“She’s Gotta Have It changed the playing field,” says Donald Bogle, film historian and author of Heat Wave: The Life and Career of Ethel Waters. “Spike Lee made the black filmmaker a viable force in mainstream cinema. There had been black directors who had gotten attention before, but with Spike, there was something totally different. It was so contemporary and had such an interesting edge to it.”
That edginess was inconceivable a decade before. She’s Gotta Have It was celebrated for its technical tricks. A mini mashup of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon and Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, Lee’s film boasts of multiple points of view; characters who speak directly to the audience; an unconventional nonlinear narrative; jump cuts; photo montages of black urban life; and Ernest Dickerson’s black-and-white cinematography, which both supported and subverted the film’s documentary feel.
She’s Gotta Have It was also novel offscreen. Embracing Melvin Van Peebles’ 1970s guerrilla-filmmaking techniques in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Oscar Micheaux’s black Hollywood entrepreneurialism from the 1920s, Lee turned She’s Gotta Have It, and by extension himself, into a name brand. With one film, Lee became both auteur and entrepreneur.
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.