By Jonathan Pacheco
Press Play Contributor
Nola (Tracy Camilla Johns) is a mythological goddess, a seductress rarely descending from her studio apartment, spending her time perched on her bed, which doubles as a sort of altar to her sexual prowess, decorated with more candles than a cathedral. She only makes love on her own mattress, but her suitors — male and female — are more than willing to make the journey for their reward will be great. Even her full name Nola Darling when spoken by her lovers, sounds more like a near-allegorical title that she demands than a true first and last name. Yes, she’s a seductress, but one whose greed is without malice.
Or maybe she’s simply a modern young woman who enjoys sex, openly and honestly soliciting several relationships — most frequently with Jamie (Tommy Redmond Hicks), an honest gentleman; Greer (John Canada Terrell), a model; and Mars (Spike Lee), a scrawny bike messenger — to fulfill her desires. In our society, the promiscuous male equivalent of this character has been accepted and even glorified for a while now, and not just in the black community. But a female who carries on strictly physical relationships with multiple partners? Well, we’ve got some nasty words for a lady like that, even 25 years after this film was made, don’t we? She’s Gotta Have It, while playful in ways we haven’t seen from its director in a long time, wouldn’t be a Spike Lee joint if it didn’t address and attempt to annihilate some serious, thought-provoking issues and stereotypes. Lee’s characters in this film are nonviolent, artistic, intelligent and successful (mostly). I don’t recall hearing the n-word, and in the closing credits Lee proudly points out, “THIS FILM CONTAINS NO JERRI CURLS!!! AND NO DRUGS!!!” Clearly, his first feature is a call to abandon past stereotypes and think progressively about how we socially and sexually identify black men and women — heck, all men and women.
And a first feature this very much is, as She’s Gotta Have It exhibits many of the expected traits of independent films by young directors. Most of the key performances, particularly those by Johns, Raye Dowell (as Nola’s desperate-to-get-her-to-switch lesbian friend Opal) and occasionally Terrell, are weak and at times downright bad. The camerawork gets a bit too literal when it cues conversations (tilt up, settle, and — line!), and in that sense it sort of tips off the viewer. Still, some of those first-feature characteristics are charming when seen in the context of Lee’s career thus far. It’s fun to see members of his family play key roles in the production, from his sister, a young Joie Lee, playing Nola’s former roommate, to his father, Bill Lee, doubling up as Nola’s onscreen father as well as composer of the film’s jazzy score. Through the film we discover a relaxed, familial production environment. When Mars is introduced, he’s seen speeding down a hill on his bike, heading straight for the camera, swerving at the last moment to miss it as he screams. Lee cuts to a title card, but over it we hear laughter and chatter from the crew. It fits within the documentary facade of the film, but to my ears it sounds like real reactions from Lee’s crew. Just before the end credits, the director lets his main players come out and take bows by having them slate a shot, then introduce themselves. A few add their own flair: an impersonation, a bass riff, a certain smirk. There’s a joyful atmosphere to the production that Lee wants you to see.
The film itself is comically playful in a way you don’t see from Lee anymore, partially because he’s molded himself into a singular filmmaker no longer in need of his early, slightly derivative techniques. There are jokes, moments and even stretches in She’s Gotta Have It that feel downright Woody Allen-esque, from Jamie’s chase of Nola through the streets of New York to some plain silly touches, such as Nola nearly falling asleep waiting for Greer to slowly undress, or the reveal of Mars’ sneakers during sex. Even Lee’s now-familiar speaking-to-the-camera montage technique, typically used for dramatic effect (the racial slur sequence of Do the Right Thing or the “I’m Malcolm X” montage in Malcolm X), is used comically in this film to catalog the lame pickup attempts of Nola’s would-be suitors (a scene that Kevin Smith would later ape in his own first feature, Clerks). I mean, at one point a man wipes snot with his hand, then briefly inspects it before finishing his pickup line; it’s endearing how goofy Lee gets.
Despite its humble budget and brief shooting schedule, She’s Gotta Have It is a great looking film, at times beautiful. Lee’s bold visual style is present, though not quite fully developed; the crane shot is missing from his arsenal and his use of handheld feels a bit raw. Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson makes great use of black-and-white film and the occasional dose of slow-motion, most notably in a few of the film’s sex scenes with characters set against a stark black background, lit almost exclusively in highlights and shot only in tight close-ups. Her breasts. His face, then hers. Mouths open in ecstasy. The film deliberately tries to be sexy, which is typically a turnoff for me, but here it absolutely works, as does one of its boldest moves, a single scene shot in color. While not as beautiful as the black-and-white photography, and ironically a bit more dated when we see the typical bright, clashing colors of the ’80s (as if Nola’s near-Eraserhead haircut didn’t tip you off), its inclusion is surprising and striking enough that it conjured an involuntary “Whoa” from me when it arrived.
It’s during this scene — Nola’s birthday celebration with Jamie — that she’s presented a cake with a trick candle that reignites after she blows it out. In passing, it’s another small, playful way to cap a scene, perhaps in reality a gag played on the cast, because as they laugh, Tommy Hicks sneaks a quick glance at the camera and then at the offscreen crew. Yet, the moment foreshadows Nola’s fate, doesn’t it? The candles wrapping around her bed like angels’ wings represent her sexual fire. She lights them before intercourse and extinguishes them after. She has a nightmare that includes flames engulfing her bed, her fear of her destructive sexuality in full metaphor. When she decides to become a celibate, one-man woman, part of her cleansing process entails removing candles from her altar and scraping off the excess wax.
But her celibacy doesn’t last when she realizes that’s not who she is or who she wants to be. In the film’s closing moments, she’s resigned to her reality, saying, “Who was I fooling?” as she stands against a curtain covered in a pattern resembling melted wax. Nola is that trick candle, only momentarily fooling he who thinks he can blow out her sexual fire. She’ll always reignite.
Jonathan Pacheco contributes film and theater criticism to The House Next Door and Edward Copeland on Film while only pretending to write on his own site, Bohemian Cinema. In order to eat, he works in the Dallas area as a darn good web developer. Follow him on Twitter, if you like.