She’s Gotta Have It, Spike Lee’s debut feature, is often lumped with Stranger Than Paradise as being at the forefront of the new wave of American independent cinema. Now, even with what Lee has done since, I still feel a little like a cat being rubbed the wrong way when I opt to start one of his films, pretty much solely because of Lee himself and not because of the films he makes. I will admit; he knows what he’s doing behind the camera, even if he could use some polishing classes when he’s not in that particular position. So, to watch She’s Gotta Have It, even with it being Lee’s first feature, and seeing all the cogs and gears and string that is the finished film, only barely held together, it was a bit of a surprise.
The film follows Nola Darling, and yes, that is apparently her last name, as she tries to live her life in Brooklyn, juggling the affections of three guys, and having fun with her friends, as they apparently only talk about Nola and her relationships with the three guys in question; the film really doesn’t seem to pass the Bechdel test, and if it does it only scrapes by. But yeah, that’s the general gist of the film; where She’s Gotta Have It offers a unique experience is that probably half of the film is the characters talking directly into the camera, as if the film were a documentary on Nola, spouting exposition about her past and their relationship with her as if they were reciting memorized lines, which they literally are. Really, it’s amazing what three short years can do for a filmmaker. In 1989, Do the Right Thing would be an excellent treatise on how to write, shoot, and edit a great film. Here, merely three years earlier, Lee puts together a film with patchwork and rope-ties, with stilted delivery from the actors (including Lee), and a method of shooting shots and editing them together that seemed straight out of a film student textbook. I can see why this gets lumped with Stranger than Paradise often; the two films are very similar, and if you’ve read my review of Stranger than Paradise, you know that isn’t really a good thing. Even the subject matter seemed right out of some pre-agreed-upon list of subjects for independent films to cover; sex, young people living on their own, and trying to find one’s way in life. The one thing I could tell was at least competently done was the script, which I expected out of Lee, but I expected a lot more than that, and pretty much nothing else lived up to those expectations. Special mention should be made to the abrupt switch to color in the middle of the film for a dance number, after which it returns to black-and-white; even though I knew it was there, it still took me mildly by surprise.
I can see the reasoning the editors of the list had when they gave Spike Lee two slots in the Book and gave the other one to this film. That said, I don’t agree with it. If it weren’t for this film’s position as one of the premier American independent films of the 1980s, then this shouldn’t have made the list at all. Much has been said about how She’s Gotta Have It changed how cinema treated black people from then on, no longer as a stereotype but just as intelligent and diversified as white people. I can attest to that; this film is well written at the least, and that it deals with African-American characters is only due to Lee’s decision to do so. But, that’s all I can say about it; at the very least, indeed.
Arbitrary Rating: 6/10