Thirty four years ago Spike Lee burst onto the scene with his feature directorial debut. She’s Gotta Have It is a narrative breath of fresh air. It bursts with invention and excitement. It’s a messy sometimes dated movie that remains engaging and entertaining all these years later.
Born in Atlanta as Shelton Jackson Lee, Spike (his mother called him Spike) was surrounded by art and music. His father was jazz composer Bill Lee and his mother taught arts and Black literature. Early in his childhood his family moved to the city that would become a massive influence on all of Spike’s films; Brooklyn.
Spike earned a degree from Morehouse college then studied film at NYU. His thesis film won him a Student Academy Award. He went to Hollywood hoping the award would open doors for him and jumpstart his career as a film director. He found nothing but closed doors, so he returned home to make She’s Gotta Have It. Shot in two weeks on black and white film with local talent in front of and behind the camera, Spike Lee pulled out all the stops to make Shes Gotta Have It something special.
The story follows Nola Darling, a artist who knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to get it. In this case that means the love of three different men. The first is Jamie, played by Tommy Redmond Hicks. Jamie is sentive, strong, and straight forward. He’s also a little old fashioned and wants Nola to commit to him and only him. The second is Greer, played by John Canada Terrell. He is a vapid, shallow, douche. He is the kind if guy who is constantly working out and talking about his body is a temple. Then there’s Mars Blackmon played by Spike Lee himself. Mars is quite the character. He’s loud, immature, and goofy. He’s like the little kid sitting at the grown ups table.
These three men navigate the tricky waters of all vying for and enjoying the affections of one woman. There is a lot of sex in this movie. It’s a highly sexual film. There’s nudity and graphic discussions, but it never feels vulgar or excessive or out of place. The movie is about sex, and it doesn’t shy away from depicting that subject in a realistic and complicated way.
The film is often beautifully shot. The black and white cinematography is stark and stunning. However there are moments where the camera is out of focus. Sometimes it looks like the framing was just wrong for the moment. And there are some very weird and out of place edits.
There are also a few moments where the acting is very clumsy and awkward. Where line delivery is stilted and forced. For the most part the performances are fantastic and real. They create a lived in feeling. However some scenes could have used a second take.
That’s the thing about all these criticisms. The film was shot in two weeks. Most films are shot in 3 or 4 months. The messy and awkward quality the film sometimes has is the result of pulling off an impossible feat.
The movie is made with a verve for storytelling. It pushes the boundaries of storytelling and explores every aspect of the film medium. Most of the film plays out like any narrative film would, but the narrative is interrupted repeatedly by the characters directly addressing the camera and talking to the audience about the situation and how they feel about it. This documentary feel allows greater depth to the characters, and gives everyone a chance to express their side of the story. Everyone has a unique perspective. Everyone has the opportunity to be more than their type. Jaimie is not just a strong noble guy. Greer isn’t just a douche. Mars isn’t just a loudmouth. Everyone is more than what they appear to be, and this film wants to show us that.
This aspect above all is what carries through Spike Lees work. The idea that there are no heroes and monsters. In the real world everyone is a shade of everything. Everyone has the capacity to be good and bad and everywhere in between. Spine Lee starts his journey as a filmmaker looking at complicated people in a complicated situation, and every film he makes following this one will do the same.
She’s Gotta Have It is currently streaming on Netflix. Watch it for an exciting storyteller bursting out with creative energy. Watch it for a surprisingly modern take on love stories. Give it a chance. It’s a fun and rewarding experience. Definitely my cup of tea A