Thursday, August 29, 2013

She's Gotta Have It (1986)

Seen: On dvd on my tv, rented from netflix.

I have been lax in my Spike Lee viewing for some time now, and I've been meaning to check out some of his earlier stuff especially. One of his first features, She's Gotta Have It sounded up my alley due to its female protagonist and sex-positive outlook. Tracy Camilla Johns stars as Nola Darling, an independent young woman who openly dates multiple men at the same time, feeling more comfortable if she isn't tethered to one man. The film documents her relationships with three disparate beaus: Jamie (Tommy Redmond Hicks) is an attentive but possessive regular guy, Mars (Spike Lee) is an immature goof, and Greer (John Canada Terrell) is an intelligent but narcissistic model. Through interviews and anecdotes their concurrent romances with Nola unfold, but eventually they pressure her into choosing just one partner.

Part love letter to Brooklyn subculture, part womanist sexploits, She's Gotta Have It is an endearing glimpse into the romantic adventures of a decidedly cool woman. Nola is gorgeous, smart, and totally open about her sex life, setting her own terms for her relationships and then hoping the men she's interested in can accept them. If they don't, that's too bad for them, because she is not about to change herself to satisfy the ego of a man who wants to control her. Her suitors are interesting characters, with Jamie's "nice guy" act almost fooling the audience into thinking he might be right for Nola until one shocking moment towards the end. Greer is such a self-absorbed asshole it's kind of hilarious, he's the kind of macho guy who would want to watch himself having sex, American Psycho-style. Mars is the most entertaining character, spouting weird stories and rockin' awesome outfits but also generally coming off like a teenager. All of their episodic interactions with Nola are funny and sexy, boiled down to small intimate moments that signal the strengths and weaknesses of each individual relationship. The men of the story all confess their discomfort with Nola's sexual appetite, but that is revealed to be their weakness, certainly not hers. The one person who seems ok with is it her lesbian friend Opal (Raye Dowell), but that's mainly because she's wants to get in bed with Nola herself (and the predatory lesbian thing was a bit stereotypical).

I really liked Lee's small-scale storytelling style, which glides across artful sex scenes, silly conversations, dramatic confrontations, and blunt talking to the camera, documentary-style. It's not a straightforward narrative but it's not meant to be, gradually revealing aspects of these characters and their relationships, until it becomes clear that in the long term Nola might not be happy with any of them. The scattered episodes make the film drag some as a whole, and I'm not sure there's quite enough meat here for a feature-length film. Also: Can we talk about the completely out of nowhere sexual assault at the end? Like, what the fuck? It was SO uncomfortable and just seemed out of place, and I have no idea why Lee would find it necessary to the plot. Jamie's character had already been shown as possessive and jealous, his sudden rage-fueled molestation didn't do anything for the story except give me anxiety. If Nola had stayed with him I would have hated the film for its hypocrisy, but thankfully in the epilogue she makes clear that even after she tried to change she realized for now her independent, multi-boyfriend lifestyle is what suits her, and all that matters is what she feels is right for herself. It's a positive resolution and one I really appreciated coming from a male filmmaker- since much of the movie was sort of like a romantic comedy from the male point of view, I was glad that Nola's strong voice is the final word.

There's also an unexpected technicolor musical sequence, and I'm just pleased as punch about that.


Pair This Movie With: I was definitely reminded of early Jim Jarmusch, I think it's the black and white, slice of life, hanging in the city vibes. Maybe Stranger Than Paradise or Down by Law.

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