She’s Gotta Have It (1986)

She’s Gotta Have It is the first feature-length movie by now famed director Spike Lee. Filmed on a microscopic budget, it is shot (almost) entirely in black and white. Further, it takes place exclusively in Brooklyn with many of the scenes occurring in lead character Nola’s apartment. Part mockumentary and part drama, it features cinematic and stylistic flairs that have now become cornerstones of a Spike Lee Joint.

She’s Gotta Have It stars Tracy Camilla Johns as Nola, an independent young woman who prefers several men to one exclusive lover. Each interest has a characteristic the other two don’t, serving in a strange way to create balance. Jamie Overstreet (played by Tommy Redmond Hicks) is the most level-headed and mature of the three. Greer Childs (John Canada Terrell) is a self-centered, self-impressed, fitness-obsessed burgeoning model. Finally Mars Blackmon (Spike Lee) a failing bicycle delivery person who likes joking almost as much as his Jordan’s…which he keeps on even when making love. All three are uncomfortable with Nola’s attitude toward sex and pressure her to make a choice.

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Complicating things further, Nola is oft tempted by her friend Opal (Raye Dowell) to consider women instead of men. This is much to the dismay of Jamie, in particular, who is suspicious that things are more than they appear.

Watching the film, I had two primary critiques. First, one scene is randomly filmed in color. This seems totally out of place and does not flow well with the rest of the story. It took me out of the movie, especially when the rest of film does such a great job of avoiding what could’ve been pretentious overtones.

My second critique came with the acting. All of the actresses/actors, including Spike as actor/director, ultimately sell their roles. However, at moments each character seems unsure of themselves. Particularly, the lines are spoken directly into the camera occasionally feel read rather than delivered.

Additionally, there is one scene toward the end of the film in which Jamie makes a very aggressive and abusive decision. While I felt that it displayed the possibility of even the most level-headed man succumbing to aggression, Spike Lee has since stated that he regrets the decision. It’s one of those things that is really up to the individual viewer to decide.

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Despite minor criticism, I enjoyed the film quite a bit. It is noted in many existing reviews for its portrayal of black people as complicated, dynamic, and intellectual. This has been a hallmark of Spike Lee’s career and it is evident in his very first feature. That is one of the primary reasons I will be featuring his catalog weekly in February to celebrate Black History Month. Furthermore, I enjoyed the way it toyed with linear storytelling. The film cuts back and forth in time almost seamlessly, which is particularly impressive for a directorial debut. On top of that, the soundtrack is fantastic. With music from his father Bill Lee, a composer and musician (who also plays Nola’s father in the movie), it is a treat for any jazz enthusiast. She’s Gotta Have It was truly a sign of great things to come for Spike Lee.

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