On the hot night of Aug. 8, 1986, a line of young black people wrapped around the corner of New York City's Cinema Studio 1, eager to catch Spike Lee's much-buzzed-about debut feature film, She's Gotta Have It. Eighty-five hot and sexy minutes later, they weren't disappointed with Lee's cinematic achievement.
The following day, the New York Times review said that the movie "has a touch of the classic." And the Washington Post praised its "rare quality: a sense of place."
She's Gotta Have It is now cinema and book history, but back then, a 29-year-old Lee, wunderkind director and NYU film-school graduate, turned the Hollywood establishment upside down by setting the film in black Brooklyn, shooting it in 12 days on a starting budget of $20,000 (the final budget was $175,000), securing a distribution deal with Island Pictures, winning the Prix de Jeunesse at Cannes and grossing more than $7 million that year.
The provocative heroine of his film, Nola Darling, and its taboo subject matter, a black woman's sexual independence, marked a radical departure from anything ever seen on the American screen before. In the words of cultural critic and director Nelson George, who was one of the film's early financiers, on Aug. 8, 1986, "the first successful black cult film" was born.
A Revolution in Black Film
Twenty-five years later, it's clear that She's Gotta Have It was a hit for so many reasons. The plot, featuring a young woman, Nola (Tracy Camilla Johns), and the three lovers who courted her — the romantic poet, Jamie Overstreet (Tommy Redmond Hicks); the narcissistic model, Greer Childs (John Canada Terrell); and the now-iconic hip-hop bike messenger, Mars Blackmon (Spike Lee) — might have been anticipated by the prose of Zora Neale Hurston's 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. The sexual context and contests of Lee's movie, however, were unchartered waters in black cinema.
"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.
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."
A Movie of Enduring Influence
At the same time, directors like Nelson George, whose documentary Brooklyn Boheme comes out this fall, and the San Francisco-based up-and-comer Barry Jenkins, credit Lee with making their careers possible. When the New York Times' A.O. Scott compared Jenkins' 2008 debut film, Medicine for Melancholy — about black indie 20-somethings in San Francisco who have a one-night stand — to She's Gotta Have It, Jenkins was not surprised. He had "been hearing the comparisons to Lee since graduate school."
And while such comparisons might be unfair, Jenkins definitely sees how his characters Micah and Jo' are extensions of those in She's Gotta Have It. "I don't think I would have the guts or freedom of mind to create those characters had there not been a Nola Darling or all the other characters Spike has made over the last 25 years," Jenkins says.
"Maybe I would have been like, black people like Micah and Jo' can't ride bikes [for fun] or make T-shirts for a living because it wouldn't have made sense in a film," Jenkins observes. "But there was Nola Darling way back in the 1980s, so of course they can. Part of what these two characters are trying to negotiate is that they should be free to do even more."
Meanwhile, there are rumors that Lee might revive Mookie, his popular character from his 1989 controversial and crossover success, Do the Right Thing. It is possible that black folks want to see what happened to Mookie and the denizens of Bed-Stuy, but they should also consider the vivid characters of She's Gotta Have It, like Mars and Nola — and, for that matter, Tracy Camilla Johns, the actress who played her. What happened to black bohemia all grown up?
That a movie made on a shoestring budget in black Brooklyn remains the archetype for all black and all indie filmmakers that followed proves that Lee's first major work was a revolution all its own.
Salamishah Tillet is an assistant professor of English and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the co-founder of the nonprofit organization A Long Walk Home, Inc., which uses art therapy and the visual and performing arts to end violence against girls and women. Follow her on Twitter.
Salamishah Tillet is a rape survivor and co-founder of A Long Walk Home, a nonprofit that uses art to end violence against girls and women. She is also an associate professor of English studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Sites of Slavery: Citizenship, Racial Democracy, and the Post-Civil Rights Imagination. She is working on a book about civil rights icon Nina Simone.