Following on the success of Stranger Than Paradise, She’s Gotta Have It (1986) provided American independent filmmaking with even greater momentum, adding to the consensus that a bonafide movement had begun. Like Jarmusch, Brooklyn-based Spike Lee was a NYU film-school grad, whose 60-minute thesis film, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads (1983), won a Student Academy Award. It also managed to achieve some degree of success within independent film circles as the first student film ever selected for the cutting-edge New Directors/New Films series, and also did well on the international festival circuit. After running into financing problems on a second feature, Spike Lee shot She’s Gotta Have It on a deferred budget of $175,000, with the domestic rights being picked up by Island Pictures for over twice that amount. Despite receiving mixed critical reviews in the white press, She’s Gotta Have It struck a responsive chord with popular audiences, especially black movie-goers, resulting in a domestic gross of over $7 million dollars. In the process, Spike Lee himself became a major cultural icon, taking a giant first step toward becoming the most successful African-American filmmaker in history.
Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It takes black female sexuality as its subject in telling the story of Nola Darling, a sexually-active, young African-American woman with multiple sex partners. Using the interview format derived from the tradition of direct cinema, the film manages to create a hybrid form of documentary and dramatic elements through use of a somewhat didactic and unusual essay-like structure in order to interrogate Nola, her three lovers, and the film’s other characters. She’s Gotta Have It also incorporates an eclectic medley of more free-form, experimental techniques: mixing black-and-white and color film stocks, fast and slow motion, a montage of still photographs, a couple of musical interludes, and a choreographed dance number.
In one of his early diary entries that accompanies the published screenplay for She’s Gotta Have It, Spike Lee discusses the original idea for the film:
“It’s always amazed me how men can go out and bone any and everything between fifteen and eighty and it’s OK. They are encouraged to have and enjoy sex, while it’s not so for women. If they do what men do they’re labeled whore, prostitute, nympho, etc. Why this double standard? Why not explore this? Have a character, a beautiful young black woman who loves sex, and can love more than one man at a time also. So, that’s the basic outline-premise.”
In choosing to explore this sexual double-standard within the context of the black community, Lee underscored the fact that only an African-American filmmaker could possibly tackle such loaded subject matter – black sexuality – even if he had his own gender issues. The brash “in your face” aspect of She’s Gotta Have It proved to be a brilliant strategic move because it demonstrated so clearly the incredible lack of diversity that existed in mainstream American cinema. Not only did She’s Gotta Have It deal with important and controversial subject matter, but it managed to present it in a refreshingly original and highly comedic way.
In Alternative Scriptwriting: Writing Beyond the Rules (there’s now a fourth edition with a different subtitle), one of the few non-Hollywood manuals, Ken Dancyger and Jeff Rush cite She’s Gotta Have It as an alternative model to a variant of the Aristotelian three-act structure they term the “restorative three-act structure.” As they explain:
“A more specific variant of three-act form, derived from the well-made play developed by the French playwright Eugene Scribe in the 1820s, has become the dominant model for mainstream films. Characterized by a clear and logical denouement, this conservative model of storytelling was the most popular dramatic form of the newly dominant French and English middle class that emerged in the “safe” Europe after the Napoleonic wars.”
Using She’s Gotta Have It as one of their examples of more open-ended “counter-structures,” Dancyger and Rush argue that the film has “an ironic two-act structure.” The authors claim that it has no first turning point and that “its flashback structure discourages a linear, three-act reading” because the action has been predetermined and the audience does not actually participate in Nola’s decision to have additional lovers other than Jamie. Yet a flashback structure does not in and of itself negate the possibility of a three-act structure.
Dancyger and Rush, however, concede that She’s Gotta Have It has a second turning point:
“She’s Gotta Have It does have something akin to an act break. After Jamie leaves her, Nola decides to drop her other two lovers and go back to him. However, because we have not been involved in Nola’s initial decision to have three lovers and are not positioned to see the taking of the three lovers as a first-act mistake, we do not feel this break serves as a consequence of some earlier misdirection. We have no sense of her coming back into sync with us as we would with a traditional second-act break. Rather, we stand outside and watch, wondering what she is going to do without being able to prejudge her actions.”
Although Dancyger and Rush are certainly right that Nola’s decision to have three lovers is not part of the first act set-up, there is an alternative way of segmenting the acts. The difficulty stems from the fact that Nola never really changes in the course of the film. She is the same person at the end as she was in the beginning, which is why Dancyger and Rush argue that the events in the film have already been predetermined. In this sense, Nola is more of a passive rather than active protagonist because she continues to act the same way throughout. But whereas Nola’s character remains the same, other characters, most notably Jamie, undergo changes as a result of their interactions with her.
The first crisis in the film is triggered by Jamie. It is not about Mars – or Greer, whom we haven’t as yet met – but about Opal. In comparison to his response to Mars, Jamie seems completely threatened by the possibility of Nola having a female lover. He is openly hostile to Opal and basically gets rid of her, which functions as the first turning point. Once Opal is out of the way, the second act deals with the complications Nola faces in having three male lovers. The second turning point is much clearer. It involves a crisis precipitated by Jamie when he announces he’s also having an affair and gives Nola an ultimatum. It is also noteworthy that the turning points stem from Jamie’s actions rather than Nola’s.
The first turning point occurs on page 22 of the screenplay, while the second appears on page 59. Thus, the first act is 22 pages long, the second 37, and the third 25. A look at the printed script indicates that this is the exact structure Spike Lee had in mind when he wrote She’s Gotta Have It because the screenplay is clearly divided into Beginning, Middle, and End, and those written headings are included in the script. Lee’s journal entry also attests to the fact that this was the intended structure. The film timings of She’s Gotta Have It do not deviate very much from the screenplay. The first turning point occurs at 21 minutes, and the second one at roughly 60 minutes. The 80-minute film divides into a first act of 21 minutes, a second act of 38 minutes, and a third act of 19 minutes.
Dramatic feature films that have two-act and one-act structures are actually rare exceptions in American commercial cinema. The major formal innovation of Spike Lee’s debut feature is not really its structure, which I believe contains three acts rather than two, but Lee’s attempt to interrogate the notion a single unified point of view. The narrative employs the documentary-like technique of direct interviews not only with the protagonist, Nola Darling, but with the various other characters – Jamie, Mars, Greer, Opal, and Clorinda – who provide their own counter-perspectives on her behavior. All the characters attempt to engage the viewer in the narrative through means of direct address. Nola’s views about her own sexuality contrast with those of her male suitors, who all seek to make her their own. At the center of contention is Nola’s determined refusal to limit herself to a single man.
Although Jamie Overstreet remains Nola’s major romantic interest – representing the embodiment of romantic love and stable family life – she also maintains relationships with the witty Mars (Spike Lee), and good-looking male model, Greer. These two men are a study in contrasts. Mars exhibits the strongest cultural identification with African-American culture, while Greer is a narcissistic buppie, whose pretensions seem to be derived completely from the white world. While Mars has the ability to make her laugh, Greer represents pure physical attraction. There are class divisions between them as well. As the unemployed Mars puts it at the Thanksgiving dinner: “Fifty-dollar sneakers and I gots no job. Tell me how to do it when times get hard.” Greer, on the other hand, has the fancy convertible and high-profile career. He lumps both Mars and Jamie together by calling them “ignorant, low-class, ghetto Negroes,” while Mars refers to Greer at one point as a “pseudo-black man.” The men continually insult one another to Nola. Mars is especially merciless in his putdown of his competitors, referring to them as “two Joe Neckbones” and Jamie as having “a sixteen-piece Chicken McNugget head.”
Nola’s promiscuity elicits condemnation from all three of her male suitors. Mars calls her a freak. He states his position when we first meet him: “Look, all men want freaks. We just don’t want ’em for a wife.” Nola criticizes men for not being in touch with their feelings. “In my experiences,” she says, “I’ve found two types of men: the decent ones and the dogs.” We then get typical and satirical come-ons from the dogs, including the last one who tells her: “Girl, I got plenty of what you need. Ten throbbing inches of USDA, government inspected, prime-cut, grade-A tube steak!”
While Nola believes Jamie to be an exception to these men, Jamie turns out to be more threatened by Nola’s lesbian friend, Opal. He assumes because Nola won’t commit solely to him that she must secretly be one herself. While Jamie tolerates her other male lovers, he reacts most strongly to Opal. The other two, Mars and Greer, have different takes on Nola. Mars theorizes that Nola has problems with her father. Greer insists she must be a sex addict in need of professional help. We see Nola rebuff Opal’s sexual advances; we also interview her father, Sonny, who speaks lovingly of her, as well as a sex therapist, Dr. Jamison, who assures us that Nola has a healthy sexuality. Interestingly, Jamie turns on Nola eventually by having an affair with the dancer and then forcibly having sex with her when she calls him one night. In the film’s most controversial scene, Jamie demands that Nola admit that he owns her vagina. Nola’s dream indicates that she is not completely guilt-free. In it, the girlfriends of the three men give the litany of excuses that deflect the blame from their men onto Nola.
Despite the fact that the story centers on Nola, Mars Blackmon manages to breathe the most life into this film through his considerable sense of humor. Although Mars is only a minor romance character, he provides much-needed comic relief at various points in the story, whether it is to put Nola’s undies over his head while pretending to be a super hero, or to use verbal repetitions over and over. It is also Mars who continually infuses the film with a sense of the black vernacular. He tells Nola, “You know, if I can make a babe laugh, I’m over like a fat rat. And when they stop laughing, I book.” He also provides references to black politics, culture and sports. He even works his passion for the Knicks into the story. As Mars discusses with Jamie the time Nola caused him to miss the first half of a Knicks and Celtics game in which Bernard King scored thirty-five points, Jamie remarks, “Larry Bird is the best player in the NBA.” Mars responds, “He’s the ugliest motherfucker in the NBA. That’s what he is.” Mars’s dialogue exhibits the inherent creativity of the black idiom. Despite his low economic status, Mars embodies the vitality of African-American culture itself, which is why Spike Lee played such a prominent role in the highly successful advertising campaign for She’s Gotta Have It, exhorting preview audiences to see the film so he wouldn’t have to return to selling tube socks on the street.
If Mars is the secret life force in the film, so is the place where the story is filmed. Lee is self-deprecating about both Mars and his home town of Brooklyn, but She’s Gotta Have It exults in a strident regionalism equal to that of Richard Linklater’s setting of Austin for Slacker, or that of Minnesota for the Coen brothers’ Fargo. A sense of place supplies energy and vitality to the home-grown visions of many independent films, and She’s Gotta Have It is no exception. Hidden beneath the self-effacing urban facade of She’s Gotta Have It is a love poem to the sprawling, working-class borough that has always taken a subordinate role to the sophistication associated with Manhattan. The film begins with a nostalgic photo-montage of Williamsburg, and at various points we view shots of Fulton Street, Fort Greene Park, and the Brooklyn Bridge. When Nola breaks up with him at the end, Greer equates Manhattan with drive and ambition, which he finds utterly lacking in Nola. He tells her angrily, “So keep your tired ass here in Brooklyn.”
Looking back, Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It turned out to be the right film at the right time. Its unexpected commercial success managed to open doors for other subsequent independent-minded writers and directors interested in exploring racially and ethnically diverse subject matter ignored by mainstream cinema. For this reason, it seems incomprehensible that such a landmark classic has virtually disappeared by remaining currently unavailable on DVD in this country. The unfortunate effect of this has been to create another gaping hole in the history of American independent cinema.