Nola Darling is a young black woman living in Brooklyn. She is sexually involved with three men: the caring but overly protective Jamie, the affluent but arrogant Greer, and the fun but immature Mars. Each man wants to date her exclusively, but Nola resists deciding on a single partner, wanting to maintain her independence. The impatience – and insecurity – of her three suitors pressurizes her into making a choice, but she soon begins to question whether she has picked the right man, or if she even needs a man at all.
As the cultural landscape of American independent cinema becomes increasingly obscured by the perception of the sector as an industrially necessary stepping stone, discussion surrounding Spike Lee’s directorial debut, She’s Gotta Have It, has centred less on the black sexual politics which caused such a stir in 1986 and more on Lee’s entrepreneurial production methods: shooting in grainy black and white, not being able to afford re-takes, and making sure that the cast and crew did not throw away any aluminium soda cans as they could be turned in for recycling money. Lee was actually motivated to embark on the shoestring production by the success of Stranger than Paradise (1984), but as Lee has always been a more outspoken personality than Jim Jarmusch, not to mention an expert media manipulator, he became the figurehead of ‘credit card film-making’, with his enterprising attitude inspiring such directors as Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith and Nick Gomez. A mere two years after the release of She’s Gotta Have It, Lee published Gotta Have It: Inside Guerilla Filmmaking, a guide to making low-budget movies, establishing himself as a guru of DIY production, although by this point he had already made the leap into studio features, directing School Daze (1998) for Columbia Pictures.
If, however, Lee had somehow fallen into obscurity following his debut feature, She’s Gotta Have It would remain a cultural milestone worthy of discussion. Structured as a documentary, with characters being introduced via title cards and then speaking directly to the camera, Lee’s film exhibits enough anxiety about sex and relationships – and the distinction between the two – that it was almost appropriate that he was briefly dubbed, ‘the black Woody Allen.’ Each of Nola’s would-be suitors (the safe but dull Jamie, the property-obsessed Greer and the motor-mouthed Mars, the last amusingly played by the multi-tasking Lee himself) represents an aspect of the modern male and, taken collectively, they are, as Greer puts it, a ‘three-headed monster.’ Nola keeps each man informed of the others, but the matter of who ‘owns’ whom is always open, relative to the individual point of view, or the need that is being satisfied: Nola uses each man in her life for a different purpose, but Jamie, Greer and Mars have their own ideas about how Nola would fulfil their social and sexual aspirations should she decide to go steady. The sharp script, which leads to such quotable lines as, ‘Baby, you’re so fine, I’d drink a tub of your bath water’ and ‘Nola’s about as dependable as a ripped diaphragm’, are matched by Lee’s tight, rhythmic editing and a terrific jazz score by his father, Bill Lee, ensuring that you can enjoy the raucous humour of She’s Gotta Have It, and let the sexual politics bother you later.
Studio/Distributor: 40 Acres & A Mule Island-Alive
Director: Spike Lee; Producer: Spike Lee
Screenwriter: Spike Lee; Cinematographer: Ernest R. Dickerson
Art Director: Wynn Thomas; Composer: Bill Lee
Editor: Spike Lee; Duration: 84 minutes
Cast: Tracy Camilla Johns, Spike Lee, Tommy Redmond Hicks
Directory of World Cinema: American Independent, Edited by John Berra, published by Intellect Books, Bristol, UK / Chicago, USA.