Sunday, June 20, 2004

She's Gotta Have It

You might as well just go and buy the video (you can't buy this on DVD yet, for some dumb reason). It really is that good, and it stands the humor test of time: still funny after fifteen years. Right now when someone asks, "You want to go see a Spike Lee film?" I think, oh God no. It's going to be one of those where I have to spend two hours being the unfortunate railroad tie while he hammers his point at me. This one is his first film, though, and while it suffers from a few film school pretensions, he's also being inventive and interesting as well as raising some interesting issues. I don't feel like I'm being hammered at, so I'm actually listening. I think it's just sensational; don't be fooled by the bad reviews that cite bad acting and stilted scenes. Lee filmed this on a miniscule budget with inexperienced actors. When you cringe at the particularly wooden delivery, for example, at the scene between Opal and Nola, keep in mind please that there were NO second takes here--the budget was so low that there simply wasn't enough film to do it more than once! And frankly I've seen worse in some high budget films.

For the record, She's Gotta Have It is not a dark comedy film. It doesn't count as a viewing for my internship and it isn't under consideration to be shown in my honors seminar. I TIVO-ed it because I happened to notice that it was on the Sundance Channel in the middle of the night recently, and I remembered that it was one of the few films we had a copy of and watched CONSTANTLY in college. But it was funny too, and I forgot I memorized the lines, so watching it was a wonderful experience of finding myself speaking lines I didn't know I knew as the actors said them, like "Fifty dollar sneakers and I gots no job," or "please, baby, please, baby, please, baby, baby, baby, please," or "Nola, did I ever tell you about the time I was a superhero? Pantyman!" But enough of my own private reminiscence. This is a film worth seeing. And the soundtrack, composed and performed (I'm pretty sure) by Bill Lee (Spike's dad) is delightful and stays in your mind for days after. I wish you could hear it as you read this.

She's Gotta Have It pretends to be a documentary, a form I guess that appeals to me. It is the story of Nola Darling, a young woman who is either a freak or a free thinker, depending on who you're asking. Her trouble is that she does not want to remain monogamous, but the men she sleeps with want her to. I think it's
an interesting problem, and it brings up issues of gender and race. First of all, gender stereotypes are called into question: if she were male, the only problems would be the administrative issues of getting the lovers out of the house in time for all the back slapping and guffawing. However, since she is female, she's lost most of her same gender friends, including her roommate, Clorinda Bradford, who just "couldn't handle" seeing different men in her bathroom all the time and had to move out. Were the genders reversed, this bathroom traffic would have been the subject of much mirth! Furthermore, the only female friend Nola has retained is Opal, a lesbian who wants to sleep with Nola and who makes sexual advances on Nola even after Nola has made it clear she isn't interested. The only women who know how to handle a promiscuous woman, then, are lesbians. Nola knows she doesn't fit.

But the race of the characters is interesting too. I believe that Lee toys with White stereotypes about African Americans with this story; one commonly held assumption is that African Americans have promiscuous, indiscriminate sex. In the beginning, then, it is no challenge to the stereotype to learn that Nola has three boyfriends. However, Lee challenges the stereotype with Nola's three boyfriends who, just like white boyfriends, want her to be monogamous with them (even if they are not monogamous with her). But Nola isn't stupid--in fact, she doesn't even hide the fact that she's dating multiple men. She's in charge. In fact, when Nola invites Mars Blackmon, Lee's character, to her apartment, he admires the apartment and jokes that she can put a divider across the room and he'll live on the other side. "You'll never know I'm there." "You're right," she says. "I'll never know." Nola is smarter than her men and smarter than any stereotype.

Jokes are supposed to go by the rule of threes, meaning that examples and events usually happen in threes to raise the stakes in the humor. The same is true here. She's got three boyfriends, three extremes: Mars, the rapper, Steve Erkle type guy; Greer, the male model, self absorbed guy; and Jamie, the nice regular guy who really seems to want a traditional relationship. The crescendo comes when she invites them all to Thanksgiving dinner at her house. The obvious hijinx ensue from that scene, because true to their instinct, the males all view this meal as an opportunity to stake their territory, and that peeing against the tree behavior just turns her off. Finally Greer and Mars give up. But later even Jamie leaves her, after she refuses to give up the others.

I guess I've pretty much given away the whole film here in summary, and I shouldn't do the rest, but what's interesting is that we think at the end that Lee has given this a Hollywood ending, meaning that Nola gets a near-rape from Jamie, who later becomes angry when she asks him to come over, but she hasn't changed anything. It's disappointing, I think, because it's too much like the Hollywood stories where the lesbians always meet with a bad ending. The great thing about this movie, though, is that it DOESN'T end here, but rather it ends with Lola on her own, figuring that she doesn't need any of these three idiots and that it's perfectly fine for her to like sex as much as she does and with lots of men. It's a pretty relaxed message for 1986, and very liberated for a male writer!

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