MGM // 1986 // 85 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // January 25th, 2008
A seriously sexy comedy.
MGM releases Spike Lee's first joint on a bare bones DVD. The question is, do you gotta have it?
Using a semi-documentary tone, She's Gotta Have It presents many sides of the life and loves of Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns, Mo' Better Blues) and her three suitors, Jamie (Tommy Redmond Hicks, Daughters of the Dust), Mars Blackmon (Spike Lee) and Greer (John Canada Terrell, Boomerang). Each man fulfills a different need for Nola, and we watch her juggle them while they deal with each other.
The history of cinema is littered with sui generis directors, those who burst onto the scene with the elements of their art already fully formed. Think Orson Welles and Citizen Kane. While She's Gotta Have It might not reach such great heights as Welles' first film, all the elements that would makes Lee famous are already in place: documentary technique in the fiction film, especially the actor talking directly to the camera; the subtle jazz score, first by his father and later by other jazz greats; the assured camera movements and brilliant use of color; finally, the crew behind the camera, including cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, who would go on to support Lee through some of his greatest triumphs.
Although I wouldn't compare Lee to Welles, I would compare him to Godard and his first film, Breathless. Both give off an infectious energy, an aura of brash assurance, and both are completely steeped in the conventions of the cinema that came before. Equally important, both want to turn that cinema on its head. While Godard interrogates the gangster, Lee gives us a portrait of strong female sexuality. But not only female sexuality, but of black female sexuality that isn't at the mercy of some strong man like Shaft. This alone is proof of his audacity and his willingness to break with convention. However, he's also equally audacious in setting up the black and white documentary feel of his film, and equally gleeful in breaking it down for his color musical sequence, a flight of fancy that simultaneously shows how steeped he is in cinematic history while also shows him willing to confound audience expectations.
Before the Godardian faithful despair, I would not say that She's Gotta Have It is quite as successful as Breathless. Every scene in Godard's debut is essentially unimpeachable, serving both the story and Godard's overall critique/love letter to the cinema. Not so with She's Gotta Have It. In point of fact, it's difficult to determine even what Lee's overall message is. While I can imagine Breathless helping people to see criminals (and the movies) in a different light, I don't see She's Gotta Have It changing any minds. Those who come to the film with the belief that a woman who simultaneously maintains three sexual relationships is an *insert your expletive here* won't see much in the film to dissuade them. Likewise, those who admire Nola's honesty in keeping all the men in her life informed of each other might find some of the attitudes portrayed in the film distasteful. Furthermore, not quite every scene works. Nola's "near-rape" (her phrase, not mine) is muddled and ill-conceived, adding a sour note to an otherwise comedic exploration of female sexuality. In the end it doesn't all quite hang together, an attack levied at a number of subsequent Lee films. But even if it isn't perfect, She's Gotta Have It is a worthy herald for a new force in filmmaking.
This might be Lee's debut commercial feature, but it was far from his first time behind the camera. He graduated from NYU's prestigious film school, the same school that produced fellow indie-film auteur Jim Jarmusch, and his thesis film Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads was well received in the Manhattan film scene. After graduation, Lee moved on to his debut film, Messenger but lost his funding in the middle of pre-production. He went back to the trenches, wrote a story that required an even smaller budget, and shot She's Gotta Have It in 12 days for a miniscule budget, most of which was secured from private individuals. Finished film in hand, Lee followed the typical route for break-out indie filmmakers (including the likes of Jim Jarmusch, Michael Moore, and Steven Soderbergh) in the American '80s: festival showings (like Cannes), critical acclaim, distribution deal, and huge box office return relative to budget. Unlike the previously mentioned directors, Spike had less trouble transitioning (although more trouble once he got in) to Hollywood, so his next features would be financed with studio dollars, for good or ill. All of this information would make the film easier to watch for an audience two decades removed from the milieu that gave birth to the American independent scene and saw the rise of studios like New Line and Miramax. Sadly, we get none of this context on the DVD.
The only thing that saves MGM from total shame with this disc is that the film looks very good for its age/budget. The black and white cinematography is one of the film's strengths, and it's well rendered on this disc. Likewise the score, an integral part of Lee's vision in every film, is reproduced without distortion. It didn't impress me quite as much as the visual presentation, but it was excellent for a film of this age. The DVD is completely devoid of extras; not even a trailer. There isn't even a "special features" menu that only includes a hastily written "filmography" of the stars. Nothing, just the feature, scene selection, and language options. Criterion gave us a commentary, deleted scenes, a trailer and production stills on their laserdisc release of the film, so there is material out there. John Pierson, author of Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes gives a lot of the history surrounding the release of She's Gotta Have It in his book, and his presence on a DVD extra would help provide context for this important indie feature. Sadly, viewers will have to go to his book rather than this DVD to learn more about Lee's first film.
As I said earlier, it doesn't all hang together like it could. Although the film ends on a note of positive female sexuality, the "near-rape" scene could sour the viewing experience for many. Furthermore, if you are against female sexuality in general, this is not a film for you. Nudity abounds, and that's not to all tastes.
Two trailers open the disc: the Soul Cinema DVD Collection, and Hotel Rwanda. Putting She's Gotta Have It between these films describes the trajectory of black cinema in the last few decades of the 20th century: from underground, urban exploitation to glossy, awards-drama, with gritty independent film in between. Spike Lee's early films act as midwives, birthing the more recent success (and, to be honest, failures) of a cinema devoted to the black demographic. This film is an important document in that history, and, as such, deserves to be seen. However, it also deserves a better DVD edition.
Spike Lee is found not guilty, while MGM is ordered to produce a new edition for the court.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 85 Minutes
Release Year: 1986
MPAA Rating: Rated R