She’s Gotta Have It
When Spike Lee has hit many of his lows for me over the years is when he deals with relationships and sex with women at the center of them, and most fans would even agree considering “Girl 6” and “She Hate Me.” That’s part of what makes his debut, “She’s Gotta Have It,” such a jolt as I’ve finally started to really catch up with his films. At it’s center is Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns), a woman who loves sex, and is seeing three men to fulfill her need for it: Jamie (Tommy Redmond Hicks), who is the textbook definition of boyfriend material; Mars (Lee), a bike messenger who sees Nola strictly is sexual terms; and Greer (John Canada Terrell), a male model who seems more interested in himself than her. The problem with “Girl 6” and “She Hate Me” stems from a misogyny that felt ingrained in both of those films (that they fell short as comedies doesn’t help, either, and to be fair, it has been a long time since I’ve seen either, but there was a reason I didn’t revisit them), but “She’s Got Have It,” which put Spike Lee on the map 30 years ago, isn’t hateful towards Nola but loves the character, and delves deep into why these three men fall for her, and why she just can’t choose between them. The characters judge Nola, but Lee doesn’t, and it’s arguably his best film about relationships and sexual desires in a career where he’s looked at it from several angles.
I’ve written often in these looks back at Spike Lee’s films that he is a polarizing filmmaker that misses the mark almost as much as he hits it, but I don’t know if I believe that anymore. As I’ve looked back on some of his films, and seen his recent work, yes, he can be “off,” at times, as a filmmaker, but he always knows the story he wants to tell, and hits it with confidence and passion. Sometimes, it works beautifully, as it does here or “Do the Right Thing” or last year’s “Chi-raq,” and sometimes, it doesn’t to varying degrees, like in “Jungle Fever” or a “She Hate Me.” He may have flaws as a storyteller, but he’s always interesting in the stories he tells. He wants to challenge us, and more importantly, he wants to challenge himself to push his craft further. In “She’s Gotta Have It,” the visual flourishes and traits that have defined everything from “Do the Right Thing” to “Malcolm X” to “Inside Man” are not in place yet, but his editing is as distinctive as it becomes in later films, and the deceptively simple cinematography by Ernest Dickerson and music by Bill Lee is as important as it ever has been to Lee’s films. Even shooting on a shoestring budget in black-and-white, Lee is a visual storyteller of the highest order, and even though it doesn’t have the same richness his later films would display, the energy is passion with which he tells his best stories is alive and well in this film.
Lee’s talents as a storyteller wouldn’t be worth much, however, if it weren’t for the story and characters he was showing us, and they are as interesting as any he has ever given us. It’s easy for us to see why Jamie, Mars and Greer are so enamored with Nola, and it’s not just her sexuality. She’s passionate, smart, affectionate and enjoyable to be around, and Camilla Johns gives one of the best female performances we’ve seen in a Spike Lee film, letting us in to this character beyond just how she’s seen by her three suitors to where, when her story ends with her looking into the camera, we get why she makes the decisions she has made, and we respect them. While it’s easy to see Lee as a gifted director, it’s easy to forget him as a screen presence, and Mars is a fine performance from the director that doesn’t quite hit the depth of Mookie in “Do the Right Thing,” but still has a certain flair and energy that is different from the characters played by Hicks, the most likeable of her three male suitors, and Terrell, easily the most arrogant of the trio. If there’s one complaint I can levy about the film, it’s that the men in the movie are all relatively one-dimensional, but that’s only to illustrate how complicated Nola is, and as we see, each one serves a different purpose, and offers something distinctive, to Nola. She may gotta have it throughout most of the film, but more than that, she needs to figure out who can give her what she needs most, and in the end, there’s only one person who can do that. She makes the right call in the end, and Lee does the right thing by his main character.