weak dance interlude in Central Park, which is shot in color.

Pauline Kael has noted that, like Scorsese, Lee's fresh filmmaking is at once the subject of the movie and the joy of watching it. Determined to make an accessible movie, Lee gives it the structure and title of an exploitation flick, with all the standard ploys in the soft-core market: Nola Darling is a porno-picture name; she's is courted by a leering lesbian; she consults a sex therapist who tells her she's healthy; when she doesn't have a man around, she plays with herself.

But the film is so stylish that it transcends the material's weaknesses. As a witty comedy of manners, the tempo is fast, making for a sparking movie. Lee is ingenious about varying the pulse, and his exuberance compensates for the botched ending–Lee didn't know how to conclude the film.

Nonetheless, some problems that will plague Lee's pictures in the future are evident. He shows weaknesses in developing a tight narrative and in sustaining a consistent tone; in this case, a satirical mood. In most of Lee's films, the subsidiary characters outshine the principals–here Nola is more interesting when she's surrounded with men than when she's alone onscreen.

Lee expected the movie to spawn controversy, since it showed behaviors and attitudes that blacks might not want to see. But the film cut across racial barriers, avoiding the “either-or” dilemma black artists often face. When he wrote the script, Lee had black audiences in mind, but She's Gotta Have It crossed over and appealed to white viewers as well. It's one of the most successful “no-budgeters,” not just on the basis of its financial returns ($7.1 million domestically) but also by virtue of the career it launched. Lee parlayed his early success into using studio money for making thematically challenging and formally inventive films.