Saturday, June 13, 2020

Spike Lee | She's Gotta Have It

seeking independence
by Douglas Messerli

Spike Lee (writer and director) She’s Gotta Have It / 1986

In Spike Lee’s first feature film, shot on the near impossibly small budge of 175,000, is a charming film about a black woman’s self-empowerment in a world in which the men have always had the upper hand with it comes to multi-sexual relationships.
      Despite that powerful theme, however, Lee’s film does not preach to us, but simply allows the woman, in this case the remarkably intelligent and beautiful Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns) to tell her own story and present the trio (or would-be quartet, which includes Opal Gilstrap [Raye Dowell]) of sexual encounters she has with three men, who all desire her, and one lesbian friend, who would love to get her into bed.
      Each one of them would truly like to possess Nola and make her their own love object, but the smart designer, artist keeps them all at arms’ length by making her apartment a kind of turnstile in which the men and woman observe each other coming and going at all times.
      Anyone, it appears, is welcome—as long as you have some special personality trait that Nola enjoys.
       Jamie Oversteet (Tommy Redmond Hicks) is an equally intelligent gentle lover who is perhaps best suited to Nola’s own personality, but even he is kept at a distance.
       The least suitable is Greer Childs (John Canada Terrell), a successful, if self-centered model who has become fairly wealthy. He takes Nola into a world of fine dining and other areas of culture which she clearly enjoys.
       Mars Blackmon (Spike Lee) is a kind of idiot motor mouth, but he’s funny and makes Nola laugh in way only she can.

      That’s the story, folks, and the details hardly matter. Yet, unlike any white-directed films of the time, when blacks were nearly always portrayed as drug addicts or criminals of various sorts, these citizens of the Fort Greene, Brooklyn area, are all healthy, normal beings with their own desires and achievements—a truly refreshing change in the portrayal of the black community. Even the doctor (S. Epatha Merkerson) who Nola visits when she is told that she has nymphomaniac tendences, pronounces Nola’s sex life as normal and healthy.
       What the lovers of this story resent is that she has not given all her love to one of them. Even though Nola tries to bring peace to her entourage, by inviting them to her place for Thanksgiving dinner, they fight, destroying any good that might have come out of the celebration.
       As Nola makes clear in direct statements before the camera, that is what her life is: a kind of celebration of womanhood, of a woman who does not want to be tied down to one man.
       Even after she dismisses Mars and Greer (the latter of who insists that for Nola the three of them acted together as a kind of machine of 3 penises and 6 arms), choosing Jamie to be her companion, the relationship does not last long.
       For she refuses to be tied down to one man. The “she’s gotta to have it” of the title is not as much about sex as it is about the independence Nola continually seeks. Yes, she loves sex, but it is the friendships with her lovers that she most cherishes, the special things she discovers in each of them. And, in that sense, when this movie was first released, that was a radical act. For any woman to declare that she wanted sex without any of the strings attached was seldom permitted.
      And that is why Lee’s rather modest film is so very fulfilling. It is the woman in control here, not the men who surround and would fold her into their singular lives.

      In that sense Nola is special, but in Lee’s telling she is also an everywoman who seeks to define her own role in society in which she lives. Nola, I would suspect, also knows that women have always been some of the strongest forces in black communities, often defining themselves as a moral compass to their men. Whether this is a myth or not, it does appear again and again in the most objective of literary and cinematic works about blacks.
     You can call her a freak, a nymphomaniac, whatever…. But she is still a force to be reckoned with.

Los Angeles, June 13, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (June 2020).

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