#562) She’s Gotta Have It (1986)

#562) She’s Gotta Have It (1986)

OR “Four’s Company”

Directed & Written by Spike Lee

Class of 2019 

The Plot: Brooklyn artist Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns) meets handsome young Jamie Overstreet (Tommy Redmond Hicks), and the two begin a relationship. Jamie soon learns that he is one of three men that Nola is dating, along with smug model Greer Childs (John Canada Terrell) and funny, talkative Mars Blackmon (Spike Lee). When the three men finally meet, they give Nola an ultimatum to date only one of them. But Nola prefers to keep dating each of them; their different attributes satisfying Nola more than only one partner could. The romantic comedy is turned on its head in the very first Spike Lee joint.

Why It Matters: The NFR praises the “distinct voice and cinematic talent of Spike Lee” and states that the film is “a harbinger of Lee’s enduring and visionary career”.

But Does It Really?: “She’s Gotta Have It” is one notch above the kind of “stepping stone” movies that show up on this list. Yes, it’s primarily here for putting Spike Lee on the map, but it holds up as an engaging, funny look at relationships. Here is a director writing what he knows, and telling his truth in a fresh, exciting way. And as always, Spike Lee shows us a diversity of African-American characters that are living, breathing, dimensional people. I’m glad that the NFR had to have “She’s Gotta Have It” on the list.

Shout Outs: Jamie references “The Wizard of Oz” when presenting Nola with her birthday present, which then segues into a perfect “Oz”-esque transition from black and white to color. Well done, Spike.

Everybody Gets One: Most of the main cast, including S. Epatha Merkerson making her film debut as a sex addiction doctor. Lovely to see Anita/Reba on the list.

Wow, That’s Dated: While still quite progressive, “She’s Gotta Have It” has started to show its age regarding its binary view of gender politics. Plus, this movie harkens back to when making a booty call involved making an actual phone call. Simpler times.

Title Track: Jamie says the title exactly once. Given what we’ve covered so far in this post, I think you can deduce what “it” is.

Seriously, Oscars?: No Oscar love for “She’s Gotta Have It”, but the film got its share of critics awards, and won the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature (beating out, among others, “Hoosiers“).

Other notes 

  • A recent graduate of NYU in the early ’80s, Spike Lee planned on making a film called “Messenger” about, appropriately enough, a bike messenger. When he couldn’t secure funding, he wrote a new script that could be filmed on a quicker schedule and tighter budget. With grants totaling just under $30,000, Spike Lee filmed “She’s Gotta Have It” in 12 days in the summer of 1985. When he ran out of money, Lee screened a rough cut at NYU, and was able to secure funds for post-production. The film’s final cost was $175,000 (about $422,000 today).
  • It’s no secret that most male screenwriters don’t know how to write strong female characters. How did Spike Lee overcome this? He did research. Before making “She’s Gotta Have It”, Lee and Spellman College student Tracey Willard surveyed thirty-five women on campus, asking such questions as “Do you feel all men are basically dogs?” and “Does penis size matter?” The results gave us Nola.
  • The film opens with a quote from the novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by author and future NFR filmmaker Zora Neale Hurston.
  • Tracy Camilla Johns brings the perfect balance of charm and cryptic distance to Nola. Also I’m pretty sure everyone in the ’80s had her haircut at some point.
  • After watching so many Code-era movies for this list, any nudity or sex scenes stick out quite a bit for me. The sex scenes here are done tastefully; more as artistic compositions of character than exploitation of skin. That being said, several cuts were made to prevent the film from getting an X rating, though Spike Lee theorized at the time that the MPAA had a double-standard regarding sex scenes with Black actors.
  • Mainly I’m just bowled over by this movie’s content. I cannot imagine a movie about a woman, her multiple boyfriends, and her fluid sexuality being made by a major studio today, let alone 35 years ago.
  • Nola Darling, Opal Gilstrap, Greer Childs: every character in this movie has the best name.
  • That’s Spike’s father Bill Lee playing Nola’s father. Bill Lee was also the film’s composer, and is one of many members of the Lee family who helped make/fund this movie.
  • I laughed the most at the scene in which Greer and Nola are about to have sex, and Greer takes forever carefully folding each article of clothing as he takes them off. This attention to detail, aided with cutaway reactions shots from Nola, is comedy gold.
  • But seriously, that transition to the film’s one color scene? [Chef’s kiss]. I almost made a comment about how odd it is to see Spike Lee direct a dance number, but then I remembered this is a man with several music videos under his belt, plus the opening of “Do the Right Thing”.
  • Spike Lee cast himself as Mars because it was cheaper than hiring another actor. He’s a better actor than most people give him credit for, but it helps that he knows how to cast himself in the right part. Also, does Mars have to repeat everything that is said to him? He sounds like one of the mobsters from “Goodfellas“.
  • Hicks, Terrell, and Lee are all great as Nola’s boyfriends, and the scene where they get together for Thanksgiving is the icing on the cake. Each of these characters is so well-defined at this point, it’s a blast watching them interact and fail to connect.
  • Another “Wow, That’s Dated”: a conversation about Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign.
  • Easily the most uncomfortable scene in the movie is when Jamie, angry at Nola’s indecisiveness, rapes her. It’s brief, but quite distressing. Recently, Spike Lee has called his handling of this scene “immature” and one of the few scenes in his filmography he would “do-over” if given the chance.
  • The film’s creativity continues into the end credits. Each of the main cast members gets a “curtain call” by stating their name and slating the film’s clapperboard. The end credits conclude with a statement that “This film contains no Jerri curls!!! And no drugs!!!” A funny comment, but also an important reminder of what happens when you let Black filmmakers tell their own stories.

Legacy 

  • “She’s Gotta Have It” was a surprise hit, earning $7 million at a time when low-budget indies barely broke even. Spike Lee has spent the last 35 years enriching our movie landscape with such fellow NFR entries as “Do the Right Thing“, “Malcolm X”, and “4 Little Girls“.
  • Spike Lee reprised his role of Mars Blackmon for a series of Air Jordan commercials in the ’90s with Michael Jordan. The ads were so successful, the Jordan Mars 270 shoe is named in the character’s honor.
  • With the times finally catching up to this movie’s take on relationships, “She’s Gotta Have It” became a TV series in 2017. Netflix ran the show for two seasons, maintaining the film’s premise, but updating everything to the 2010s.

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