Spike Lee's 'She's Gotta Have It' Turns 25

Grown and sexy: The director's daring film changed the game in Hollywood -- and assumptions about black women's sexuality.

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Long before Bad Boy Entertainment or Roc-A-Fella, Lee launched 40 Acres and a Mule, a multiplatform marketing company (and, for a short time, a Brooklyn-based store), through which Lee sold buttons, T-shirts, movie posters and the now famous book Spike Lee's Gotta Have It: Inside Guerrilla Filmmaking. By the time Lee released his magnum opus Malcolm X in 1992, his brand was so recognizable that the "X" baseball caps were more associated with Spike than with Malcolm.

But more than bringing novelty and hype to black film, for the first time in American cinema history, Lee exposed audiences to a vibrant, black bohemian subculture that was well established in places like Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Chicago and Oakland, Calif. By 1986 a whole generation of African-American artists and writers had come of age in the wake of the civil rights, feminist and black power movements. They had also created their own world of Malcolm X murals, jazz interludes, hoop earrings and spoken-word poetry.

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That year, however, the most popular movies with black actors were the more pedestrian interracial romance and buddy films, like Prince's Under the Cherry Moon, The Golden Child with Eddie Murphy, Jumpin' Jack Flash featuring Whoopi Goldberg and Soul Man with Rae Dawn Chong. In contrast, She's Gotta Have It was a cinematic cipher of and for the post-soul generation, a film that was, as film critic George said in a telephone interview last week, "a coming of age and coming together" for black people in their 20s.

Lee's Woman Problem?

Much of the appeal of She's Gotta Have It was its heroine, a young graphic designer whose physical aesthetic challenged conventional notions of a leading lady. "In terms of casting, Nola, a very natural-looking African-American woman, is front and center," Bogle says. "She is not overly glamorized. She does have her own kind of glamour, but she's someone we feel we have seen before -- we just haven't seen her in the movies."

But while the film expanded the silver screen's standards of black beauty, it explodes in its depiction of black women's sexuality. With pivotal scenes edited to prevent an X rating, and many close-up scenes of Nola's seminaked body, She's Gotta Have It easily blurred the line between the erotic and the pornographic.

Lee expected blowback, and he got some, mostly from black feminist critics like bell hooks, who took Lee to task for his stereotypical depiction of Opal Gilstrap (Raye Dowell) as a predatory lesbian and the gratuitous scene in which Jamie rapes Nola and demands that she answer the question, "Whose p---y is this?" Hooks, author of Reel to Real: Race, Sex and Class at the Movies, wrote, "When Nola responds to the question by saying 'yours,' it is difficult for anyone who has fallen for the image of her as sexually liberated not to feel let down, disappointed by both her character and the film."

More disappointing perhaps was the film's need to punish Nola's sexuality but not Jamie's sexual aggression. It's a regret Lee later confessed to -- for it is the one scene in all his movies that he now wishes he had changed or cut out. While She's Gotta Have It might have birthed Lee's "woman problem" -- a staid critique of his one-dimensional representations of black women's characters -- the movie also remains one of the few American films that dare explore black women's sexual independence.

Twenty-five years later, hooks offers this more generous observation: "Part of what was a breakthrough with She's Gotta Have It was the idea of a black woman owning her own sexuality and her own desire. I actually think that in a tragic way, we have actually gone backward. So much energy for young black females in popular culture today, straight or gay, in books like Confessions of a Video Vixen and Grace After Midnight, is about pleasing someone else, satisfying and servicing the 'man.' We see very little representation of bold, self-confident female desire."