Twenty-two years after the fact, it can be difficult to remember the impact Spike Lee's debut had on American independent cinema; not to mention the raw, unbridled talent he demonstrated with his first feature, She's Gotta Have It. This is especially true when distracted by such recent failings as the final act of 25th Hour, a vast majority of Bamboozled, and all of She Hate Me. At the same time, despite the bad movies, the flawed movies, and the movies that just left you wishing Spike would simply make a film, rather than an agenda or a therapy session enacted on celluloid, there is no denying the man is a filmmaking force to be reckoned with. But when watching She's Gotta Have It all over again--for myself, the first time in close twenty years--it was easy to remember what a cinematic breath of fresh air Spike Lee was in the 1980s, and how easy it was to fall in love with his films and forgive the many flaws because of his overall audacity as a director.
Set in Brooklyn, She's Gotta Have It profiles Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns), an independent black woman who openly carries on affairs with three very different men. First, there is Jamie Overstreet (Tommy Redmond Hicks), the hopelessly romantic guy who claims Nola is his soul mate, and who seems to be the man who cares most about her. Then there is Greer Childs (John Canada Terrell), a self-absorbed prick who only seems to keep Nola around because, "I only date fine women." And finally there is Mars Blackmon (Spike Lee), a fast-talking joker with no real prospects. All three men are obsessed with Nola, they want her exclusively, and none of them can figure out why she won't dump the others. But interestingly enough, none of them seem to have the tenacity to simply leave Nola and move on with their lives.
Partially filmed as if it were a documentary, with characters addressing the camera directly, She's Gotta Have It was a revelation when it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 1986. The film offered portrayals of black Americans that were rarely seen in film, especially women, who seldom came across as free-thinking or sexually liberated. At this time in film, Eddie Murphy was just beginning his box office domination, and Whoopi Goldberg had just come on the scene in a big way with The Color Purple. But that was pretty much it in terms of films with leading black characters or stories specifically addressing the African-American experience. And the films that were being released were little more than offshoots of proven pictures from years past. But She's Gotta Have It was nothing like any black film ever made before. It had more in common with the work of filmmakers like John Cassavetes, and European directors who sought to portray frank and intimate relationships on screen.
As a filmmaker, Spike Lee has always proven himself to be ambitious, although that ambition has often been counter-balanced by some very fundamental flaws in his abilities as a writer and a director. These flaws were not so evident in the early part of his career--or perhaps more appropriately these flaws were more easily overlooked--because Lee was telling stories that were seldom told on screen. This is especially true of She's Gotta Have It, which came across as nothing short of revolutionary back in 1986. Decades later, parts of the film still hold up, and as dated as it may be in terms of style and dialog, those elements have aged incredibly well. What hasn't aged quite as well are the performances, which lack any sort of consistent quality, and throw the film off balance. Those performances that didn't seem that good back in the late 1980s--when we were all willing to cut a little slack simply because we were happy to see black people on screen--have turned out to be as bad if not worse than we initially suspected.
If the uneven performances in She's Gotta Have It represent the film's most obvious weakness, then it is important to realize that all the blame should not rest on the shoulders of the actors. For all of its strengths, Lee's script also has problems, the most obvious being dialog that seems more than a mouthful for some of the actors. There are a few too many moments in She's Gotta Have It where Lee the writer appears so attached to his words that it forces Lee the director to make decisions that impact the overall quality of the final product.
The other thing that is interesting about revisiting She's Gotta Have It after all these years is how the perception of Nola and her trio of lovers has changed. At one time Nola was an independent, sexually liberated woman who refused to be tied down. The film hinted at her personal weaknesses and character flaws, but over time, Nola Darling has proven to be everything but an independent woman. Looking at her now, she is nothing but a weak, insecure woman who uses her sexuality as a weapon. If there is anything she has to offer other than her sexual prowess, it is a mystery, because we never see it in the film. This makes it difficult to see what any of the three men see in her (beyond the sex, of course), because she has no worth beyond her sexuality. Likewise, we don't see enough of her three lovers to ever begin to understand why she chooses to stay with them. This is especially true with Greer, whose presence betrays Nola's shallow insecurities. At least we see Jamie and Mars treating her decently (for the most part), whereas Greer's treatment consists of him having sex with her and verbally belittling her. Although she will never admit it, Nola's relationships with these three men--and all the others in her life--are simply attempts on her own part to be validated through the desires of another. Her failure to choose one man has nothing to do with her being an independent woman, and everything to do with her being so unsure of herself that she needs her ego validated by as many men as her bed can accommodate.
Despite these aspects of She's Gotta Have It that have not withstood the test of time, and those that have altered over time, it is still, by and large, an incredible film. Ernest Dickerson's cinematography is still exquisite (and Lee has never been a better director than when he was working with Dickerson). And all that talent that Lee has demonstrated over the last twenty-two years (as well as some of the problems) can be seen on in this one film, which remains one of the most impressive debut feature films by a director in the last thirty years.