AKA: She’s Gotta Have It (1986)
Genre: Romance/Dark Comedy/Drama
Year Released: 1986
Distributor: The Criterion Collection/MGM
Running Time: 84 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: R (theatrical version), NC-17 (director’s cut)
Related Films/Series: Do the Right Thing, Crooklyn, Clockers, He Got Game, Red Hook Summer, She’s Gotta Have It (TV Remake)
For Fans Of: Fresh, School Daze, Drugstore Girlfriend, After Hours, Krush Groove, Like Someone In Love
-The R-rated version was used for this review and I streamed it on Netflix. There’s also an NC-17 release that The Criterion Collection released on Laserdisc, but re-released it on Blu-Ray.
-This is the feature-length debut of Spike Lee. She’s Gotta Have It took 12 days to film and it only cost $175,000 to make that movie. Interestingly enough, this racked over $7.1 million dollars in the box office. To say this made enough returns would be a gross understatement. Not only that, but Spike Lee directed, wrote, produced, edited, and acted.
-Speaking of Spike Lee acting, he played the Mars Blackmon character. Outside of appearing in this movie, the character showed up in Air Jordan commercials back in the late 80s, early 90s, and reappearing in a 2011 ad. The name Mars came from Lee’s grandmother to use in the movie, but it was revealed in the BBC show Who Do You Think You Are? that he had a great-great-grandfather who had the same first name. Keep in mind, he didn’t know that until 2010 when the episode happened.
-This was the acting debut of S. Epatha Merkerson. She played Dr. Jamison. Outside of She’s Gotta Have It, she is known for portraying characters such as Tarissa Dyson from Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Reba the Mail Lady from Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, Lt. Anita Van Buren from the Law & Order series, and Sharon Goodwin from the Chicago franchise where she is a lead character in Chicago Med while also appearing in Fire and PD.
-Spike Lee’s father Bill Lee scored the movie and made an onscreen cameo as Nola’s father. He is a bassist who has been a sideman for Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Duke Ellington, and Simon and Garfunkel among several big names.
For the 2nd year in a row, I get to cover a Spike Lee film for my Black Film project in February. Last year, I saw Red Hook Summer for the first time and I reviewed it. This time around, I get to cover both the first installment of Lee’s Chronicles of Brooklyn series, let alone his first full-length film. It catapulted Spike Lee into the mainstream and gave more exposure to Brooklyn as a legitimate art scene even though it is already part of the biggest media market in the country for obvious reasons. This year, I got to cover aspects of two different African counties (despite only one director being of African descent) and the Aborigine community in Australia, but we’re going full circle to America when it comes to covering the diaspora with one of the most noted Black directors in film history.
Let’s see how this gritty dark comedy/drama from Fort Greene that inspired the likes of Quentin Tarantino’s My Best Friend’s Birthday and even Reservoir Dogs fares.
She’s Gotta Have It takes place in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, New York City and it revolves around the life of a graphic designer named Nola Darling. Outside of her work for a magazine publisher, she is busy seeing three different men. The first one is Jamie Overstreet who is courteous and tenderhearted. The second one is Greer Childs who is a narcissistic model who is obsessed with his physique and considers others in Brooklyn to be low-class. The third one is Mars Blackmon who’s a wise-cracking, chain-wearing, ultra-talkative sneaker head (It’s gotta be da shoes!) that works as a bike messenger. Nola juggles her relationships and sex life with these guys, while also saying nothing about rejecting other suitors. However, she can’t commit to any of them and each one wants her to be his girlfriend/soon-to-be-wife. The three guys in this love rectangle eventually meet each other and find out that each one knows Nola which makes things very complicated. Nola’s lesbian friend Opal does her best to convince her that she should still be liberated even though she gets flirty with Nola (she declines Opal’s advances). The three men have been frustrated with being treated as a collective instead of being in a monogamous relationship, but Nola is trying to make this work regardless of her reluctance to be committed to just one of them. How will this work out for everyone involved?
Prior to watching this film, the oldest work I have seen of Spike Lee was Do the Right Thing. Despite coming out in 1986 and having a low budget, this has aged surprisingly well. The black and white gritty filmmaking worked wonderfully. There was a realistic feel without it feeling gimmicky. Interestingly enough, there is only one scene where it’s shot in color which showed a giant contrast and was handled adeptly. I won’t spoil that scene, but it showed the creativity of Spike Lee even in his early career. There were some archived photos that didn’t feel like shortcuts with how sparingly they were used. The music from Bill Lee was non-intrusive and really fit the mood of the film. It involved mostly jazz works, but there were some cases of golden age hip-hop instrumentals during a few of Mars’s scenes which make sense with the aesthetic of the character. I was impressed with the acting with She’s Gotta Have It. Most of the actors and actresses had their debut roles in this movie. Much like other movies I’ve reviewed (especially in the neorealism genre) such as Before Your Eyes, Black Girl, or multiple Jafar Panahi works, it’s fascinating how movies involving debuting and/or non-professional actors seem to be better than mainstream flicks with more established stars. Tracy Camilla Johns as Nola has a lot of range with being this liberated and flirty woman. John Canada Terrell nails the self-obsessed nature of Greer with his taste for opulence, hypocrisy of his fitness, and being so full of himself without being too over the top. I don’t think Spike Lee gets enough credit as an actor besides his role as Mookie in Do the Right Thing, but he was hilarious in his role as the immature, jaw-jacking Mars. He could’ve been very one-dimensional, but he had a surprising amount of depth even if he’s doing weird things like the “panty man” superhero guise or making a low-key quip about how Greer would obviously want a piece of white turkey meat at Thanksgiving in Nola’s apartment. A fascinating narrative technique involved these monologues from the different characters that break the fourth wall in their introductions and side thoughts. Lee was inspired by Rashomon when making this movie which makes sense, but he definitely didn’t rip it off or piggyback on Akira Kurosawa’s style. I do wonder if those random interview segments from The Office and Parks and Recreation were inspired by this film. Unlike those shows, these moments didn’t feel gimmicky or trying too hard. They felt just as natural as the realistic vibes of the film. I can definitely see the artistry going on even if this was a mature watch.
She’s Gotta Have It should abstain from different things. I get that a ton of Spike Lee movies have mature content and sex does play a big role with Nola’s character, but some scenes got way too much even for the regular theatrical version that I saw on Netflix (more on that later). It doesn’t get to pornographic levels to maintain that R rating, but I was getting tired of the nudity and sex scenes sprinkled in. I do get that the focus was between Nola and the three suitors, but I felt that other characters felt left by the wayside such as Opal, her ex-roomie Clorinda, the therapist Dr. Jamison, and her dad Sonny. The Dr. Jamison scenes did make a bit of sense with Nola’s reluctance to progress in her therapy sessions, but everyone else felt tacked on just to talk about Nola in their monologues. Much like my issues with Like Someone in Love, I’m frustrated with how Nola gets a pass for cheating on other guys when a man would never get away with it if the situation was reversed. In isolation, she’s really no better than two of the guys in this awkward polyamorous relationship. This segues into what I find is the fatal flaw of She’s Gotta Have It for me. I know this was critically-acclaimed and helped get Spike Lee into the conversation into esteemed film auteurs, but the thing that made me dock multiple points from my final score was the infamous rape scene in the final act. I will not spoil the whole thing or who did it, but that didn’t need to be there at all. Sexual assault as a plot point has to be handled in a certain way and it wasn’t just the fact that it happened, but the aftermath. After Nola gets violated, she takes it disturbingly well like it was just an inconvenience at best and even kisses her rapist before dumping him. This isn’t an issue about dumping, Nola. Why aren’t you pressing charges against this criminal? While I didn’t think it was on the same level of haphazard writing as Osaka Tough Guys or even The Wings of Honneamise (There, I said it, Gainax fans!), this was still handled poorly. You know it’s bad when even Spike Lee himself considered that to be the sole regret of his filmmaking career and wished he could have a do-over. He felt that strongly about this storytelling regret that he got rid of it for the 2017 Netflix remake of his movie. What should that tell you? It’s one of those cases how one scene can derail a movie.
This inaugural full-length film from 40 Acres and a Mule had moments of brilliance, but the final act was ruined. She’s Gotta Have It had a lot of things going for it with stellar acting most of the time, witty dialogue, and creative filmmaking. Unfortunately, the protagonist-centered morality and that rape scene ruined so much of that potential. I know it’s an unpopular opinion to give a negative review, but I know I have a point where even the creator has old shame about She’s Gotta Have It. Spike Lee is better than this, I swear. I would’ve given this a 7 or 8 had that one scene never happened. It’s good to see where Spike Lee started out, but I’d recommend stopping the movie after Nola calls one of her suitors while they are asleep roughly 15 minutes before the movie ends. Thank me later.
Adjustable Point System:
-Add 1-2 points if you like Spike Lee’s work.
-Add 1 point if you like 80s indie movies.
-Subtract 1-2 points if you prefer higher-budgeted dark comedies.
-Subtract 2-3 points if you’re turned off by sexual content in films.
-Creative cinematography and editing
-Quirky and effective soundtrack
-Sexual content can get too much
-Protagonist centered morality on display with Nola and two of the suitors
-The rape scene
Final Score: 4/10 points
Content Advisory: She Gotta Have It is DEFINITELY not for children! There are multiple sex scenes where there is both female and male nudity happening. Shoot, the innuendo is actually one of the tamer things in this film. The language gets very strong at times, Opal’s lesbian flirting with Nola is as subtle as a shotgun blast, and there’s the rape scene where one of her suitors violates Nola in her own apartment which is very uncomfortable to watch let alone with how calmly she handles it in the aftermath.
All photos are property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. She’s Gotta Have It is the property of The Criterion Collection and MGM. The poster is from ReelGood and is the property of The Criterion Collection and MGM.
She’s Gotta Have it Review
AKA: She’s Gotta Have It (1986)