She's Gotta Have It
Reviewed in July 2011 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Spike Lee. Cast: Tracy Camilla Johns, Tommy Redmond Hicks, Spike Lee, John Canada Terrell, Raye Dowell, Joie Lee, Bill Lee, Cheryl Burr, Aaron Dugger, S. Epatha Merkerson, Stephanie Covington, Renata Cobbs, Cheryl Singleton. Screenplay: Spike Lee.
Twitter Capsule: Frisky, funny, a clear calling card for Lee's talents and for some of his foibles

Photo © 1986 Island Pictures/40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks
In longevity, variety, savvy, and popularity, both with critics and with audiences, Spike Lee's career can only be considered a triumph, with so many extraordinary successes to his name. Though I haven't seen everything, I'd count Do the Right Thing, 25th Hour, and When the Levees Broke as his most fully realized works, and the best parts of Malcolm X, Girl 6, 4 Little Girls, Bamboozled, and Inside Man as their fully deserving cohort. At the same time, beyond the inevitable peaks and valleys of a career so well sustained, Lee's style within individual films has always skewed toward the harlequin, occasionally implying an abstract-expressionist experiment with overstepping and self-sabotage, not just as flaws in the art but as high-risk means of the art. If you haven't already sampled the entire Lee canon, you do the same thing working backward that you do as each new joint drops: even if you feel fond of the director for sticking so (40-)mulishly to his lame-duck sequences, incongruous tracking zooms, and other auto-vandalisms, you can't help hoping that this will be the film where he pulls everything together, without sacrificing his signatures. I admit to also watching Lee's work with feminist investments, hoping that a woman might navigate a whole film in a key role without at some point becoming the stooge of her upstaging body or the victim of her backfiring choices. I'm not saying he has never avoided these pitfalls or hasn't at least come close, but the inclement weather that women face in Spike Lee's movies is enough to induce a rooting interest on their behalf.

I'm both surprised and not that I waited so long to see Lee's feature debut She's Gotta Have It, which loomed as both a text of particular interest and an invitation to certain danger, capturing a nascent sensibility at its least self-regulating stage, for better and for worse. To watch the film now, after 25 years and 16 additional scripted features, is to corroborate that suspicion completely, albeit in a key of light, scrappy entertainment that flatters everything funky and fresh about Lee, tempting you to forgive what is stunted or abrasive in the film. A major swaying element is his own on-screen persona, which feels even more pivotal here in a secondary role than it does when he casts himself in the technically central but comparatively self-effacing part of Mookie in Do the Right Thing. Lee here appears as Mars Blackmon, a cock-eyed, cartoonishly accessorized, hilariously gnatlike persona that younger viewers may not remember from the mid-80s Air Jordan commercials that solidified Lee's celebrity as well as his rep as an acquired taste. Spandex clinging to his toothpick legs, unwittingly androgynous, looking for all the world like he weighs 80 pounds, Mars is both comically relentless and uproariously self-deprecating as a suitor to the sex-loving, serenely voluptuous, unpretentiously pretty Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns). Mars doesn't need to be around anyone to cast merry aspersions on his slightness, his other meager endowments, and his dubious financial means, but the impulse becomes unavoidable in the presence of Nola's other suitors, the imposingly muscular Greer Childs (John Canada Terrell) and the charismatic, sweet, and substantial Jamie Overstreet (Tommy Redmond Hicks), who is twice the adult that Mars or Greer is.

Once you connect Mars with the director of She's Gotta Have It, which is all the more probable since several scenes are structured as straight-to-camera interviews with an unseen documentarian, it's easy transfer to the movie itself the huge affection that Lee generates with his spunky, eccentric street-talk and his chipper jokes at the expense of his own grasshopper frame. Even if he weren't the auteur, there's no question Lee would have been the breakout star of She's Gotta Have It, though he'd probably have traced something like Jon Heder's post-Napoleon Dynamite trajectory, stuck in sidekick parts before sliding into Trivial Pursuit territory. But the game spirit and hummingbird energy Lee demonstrates as Mars, even within the narrow and schticky character conception, highlights what's best about the movie as a whole, prompting you to enjoy the simple but flavorful frames, the choppy but engaging narrative, and the bare-bones simplicity of Nola's choice among Mirth and Muscles and one Real Man. Lee gets away with essentially staging Nola's and Jamie's meeting twice, once in words and then in real time, without seeming like he's just padding out the film or fumbling with structure. The epic incongruity and wobbly staging of a midfilm, out-of-nowhere dance routine, where the stock abruptly switches from black-and-white to Mr. Sketch Magic Marker color, is more than excused by the eagerness of the two performers and by the sweetness of the context, as Jamie takes Nola to a New York City park for her birthday, delivering to her and to us an unexpected and fetching if slightly inarticulate surprise.

Not every virtue of the film relies on the handicapping advantage you gladly supply to Lee because he seems so thrilled to spray-paint the screen with his bright impulses and coagulating talents. As Jamie, Hicks gives a performance that ranks among the most suavely accomplished anywhere in Lee's corpus, charming the pants off the heroine and the audience but still furnishing a tangible person instead of a papery ideal, and leaving room for the final-reel moments when She's Gotta Have It will ask us to debate Jamie's suitedness for Nola. We go along with this narrative cue, even if we've spent the preceding hour waiting for Nola to ditch the Adonis, befriend the Ducky figure, and hit the notary's office with this scrumptious but human-scaled specimen. The coda of the film, in which the neophyte cast and their upstart, bespectacled platoon commander slate their own shots and introduce themselves to the camera, makes clear that cast and crew were smitten with Hicks. Lee has been shrewd and generous in allowing himself to be so handsomely outclassed while he clowns around the edges of his calling-card movie.

Hicks and his character do pay, however, for being treated so well by his movie, just like Theresa Randle did for being uncommonly sexy, funny, and sure of herself in Girl 6. Where she got stuck being sexually menaced, Jamie gets peremptorily recast as the source of misogynistic threat, passing at a moment's notice from an understandable impatience with Nola's fickleness to an unbridled, roughly administered urge to show her who's boss. The camera feels complicit in the humiliating aggression of this scene, setting a tone for several sour sequences in other Lee joints. I won't deny that She's Gotta Have It can stand to have its charming but bantamweight construction beefed up with some conflicts worthy of the name, but surely this goes way above and beyond the call of complicating your characters and inducing some much-needed tension. It's impressive that She's Gotta Have It rebounds as well as it does from this outbreak of under-motivated ugliness, culminating in three crucial dialogue scenes and a well shot, deftly edited, adroitly orchestrated double-fakeout of our expectations for the finale.

Ultimately, She's Gotta Have It ends where it begins, interviewing Nola Darling herself, though you will have noted her absence from the bulk of this review. The conundrum of the film is that, for all of Lee's atypical spotlighting of a female protagonist and his impressive willingness not just to accommodate but to encourage her choosing power, her libido, her rough edges, and her self-determination, She's Gotta Have It doesn't finally qualify as a fully gratifying window into Nola, however spunky and however flawed. Tracy Camilla Johns works within certain expressive limitations as an actress, but I don't think she's the primary reason that Nola's characterization feels both fed and thwarted by so much of her own movie. The documentary conceit that wends through the film without comprehensively structuring it nonetheless makes clear that Nola is being investigated, probed in terms of her effects on men; a rebuffed seductress and an estranged former roommate played by the director's sister Joie Lee are also canvassed for their impressions, but in neither case does the movie generate a full account or any real enthusiasm for what these women have to say. Starting and ending with Nola and then ignoring her first-person perspective for the entire middle of the film at least communicates a conscious choice. One can easily imagine Lee having watched some Godard at film school and decided that the opacity of women serves up as good a subject for a sidelong, shuffled, street-level portrait as a genuine access into that woman's thoughts would provide.

She's Gotta Have It isn't entirely missing a sense of Nola's vantage and what it furnishes instead is lively, memorable, and promising, even if you didn't know how well things turned out for its creator (though not, seemingly, for its star, who perhaps not coincidentally faded almost immediately into obscurity). The movie is jazzy and engaging, with jumbled but spirited thoughts about image-making frequently dueling for space with more direct urges to tell a tale. Sometimes this friction invigorates the movie, and sometimes it doesn't. You have to overlook some obnoxiously conceived scenes, stalled characters (Greer in particular), and occasionally unpalatable tones if you really want to enjoy it all the way. But certainly by now, we know how to do that with Lee. You wish he'd relinquish his taste problems and his more regressive impulses as a thinker and a storyteller, but apparently he's gotta have 'em. Happily, he's always had a whole lot else. Grade: B

VOR: (4)   (What is this?)
Lee manages a movie that reinhabits New Wave forms without seeming strictly imitative and gets by on a DIY budget without seeming cheap or inordinately compromised. The characters' self-images, their relations to each other, and their styles of expression and self-presentation feel specific to an African-American point of view, but at the same time, the movie blooms with entry points for just about any audience to feel addressed and entertained. You could say exactly the same thing about its relation to independent filmmaking circa 1986: She's Gotta Have It is wholly of its time in the way it moves, looks, and sounds, and in the glimpse it offers of the city, but 25 years have barely dated it at all. My misgivings about the tone, structure, and politics of the piece don't make it seem any less prominent as a touchstone for its maker and its moment, even if it's also a "minor" work in other respects, plainly suggestive of bolder conceptions and richer filmmaking to follow in the very bright future.

Other Awards:
Cannes Film Festival: Prix de la jeunesse
Independent Spirit Awards: Best First Feature
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: New Generation Award

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