“She’s Gotta Have It” (1986)
by A.J. Hakari
The landscape of sexual politics in ’80s comedies was vast and ogle-heavy. Objectification dominated the box office and popular culture, with the leering likes of Porky’s and Revenge of the Nerds commanding the audience’s collective gaze. But in 1986, a kid from Brooklyn named Spike Lee hit the scene and struck the genre like a thunderbolt with his first feature, She’s Gotta Have It. In a genre ruled by seedy farces obsessed with shedding virginities, Lee chose to evolve, presenting a raw, hip, and progressive view of modern relationships. The movie delved into more complex territory than most mainstream fare at the time dared to, and even thirty years later, there’s still much to impart in regards to roles in nontraditional romances. But though the decades haven’t weakened the relevance of She’s Gotta Have It‘s themes, the same can’t be said for how well its unpolished performances and questionable storytelling choices have held up.
Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns) never intended to be your average girlfriend. A free-spirited woman whose needs can change on a moment’s notice, she traverses the battlefield of love in ways which don’t jibe with the norm. Three dudes learn this first hand when they each become romantically involved with Nola, only to find out that she doesn’t value any one of them more than the others. Soulful poet Jamie (Tommy Redmond Hicks), vain model Greer (John Terrell), and loudmouthed jokester Mars (Lee) are all crazy for her, but none are about to give up trying to become her one and only. Petty rivalries spring up amongst the guys, who trade passive-aggressive barbs and digs at one another’s masculinity in the hopes of winning their shared gal pal’s affections. But while she does begin pondering what inspired her unconventional view on relationships, Nola remains steadfast in her present pickle, resolving to either make her suitors get along and be there for her…or send the whole lot of them packing.
Billed as a “seriously sexy comedy” upon its release, She’s Gotta Have It produces the bittersweet tonal blend it seeks with little effort. The film isn’t especially laden with one-liners or silly set pieces (a la the Porky’s shower scene), but rather Lee mines humor by exploring topics whose gravitas he still cares to preserve. From explicit lechery to subtle condescension, he exposes and lampoons the wide range of toxic masculinity on display in our lives. Certain male characters might be more well-mannered than others, but that doesn’t absolve them in the eyes of Lee, who thrusts their selfishness right back in their faces. She’s Gotta Have It finds its funny in the hypocrisy of Nola’s would-be suitors, all of whom project their ideas of how a significant other should act onto her without taking what she wants into account. At the same time our heroine is being pressed into therapy for what the guys presume to be a sex addiction, they remain hilariously oblivious to how their simultaneous boasts of sleeping around make them look. The degree to which Lee refuses to look down on Nola because of her independent nature is refreshing to see, as is the way he allows us to laugh at the buffoonery of her boyfriends, while acknowledging that such horrible real world behavior can’t go unchecked.
But just as no relationship is totally cut-and-dry, Lee aims to further bolster She’s Gotta Have It‘s complicated spirit by bringing Nola’s complicity into the equation. However, when it comes to the subject of what informed her principles and how to broach it, the picture is presented with obstacles it never quite manages to surmount. For one, Nola’s self-doubting is introduced very late in the story, and even then, its catalyst is an instance of sexual assault (which, to his credit, Lee later admitted he regrets having written). To raise so important of a notion with so little time left on the clock is downright sloppy, leaving you wondering if Lee would’ve been better off sticking to a more satirical, “guys suck” angle for the whole ride. Also, while I hesitate to rag on She’s Gotta Have It for being rough around the edges when it’s clearly been made with heart and soul, the inexperienced ensemble does make following its emotional wavelength that much trickier. None of our four leads are able to shake this rigidity that adversely affects their performances, the likely side effect of shooting conditions so tight that second takes couldn’t be afforded. One could chalk this up to an artistic choice on Lee’s behalf to give the film an authentic vibe, had the actors not shown off their natural charisma by just goofing around during the ending credits.
Despite the sometimes graceless manner in which it’s delivered, She’s Gotta Have It‘s commentary remains sound and challenging all the same. Its bravery is commendable, its heart is in the right place, and Ernest Dickerson’s provocative photography gives what was made on quite the slim budget a memorable visual flavor. She’s Gotta Have It feels like the tip of the iceberg for a passionate filmmaker with much to say, and, love or hate his work, Lee’s spent the three decades since his debut living up to that promise.