Black people can be superheroes — thank you T’Challa — they can be love interests or the leading actor of a major blockbuster flick. Black characters can be layered and complex as exemplified in Spike Lee’s first feature-length film, She’s Gotta have It.
The story of Nola Darling and the three men fighting for her love – Mars, Greer and Jamie – is not foreign to cinema but what immediately distinguishes it from similar tales is the prominence of black faces behind and in front of the camera. Immediately the film is jarring and immersive with its stark black and white imagery and documentary-esque cinematography. Lee opens the films with a series of photographs seemingly unrelated to the narrative but implicitly establish this film as 1) a story set in New York City, and more importantly Brooklyn, that is 2) about black people.
To be more specific, this is a film starring a black female character who, first and foremost, makes decisions for herself. Nola, and I believe this to be intentional, is certainly the film’s most interesting element. Lee’s highly active camera first presses on Nola’s face as she articulates how her promiscuity should not be mixed with “sluttish” behavior. Society, and even those within the story world, condemn Nola for being sexually active with three partners. Even if you are opposed to her sexual activity it’s hard to deny that there is power in Nola owning her sexuality rather than being objectified for both the gazes of the characters and the viewers.
Interestingly She’s Gotta Have It isn’t a story which can be clearly stated as being empowering to the feminine. Unlike the sexually liberated woman introduced to us in the first scene, Nola falls victim to a sickening act of hyper-masculinity after being raped by one of her partners. I do not think in any way that Lee’s intended argument was that the male is and will always be the dominant sex but perhaps he wanted to complicate Nola’s character—there, of course, could have been other ways to do so without using rape as a narrative device.
Did Lee fail to fully understand what making a strong, black female character entailed as a man or did he seek to depict the harsh reality of the patriarchal society we live? Perhaps it could be both or neither and he simply wanted to provoke a conversation outside of the film by keeping its central message and intentions ambiguous.
She’s Gotta Have It rests as a staple of Black cinema not only because of its provocative commentary encompassing characters who have been historically flattened, but also because it normalizes said characters. Unlike the stereotypical representations of black people frequently shown in Hollywood films as thugs, criminals, or dispensable characters to kill of first, She’s Gotta Have It’s characters are quite layered.
Nearly 30 years after its release, there hasn’t been a significant amount of movies with insightful black characters like Nola, Mars, Greer and Jamie. As the landscape of Hollywood continues to change, I pray that projection of black voices becomes more commonplace in cinema. For the time being though, we still have this classic Spike Lee Joint.
She’s Gotta Have It and its succeeding television series are both available to stream on Netflix.