Registering the Registry 2019: She’s Gotta Have It (1986)
Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! This week, Spike Lee hits the ground running with his feature debut, She’s Gotta Have It, and in the process gives me carte blanche to make this week’s column all about queer issues and representation. Huzzah!
(Originally published January 10th, 2021)
Polyamory’s a tricky matter to discuss, insofar as queer topics go. I mean, they’re ALL tricky if you choose the wrong forum, and even with the right crowd the particulars of definitions and boundaries and acceptable public presentation remain in flux as mainstream recognition grows by the day, but polyamory’s got the whole, “One man takes as many brides as he likes and treats them all like garbage,” thing going. The thing where folks will more readily associate polyamory with othered religious practices at best, cheating under a kinder name at worst, rather than consider it a viable, enriching relationship model for those who practice. It is, to be clear up front, a perfectly valid dynamic so long as all partners are aware, consenting, happy with their lot, and willing to work at changing the situation if they’re unhappy, same as literally any other romantic model, just with more than two persons involved. There’s not a mere one method to practice, it can open doors to a wide variety of permutations that better the participants should they prove a good fit, and the common public image of a poly relationship as an excuse for one person to get off with multiple partners and zero commitment is damaging to those who are polyamorous in exactly the way stereotypes about bisexuals as indecisive, homosexuals as predatory, asexuals/aromantics as damaged, and the litany of slanderous trash written and spoken about trans people is harmful when perpetrated by the public and media alike. If, like me, you’re inclined towards keeping eyes peeled for crummy depictions in older work and eager to highlight it so as to illustrate the problem and argue for something better, polyamorous pairings in older movies that use it as a key component in their drama might just put you off on initial exposure.
Long way of saying: when I reviewed She’s Gotta Have It around three years back for a Queer Cinema Challenge with a friend, my read on Spike Lee’s story of young Brooklyn-based artist Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns) and her three suitors told me the famously incendiary director made a bad piece of poly representation for his first feature outing. To my mind at the time, the tension present in a late second act scene, when Nola invites all three of her boyfriends over for Thanksgiving dinner and awkwardly tries to keep the peace as their egos rage against one another, indicated a lack of communication in the relationship, a poly dynamic with Nola at the center and each of the men linked to her without any connection to or knowledge of the other two. Nola seemed a selfish person, unwilling to acknowledge her boyfriends’ desire for commitment or discomfort with having other lovers in her life, and a third act rape scene positioned as vengeance against Nola for her infidelities had me convinced Lee did not understand, nor wish to understand polyamory. It looked for all the world like he thought of the relationship model as fodder for his Rashomon experiment, a woman loved and viewed from multiple perspectives without meaningful identity or agency of her own, and whose polyamory is indeed a sin which must be examined and picked apart and understood as the root of all problems in her life. Coming back to She’s Gotta Have It for the purposes of Registering the Registry, I think my first assessment too reactive and dependent on out-‘n’-out misinterpretations of the film. I know Spike Lee’s style better, I understand film structure better, I’m more familiar with queer texts and how to dissect them, and I understand myself better, all of which should hopefully lead to a cooler head and smarter read as we dive into the picture.
The film’s low-budget, documentary-like framing stands out as a good entrance point for our analysis. Lee has always employed fourth wall breaks in his work, extended segments where characters monologue directly to the camera to smash away any sense of distance afforded by the typical narrative frame and provide an immediate, mind-mingling look into their innermost person, but the prototypical version found here serves an additional purpose. The characters remain as frank and direct as they are in later Lee joints, yet they speak and are shot as if there’s still a film crew across their line of sight, not just the audience. Nola’s opening monologue and the way her lovers’ speeches are cut into the film creates the temporal warping effect you find in after-action documentaries, wherein the participants reflect on past events as they happen across a cut, and we understand all of these images are not from the same moment. Somehow, I missed this when I first watched, hence my claim the film’s almost half over before any one of the three acknowledges the presence of another lover in Nola’s life. In actuality, the distance between characters hanging out on park benches and street corners and in cars as they discuss how Nola always seemed a little strange or distracted should have told me we’re meant to grok they all knew and had problems with her polyamory from the moment we see there’s more than just the one lover. This is simple filmic technique, something core to the movie’s style and manner of presentation, the method by which Spike Lee frees himself to abandon conventional narrative structure in favor of vignettes and his toolbox of stylish shots for their own sake, and so it is vital for us to understand and do better where I failed. She’s Gotta Have It expects you grasp its main conflict is already over and done with by the time the cameraroll begins.
This fresh in mind, let’s turn to how Nola interacts with her lovers, and in turn how they treat and view her. First, we’ve Jamie Overstreet (Tommy Redmond Hicks), the designated ordinary nice guy whose distinguishing characteristics are a smooth affect, tender touch, and lack of offensive qualities whenever Nola’s looking. He receives the most screentime of the three, gets the greatest number of monologues, and prior to the third act demonstrates his unideal side in (for a Spike Lee film, you’ll understand) the subtlest ways. While he’s generous and kind and loving under good circumstances, he’s also prone to big showy displays that harm his pocketbook more than they please Nola, and harbors a jealous streak wide as the whole island towards anyone who might share his space next to Nola. The man turns a black-and-white world color for the sake of an MGM-style dance number for Nola’s birthday, but can’t stand the thought of her lesbian friend-and-just-a-friend-nothing-else Opal (Raye Dowell) helping tend Nola while she’s sick, lest Nola get Ideas. Less immediately egotistical is Mars Blackmon (Lee himself), a jobless dork with a purposefully affected speedy-deadpan voice, an off-beat sense of humor, and a bottomless love for his Jordans. Of the three, Mars seems sincerest when he’s around Nola, content to spend time and have sex with her without needing to make big demands or flashy shows of affection otherwise. They can talk like normal people when through in her loving bed, though Mars can prove himself plenty childish given the chance, and he’ll turn his silly antics into an ego-bolstering ramble if he feels uncomfortable or threatened. Then there’s muscular, superstar male model Greer Childs (John Canada Terrell), the Bastard Man of the bunch. For almost all the runtime, the only remotely good thing we see about Greer is he’s great at sex, and even then he’s humorously frustrating for how he slowly removes and carefully folds every article of clothing before climbing into bed. Greer is obsessed with himself and his status beyond a fault, repeatedly reminds Nola she’s lucky he chose her because he could have any woman he wants, makes aggressive demands of her time and affection, and talks up how he’s totally ready to leave her the second she puts on weight, or casts eyes on another man, or does anything to displease him. Reel heel, ‘swhat I’m saying.
(Course, Greer’s also the only one of the three who’s never seen courting a side chick after blasting Nola for refusing monogamy, AND he’s the only one whose monologues eventually take a semi-reflective look at his own actions. Film never makes him out as a good guy or viable emotional equal, but there’s some dimension to the Bastard.)
Meeting these three and understanding the basis of their relationships with Nola consumes the first act, while elaboration on their interactions — Jamie’s musical-dance number, Mars and Nola in bed, Greer demanding Nola see a psychiatrist and her subsequent obligation (with S. Epatha Merkerson in the part of the therapist) — takes up two-thirds of the second, in a film whose acts are a little under the half-hours. I should note, at this stage, a further reason my whole “oh they don’t even know there are other lovers thing until halfway through!” was and is off-base: between Jamie’s jealousy over Opal’s presence; Mars’ sudden questioning about Nola’s other two guys without any opportunity for him to find out; Greer’s confrontation with Nola over her seeing other people playing like he’s stewed on this for a long, long while; and an early (like, first ten minutes) scene with her former roommate Clorinda (Joie Lee, Spike’s sister) talking about the parade of men she’d find in their bathroom each morning, the film pretty blatantly telegraphs Nola being open and honest about her preference to see more than one person at any given time with everyone in her life. A reasonable interpretation, I should think, is to view Nola’s three romances as mutually aware of one another, yet kept separate in an effort to maintain the peace, avoid any awkward confrontations should two people fulfilling a similar but different purpose in her romantic and sexual lives get mixed ideas about who’s relatively more important. I bolster this claim with an alternate look at the Thanksgiving meal that closes act two, specifically focusing on Nola’s reason for assembling her lovers and how she reacts to their squabbling. She does not take the opportunity to lay all cards on the table and make a holiday meal the setting for a talk about polyamorous theory and healthy practices, but she makes her intentions quite clear: Jamie, Mars, and Greer have never met, she wanted to make sure it takes place in calm, peaceful surroundings, won’t everyone please talk to one another and be civil for our collective sake? Simple request, enforced simply with blunt demands they cut it out whenever things get too heated, and an entirely reasonable approach to relationship stress management. It tells me Nola found an arrangement she thought worked for herself and her partners, realized it wasn’t working, sought counsel from a professional, and took steps to remedy it by gathering everyone for a social event.
Now, one might contend Nola’s freeform, hands-off-unless-you-go-too-far approach to the dinner isn’t as beneficial as guided, structured, unambiguous talk about This Isn’t Working What Can We Do To Make It Better For Everyone, and I’d agree. In fact, the film agrees with me as well, seeing as a transition shot in which each of her lovers lays about her bed, grows disgruntled, and leaves leads into a third act in which things generally fall apart. Greer’s demands Nola spend time with him become pointed to the point of pushing her away, Mars intrudes on Jamie’s after-narrative monologue to complain about his issues with Nola and finds greater solidarity with Jamie as a potential friend than Nola as a lover, and Jamie… rapes Nola. Understand real quick, this fits in with Lee’s move of a Fall Apart Third Act, but it is bad. It is as hamfisted a means of twisting Jamie’s character around from ideal to worst choice, it plays as Nola getting what she supposedly deserves for being unfaithful, and the film moving on from it like just another iffy incident in a rocky relationship downplays the severity of the act far, far too much. Lee was and is right to regard the rape scene as a terrible idea in retrospect, though I’ll add he could easily have simply written in Nola discovering Jamie’s tendency to push her friends out of her life to manage his insecurities, and achieved the same intended effect. EITHER WAY, with the shitty misogynistic guff addressed: Nola’s peace offering proves inadequate, the flaws in her relationships across Jamie’s possessive insecurity, Mars’ immaturity, and Greer’s controlling self-obsession all manifest as the outstanding properties in their relationships, prompting her to do the only healthy thing.
She cuts it off. Recognizes the flaws in her love life, thinks about it long and hard, and decides to decline an advance from Opal, tell Greer he’s not good for her, Mars he needs time to grow up, Jamie she just can’t be with a man who raped her, and lets them go, excepting a momentary return to Jamie which she claims didn’t last long in a cut to her closing monologue. Nola needs time for herself, so Nola’s going to do things on her own terms for a while — no lovers, nobody to define herself by, no people who’re taking advantage of her or only see one side or only think about what they get from the relationship. She ain’t a freak, she ain’t a nymphomaniac, she ain’t possessive or greedy or incapable of function if she doesn’t have multiple boyfriends at her side. The closing image is of Nola Darling descending beneath her sheets in the mirror opposite of how she arose in the beginning, confident in how she chooses her path forward and isn’t wholly dependent on any one person or group of people to decide when or how she’s comfortable in her skin and bed.
Know this: the movie clunks like all hell to reach this point. The decision to present Jamie as Nola’s primary and best-suited lover for the sake of a shocking rape-based turnaround results in too little time for Mars and Greer as equal presences in the film, and effectively frames Nola’s polyamory as her dating one man with two on the side instead of the equal trifecta like her dialogue indicates. Placing the scene where Jamie and Mars forge a small bond over their frustrations immediately before the rape scene does too much to make Jamie look sympathetic and justify his actions as those of a man frustrated and righteous in what he’s doing, and playing into his status as THE ONE If It Weren’t For The Rape Thing by having Nola tempted to go back to him right after she told him his raping her is reason enough for temporary celibacy does the same. Lee’s Rashomon-homage is weakened by allowing other characters a scene or two to discuss perspectives on Nola Darling in-line with what we understand of her by the end, as opposed to letting the three lovers’ ideas form a monolith that he then cracks with an earned cop to her side of the story at the end. Every so often, his stylized loving segments run on a bit longer than necessary to make their point, which isn’t otherwise an issue, but becomes one when there’s a sense of central characters lacking as much definition as they might otherwise possess. There exist flaws and shortcomings aplenty to justify my initial reception of, “Good, not exceptional, held back by some frustrating gender and relationship politics.”
In view of this admission, I think it instructive to look forward in time, about thirty-one years, to when Spike Lee produced and directed She’s Gotta Have It as a 2017 Netflix program. In his later rendition of the same story, Nola Darling’s relationships with her three lovers are explicitly kept separate — much of her stress across the show’s ten episodes springs from her efforts to ensure Jamie, Mars, and Greer never so much as suspect there’s another man screwing in her loving bed. The expansion to a serialized format means we dig deeper into everyone’s personal lives, viewing Nola as a figure caught in the frustrations of modern independent living, city art culture, gentrification, friends’ body image issues, rearing abused children, and being happy with oneself despite flaws and mistakes; while Jamie picks up an ongoing divorce from a white wife and the struggles of raising a biracial son, Mars gets embroiled in an ongoing effort to discover who defaced and disrespected Nola’s art, and Greer is made reflective and sensitive in line with his final monologue from the film. As such, everyone’s living deeper lives, exploring more nuanced situations, registering as human being with problems well beyond the scope of Nola Darling’s love life, including Nola Darling herself… and also treated with a greater degree of hostility. Despite the increased humanization across the board, the final episode adapting the Thanksgiving chapter from the film sees Nola reveling in how uncomfortable her boyfriends are at finally learning the others exist, pushing them to fight one another and then acting offended when they do, openly insulting them with an unflattering nude portrait of the group as a three-headed, three-dicked monster, and claiming they’re gonna have to put up with her treating them like she thinks they treated her if they choose to stay but are free to leave if they wish, before refusing to let them leave until they dance to “Raspberry Beret” and stop feeling mad at her. Effectively, the Nola Darling of the Netflix series does exactly what I thought the Nola Darling of the movie did by hiding her lovers away, renders the original material’s inadequate peacekeeping move an extended antagonistic moment, and chooses to keep on keeping on with people who make her unhappy in the guise of taking control of her life rather than cutting it off for everyone’s benefit.
Ironically, where the original film does not have the words to describe Nola as a polyromantic pansexual, where the original film has Nola insist she’s normal while the the series shows her as comfortable in embracing abnormality, where the film stumbles and busts its nose hard on the rather disgusting rape scene, the thirty-year older work has a healthier perspective on polyamory than I initially credited it. Compared against twisting a sinking ship into a weird reclamation of personal autonomy by declaring your intent to treat your lovers poorly because they treated you poorly, finding the maturity to cut ties and allow everyone time to heal and grow is the far superior approach to addressing a dysfunctional poly dynamic. If everyone knows the score, and they still aren’t happy, call time, break it up, and do what you all need to do to sort yourselves. It’s not the ideal of showing everyone actually grow and get back together for a healthier, mutually constructive model at the end, but it identifies the problem, shows Nola take steps to remedy it, realize the steps weren’t enough, and do what needs doing for herself and her lovers. Bad polyamorous relationships need to end if all parties can’t come to a collective agreement, same as any relationship. That’s a plain and simple truth, sucky as it is to constantly accept queer stories ending with separation rather than work towards a better situation, but if the alternative Lee presents in the modern age is grappling onto the bad lot body and soul and determining to keep it going because you like the chaotic, damaging status quo… I’ll TAKE the imperfect yet quietly mature angle. And hell, on its own merits, the film’s implication Nola communicates with her partners and still has trouble is infinitely more realistic, relatable, and workable an angle than the contrived secret runaround necessary to make this material work in serialized form.
Beyond our discussion of queer matters, there remains ample reason to recommend She’s Gotta Have It after thirty-five years of Spike Lee joints. The stylistic diversions into treating the naked body like a landscape, flashing through a series of doggish men shouting laughable pickup lines, and sending the camera adrift through enclosed spaces like a sleepwalker in a dreamy brownstone all work as visual exercises regardless their effect on the story, and furthermore presage the Spike Lee who’d combine these impulses into a loud and distinctive style just two films down the line. All actors here, amateurs and non-professionals to the last, impart a strong sense of person onto their characters outside their archetype, and make Lee’s intentionally awkward dialogue read as natural, or at least deliberately stilted for personal reasons. Going back to see the man rewrite the possibilities for black characters in American cinema is worthwhile enough on its own, if probably best paired with one of his later works to really appreciate what he’d make from humble beginnings. And of course, even if he stumbles and says some goddamned heinous things about rape as part of the romantic experience, and even if it remains a touch iffy for a man to be the one writing about female experiences and inner lives, ESPECIALLY if he fumbles a rape scene so badly, there’s a dedication to presenting Nola Darling and her choice to love and leave as she sees fit which I respect. Spike Lee may’ve lost sight of this when he returned to his own creation decades later, but it’s admirable to find him presenting such during his first time in the spotlight. Good show.
Do we have any Spike Lee fans in the crowd tonight? What’d you think, about the movie and about the write-up? Hash it out amongst yourselves, keep it chill, and stay excited for next week’s installment. We’re staying in 1986 to hear from modern Hollywood’s other firebrand left-leaning voice, Oliver Stone, as he directs Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, and Willem Dafoe in his Vietnam War morality play, Platoon! Netflix, Hulu, Sling, and Epix have you covered for subscription streaming, while Youtube, Amazon, Vudu, Redbox, Fandango, all the usual players have you for rentals and purchases. See you next time!