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Spike Lee’s ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ Almost Had a Disastrous World Premiere

Former San Francisco Film Festival programmer Peter Scarlet looks back on the world premiere of Lee's legendary debut.

Peter Scarlet and Spike Lee

Pamela Gentile

The following is excerpted from “Between Screenings,” a memoir by Peter Scarlet forthcoming from Seven Stories Press.

It’s hard to believe 32 years have flown by since Spike Lee first appeared at Cannes, but that’s when Pierre-Henri Deleau, selected “She’s Gotta Have It” for Directors’ Fortnight. Two months earlier, the film’s very successful World Premiere screening had been at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Except it was almost a disaster!

Since we’d screened Spike’s hour-long student film “Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads” at SF in 1983, those of us who programmed the fest were looking forward eagerly to the chance to see his feature debut. When he sent us a copy of “She’s Gotta Have It” we were not disappointed! Not only had he written, produced and directed the new film, he also played one of the leads, and the films’ score was by his father, the celebrated jazz bassist and composer Bill Lee. Despite some still-rough spots in the editing and without the final sound mix the film was a knockout. I contacted him right away to tell him how much we liked the film and how we’d be happy and proud to premiere it. I added, though, that several of us had been bothered by the rape scene toward the end of the film, and felt it was not only unnecessary but really marred the film. Spike disagreed – and to my lasting regret, I fell back on the cowardly position of “well, after all, it’s his film and it’s his call.” So we agreed to show it as is.

By the time the 29th San Francisco IFF got under way in late March 1986, “She’s Gotta Have It” was a hot ticket. We’d scheduled its only screening for 8PM on a Friday night in our main venue, the 1100-seat Palace of Fine Arts and all the tickets had been scarfed up fast. That night, as the house lights dimmed, I invited Spike to come up on stage for the introduction. Although he may well have had plenty of butterflies in his stomach as he faced a packed house for the first public screening of his first feature film, he displayed every bit of the confidence and cockiness he’s now well-known for being able to summon up whenever he appears in public.

As the film started to roll, he scrambled up the massive auditorium’s stairs so he could sit near the top row of seats, while I stayed near the front of the house over to the side, so I could observe both the film and the audience reaction, which was positive from the very first sequence. People laughed in all the right places, and were totally into the film, and they stayed that way for half an hour, but suddenly the film stopped!

The entire auditorium was plunged into total darkness.

Fortunately, I remembered I’d seen Leo, one of our volunteer ushers carrying a little penlight flashlight when he greeted me on our arrival. “Yo, Leo! Can you bring me that flashlight, quick?”  I said in a loud stage whisper. As if by a miracle, he was at my side within seconds, pressing the light into my hand.  Then, in a louder voice, I said, “Folks, please sit tight! I’m gonna go outside and try to find out what’s going on!” The announcement provoked some grateful applause – the most terrible thing you can do with an audience is to not tell them anything – and everybody stayed put as I rushed out of the auditorium.

She's Gotta Have It

“She’s Gotta Have It”

Island Pictures

But even on the street, there wasn’t a single light visible anywhere – no streetlights, no lights from houses in the neighborhood, nothing at all!

Suddenly, though, a car’s headlights loomed up. A miracle!

It pulled up at the entrance, and out stepped Danny Glover, who sat on the festival’s board of directors. Seeing me he began to explain he’d been stuck in terrible Friday evening traffic coming over the Bay Bridge from Oakland where he lived. But his late arrival concerned me less than the fact I remembered he usually carried a portable phone – which wasn’t common practice in 1986 – in fact it was probably only movie stars like Danny who traveled with one in those days. And the thing was a monster – picture an object not much smaller than a carry-on suitcase! He readily handed it over, and I managed to get PG&E on the line. “I’m at the Palace of Fine Arts – there’s no power anywhere! What’s going on?” “Yes, sir, there’s been a power outage throughout the entire Marina District. We’re on it, but I can’t tell you how long it’ll take us to repair it.” I thanked him, thanked Danny for the loan of the phone, and rushed back into the auditorium. I found Spike and explained the situation. “Come up on stage with me, and we can talk, take questions from the audience, keep folks entertained until the power comes back on.”

Seconds later, we stood together onstage, illuminated only by the miniature flashlight I’d borrowed. (I felt as though I were giving an idiot’s imitation of the Statue of Liberty holding the teeny light.) My questions were succeeded by more from the audience, who had to shout theirs out since we really couldn’t see anybody.

Suddenly, just as it seemed we might be running out of steam, a door opened beside  the front of the stage, a bright light was shined in, and a voice over a megaphone announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the police. We need you to exit one row at a time for your own safety.” Oh shit!  Spike and I barely had time to exchange a heartbroken glance as our eyes slowly adjusted to the blinding light.  Then, all of a sudden, the power was restored! We dashed outside the now fully lit theatre, yelling “Come back, Come back! ” The house filled up once again and I rushed to the projection booth to ask the projectionist – we still used reel-to-reel in those days – to rewind the film to the head of the reel that had been interrupted. Five minutes later, the screening continued.

At the end, with the packed house giving it a standing ovation, the film was clearly a triumph. The rest is history, as they say.

In fact, “She’s Gotta Have It” entered film history, and Spike has gone on to be recognized as one of the great American filmmakers. And last fall, during interviews he gave when he was about to release a TV series based on the film, he commented  “You know what my biggest regret is. The rape scene in “She’s Gotta Have It.” If I was able to have any do-overs, that would be it. It was just totally…stupid. I was immature. I made light of rape, and that’s the one thing I would take back.” I still feel guilty I didn’t make my point strongly enough to convince him in 1986, but it’s great we’re all on the same page now about this vital point.

One footnote: a wonderful photographer named Pamela Gentile was on hand that night, as she has been for every edition of San Francisco and several other film festivals ever since. The images she captured are the only ones that exist of that unforgettable night. Can those two skinny guys (see above) really be Spike and me?

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