I read one review on here that labeled She's Gotta Have it as Spike Lee's 'feminist view'. I would agree with this in part because he doesn't show anything- the characters really- on any one side. We see her follies completely. But I think there is a male view going on with his look at these characters too; after we see how a woman can be all liberated and free of being too restricted with who she wants to love/fool around with, there's more of a sympathy going on for the men too as the situation starts to come down to an essential thing- what does Nola REALLY want? By the end of the picture, no one can really say for certain, Nola most of all, but all the while Lee has given us a look at romance that is ordinary only in how some of the typical characteristics of men and women are portrayed at times. But really, it's also out of the ordinary on showing the little things that wouldn't get into the common romantic comedy. It's a little too loosely structured and the style isn't altogether great, but it has as much ambition as Scorsese's Who's That Knocking or Bertolucci's Before the Revolution, at least in trying to convey subject matter primarily through style.
Not to say the substance is left unchecked- in fact for the most part it's one of Lee's sharpest satires on the troubles of the sexes, and the main characters are a bit more believable than those of the main white/black couple of Jungle Fever. Lee boils it downs to seeming essentials at first- Nola (Tracy Camilla Johns, not bad at all if not as strong as the main 'heroine' could be) is a magazine painter, but really its her romantic life that keeps her usually occupied. We see the various attempts of various male 'pick-up lines' (which is pretty hilarious, if dated), and then we meet guy #1, Jamie (Tommy Hicks, maybe the best 'real' actor of the group), who is really the nice guy, the kind that any reasonable woman would consider probably marrying sooner or later. But she also has male #2, Greer (John Canada Turrell, with a great, shallow look to him if not overall performance), who is a male model who is meticulously egotistical even with folding up his clothes before sex. And then there's #3, Mars Blackmon (Lee himself, in uproariously huge glasses and his name etched out in gold across his neck, surely one of his most wonderful characters played by him), who is the jokester, and word-spinner, and always takes a while to get around in a conversation.
So around and around she goes, and it's really only until the last twenty minutes when Nola finally has to come down and make the decision- and it perhaps will have to come down to the 'right' decision- but for what she just can't tell. Part of it is that she just loves sex, which becomes a problem when she invites over the three men for thanksgiving (not a totally successful scene, mainly due to the dialog and pacing, but still a nice job in awkward tension). And also a problem when Jamie, the nice guy, makes an ultimatum for Nola. At the same time in the background there is the unusual tension of a possible lesbian affair with Opal (Raye Dowell, very good in her scenes), but nothing comes to it. Scenes like those, where the sexual and relationship-type boundaries come into question, are really interesting. The self-conscious talking-to-the-camera interview bits range from excellent to just OK though, and sort of mark the quality of the film down a peg, even as the characters get to share some of their inner thoughts (Lee's being the funniest).
What then makes Lee's film a big step above any other number of films out there, primarily in the Hollywood mainstream, about a woman who has trouble deciding what to do with herself? It's two things; one, that the men are probably just as interesting with what they have going on as her, if not more so for Jamie, and two, the cinematic techniques imposed by Lee and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson. The latter of those two helps make She's Gotta Have it even more of a light-hearted picture than it might have been if just filmed as the script is. We get the images first put to Lee's father Bill's score, which is definitely one of his best after Do the Right Thing. Then the images get a lot of invention on such a small budget, unusually intimate and creative camera angles (I loved the bit when we see in slow-motion the extreme close-ups of Mars getting close with Nola), the lighting often very expressionistic, and sometimes the editing going to playful, odd lengths like the sex scene between Nola and Greer. Sometimes the playfulness and first-time filmmaker amazement is a little much, like the color film sequence, which is beautiful but almost better self-contained than with the black & white grittiness of the rest of the film. I also could've done without the last bit after the denouement where all the actors say their names with the clapper. Nevertheless the stylistic merits add a lot to make it a richer film in context and structure.
But if you can seek it out, especially in widescreen (I saw it on IFC, though I wish I could see the director's cut to see what was cut out, however explicit it might be), it's well worth it. It's a small film, yet one that brings up some intriguing bits about what it means to really love someone vs. desire them, and what mind-games go on between men & women, men & men, women & women, and where the middle-ground could be, if at all. A minor independent/debut classic. A-
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