Spike Lee + Netflix = A Stunning New Look At “She’s Gotta Have It.”

Spike Lee + Netflix = A Stunning New Look At “She’s Gotta Have It.”

By Unique Dowtin

I had a chance to hear Spike Lee speak during my junior year in college. At that point, Lee was fourteen years into his career with the same amount of features under his belt. As a young black film student, Lee was the mecca. A black filmmaker who managed to sustain a career showcasing black lives way before we demanded they matter. That night during a lecture at John Hopkins University a young white student stood up and asked, “Do you ever think you’ll do any movies with white protagonists?” Lee looked at the young man, scoffed and then smiled, “I have.” The derision in the audience was palpable, obviously, that student was not a “real” fan.

I have a confession to make: I have not seen any of Spike Lee’s early work. School Daze, Do The Right Thing, Jungle Fever, Mo’ Better Blues, Malcolm X and his debut She’s Gotta Have It were all released before I was a teenager. I was not ready for the R rated films and Lee’s themes would have blown right past my comprehension at the time. I am currently in a state of rectifying this.

She’s Gotta Have It premiered at Cannes in 1986, where it won the best new filmmaker award (Prix de la Jeunesse) and Lee garnered immediate acclaim. Shot in just 12 days on a shoestring budget of $175,000. Lee enlisted the help of his former NYU classmates and family members as cast and crew. The film played in theaters across the country and made more than $7 million dollars.

“She’s Gotta Have It is a love song to black women.”

Nola Darling, the film’s protagonist, is a young black artist who courts three male suitors – Greer, the egotistical weightlifter/model; Mars, sweet, wisecracking and jobless but still manages to sport a large gold chain and the latest sneakers; and Jamie, handsome, stable, reliable and obviously the “right one.” Nola fully embraces her sexuality and she is very transparent with all of the men. True to the sexual politics of the day, the men all begin to balk at not being the only man in Nola’s life. The aspersions on Nola’s lifestyle is not confined to just her suitors as her friends, family and a therapist all weigh in on whether or not Nola has the right to embrace her sexuality in all its complexities including Nola herself one particularly violent dream sequence.  

she's gotta have it

Lee directed, wrote, produced and starred in the film (as Mars). She’s Gotta Have It suffers a bit under the director’s male gaze. All of Nola’s suitors are freely allowed to date or threaten to date other women constantly while outright disrespecting Nola because it is acceptable for men to date several women at a one time but it was nearly unheard for a woman to at the time. The audience is made to sympathize with the fragile male masculinities who vie for Nola’s affection. The film even includes a rape scene that is promptly glossed over because Nola left the one she should be with, with no other choice.

Despite this, She’s Gotta Have It is a love song to black women. The film is shot sumptuously in black under the gaze-ful eye of cinematographer Ernest R. Dickerson, an aforementioned NYU classmate who has gone on to a prolific directorial career as well. The camera lingers over and exalts Tracy Camilla Johns, the 23-year-old actress who plays Nola Darling, body. The film originally garnered an X rating and Lee had to re-edit the film twice before the MPAA would allow the film an R rating.

“Would a big cable network schedule a quirky independent black romantic comedy that celebrated and exalted black female sensuality in 1987?”

I think this may be, in large part, why as a young black woman I never saw this film. I was only seven when the film was originally released, far too young an audience member for this film. Nudity in the 80’s was commonplace, most teen comedies of the day brazenly showcased white women for male gratification. I remember Porky’s (1981) and Just One of the Guys (1985) to name a few. Would a big cable network schedule a quirky independent black romantic comedy that celebrated and exalted black female sensuality in 1987? Most still do not, so much so, that the shots of Nola Darling’s body in the film constantly reminded me just how rare it is to see a body like mine on screen revered ever.

In the current remake friendly era, Lee has reimagined his debut for Netflix. In a ten episode series, Lee hired a team of writers including many women to extend the breadth of Nola Darling and to even out the male gaze that was so prevalent in the film. The male egos are still just as fragile and time has evened out the playing field for women some but the 2017 version of Nola still has to define herself as much the 1986 version.

she's gotta have it

The remake has refashioned all of Nola’s prospects, Greer is still a model but is now a photographer and just as egotistical but not nearly as one dimensional. Jamie is no longer the obvious “right one,” – he meets Nola in the middle of a separation from his wife. Jamie has a family to take care of but wants to be with Nola, and is torn between the two lives. Mars, now Afro-Puerto Rican, is as sweet and funny as the original. Mars wears his heart on his sleeve and even though he is not nearly as financially stable as his peers, his loyalty to Nola makes their relationship the most fully flushed out of the series. Both characters are in their late twenties and still trying to figure out their way in this new gentrified Brooklyn that is constantly on the verge of evicting them.

she's gotta have it

The biggest difference between Nola and Mars is Nola’s career path. Nola is an artist, she is constantly evolving and creating art from her experiences. The series highlights Nola’s financial struggles even as we begin to watch her artistic profile begin to rise. Mars is content, he likes where he is in life and I am not sure he would be willing to change, even for Nola.

This brings us to Nola’s fourth and final prospect, Opal. In Lee’s debut, Opal was nothing more than a foil for masculine jealously. Opal existed in four scenes, had no problem declaring her sexuality and truly believed that Nola’s inexperience with lesbian sex was the only reason she was still obsessed with men. In the movie, Opal comes off as predatory and just as dismissive of Nola’s feelings as her other suitors.

she's gotta have it

In the series Nola is fluid and she seeks out Opal, her ex-girlfriend when she takes a break from the men in her life. Opal represents the type of woman Nola wants to become: smart, stable and mature. Opal is not allowed nearly as much screen time as Nola’s other suitors but she is nearly always on screen at Nola’s request. She is the only suitor who is actually invited to Nola’s art show. While all of the men in Nola’s life fight and vie for Nola’s attention, Opal’s mere presence challenges Nola to be her best self.

The film and the series versions’ of She’s Gotta Have It are currently streaming on Netflix. Both are well worth the watch.

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