From the opening credits of Spike Lee’s seminal film, She’s Gotta Have It, viewers in 1986 were able to recognize the presence of an extraordinary talent. For it was Lee, a graduate of the New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts (which also produced Down by Law director Jim Jarmusch), who brought black cinema back to the forefront of American consciousness, simultaneously reintroducing black characters, reinvigorating an independent mode of production, and creating a new aesthetic.
Black film had had an extraordinary presence in America in the ‘30s when director Oscar Micheaux’s “all colored” or “race” films played to large but segregated audiences. By the ‘80s, however, black film was largely a joke. Blacks appeared in Hollywood films as comic relief, either as male, sexless buffoons or as sexually inert mammies. Neither character type touched the other, maintaining an asexuality that offered comfort in the alabaster wasteland of historical misrepresentation. This was a condition that Lee rectified in perhaps the film’s most significant contribution to black cinematic history: real people with real lives, touching.
From the beginning, Lee’s plan was to represent the real life concerns of black men and women. As a native of Brooklyn and the son of a school teacher and musician, Lee had been exposed from an early age to the myriad complexities of life. From this grew an unparalleled filmic intelligence, one that rushed past the slower eddies of standard cinema, pushing into unexplored ravines of thought and offering a form of visual presentation we did not know we were prepared to accept. In the darkened cinema space, during the opening sequence, beautiful in its black-and-whiteness, David Lee’s startlingly fresh photographs set the scene (Brooklyn) of Nola Darling’s life and loves. We prepared ourselves for a quiet evocation of complacent youth—not at all what the film turned out to be, but I am writing here of expectations, and what we had grown to expect of black cinema in general. We did not expect anything of Nola Darling, really, except a watered-down version of her forebears.
But Nola was different. Nola was different because she was a studied, amused, and distanced subject with a being apart from Lee’s vision, even as he created her. And that is the hallmark of an artist: to create the frame in which a character can exist fully, independently. Nola, then, was the first image of the independent black woman and this image is doubly provocative in being wholly female and entirely sexual. She stands surrounded by a gallery of male characters (including Lee himself as the inimitable, classic, comedic creation, Mars Blackmon) who did not attempt to understand Nola because she interfered, jarred, and messed with their (very shaky) ideas about their own insecure male identity.
None of this would have come to the fore had Lee not elected to tell his tale in the sparest terms imaginable, a style that Lee, the inveterate filmgoer, inherited from an artistic forefather, French filmmaker Robert Bresson. But Lee’s style is what he terms a “guerrilla style”. It is rough, confrontational, and makes the necessities of a low budget into virtues. Part of the credit for the film’s incredible visual style must go to Ernest Dickerson, the cinematographer. Dickerson and Lee met at NYU and began working together on Lee’s student film, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, and the collaboration has continued through all of Lee’s films to date.
She’s Gotta Have It is a watershed in American filmmaking, and in Lee’s career, for a number of reasons: it depicts love with very little external torment; it shows youth culture being responsible for itself; and it offers humor without buffoonery. Lee made the film for a song ($175,000 at final cost, including post-production) and as always, ingenuity was the key. This ingenuity has since inspired other filmmakers, low on financing but high on ideas and the desire to continue a tradition. In terms of Lees own career, She’s Gotta Have It demonstrates a certain innocence. Never again would Lee see relationships between men and women (a central motif in his work) with such lyricism. Indeed, School Daze, Jungle Fever, and Malcolm X are marked by a deep, romantic cynicism and watchfulness which Lee did not have in She’s Gotta Have It: his first film demonstrates a certain folly and trust that has since been lost. Sitting in the dark, watching Spike Lee at the beginning with She’s Gotta Have It felt like the beginning of something, something made over, something made new.