She’s Gotta Have It: how Spike Lee’s film revolutionised black sexuality onscreen

With its frank exploration of a Brooklyn woman’s romantic entanglements, Lee’s comedy was as inspiring as it was unsettling, writes Esi Edugyan. Thirty years on, the new TV series shows how times have changed – and where Lee went wrong

With Netflix’s release of She’s Gotta Have It, a new series based on his 1986 romantic comedy, Spike Lee becomes the latest film-maker to turn his hand to prestige television. The original film is about black sexuality: its protagonist, Nola Darling, an ambitious up-and-coming young artist in Brooklyn, shares herself physically and emotionally with three lovers. She is not shy about her relationships and feels no sense of shame.

In the mid-80s, the frankness of this polyamory, the rawness of Lee’s portrayal of sexuality and his characterisation of a young woman through her sexual relationships – even the very existence of a black film written and directed by a black auteur – all seemed, if not controversial, then certainly remarkable. And it still does, though for different reasons, today.

When the film was released I was a young black girl living in a working-class neighbourhood of Calgary. I can still vividly remember the kids at school repeating a key line from the film – “Please baby, please baby, please baby, baby baby please!” – and how we laughed at the delivery, feeling the illicit strangeness of it in our mouths. We knew it had something to do with a secret adult world but didn’t quite understand what. None of us had seen the film, of course; it didn’t matter.

Watch the official trailer for the TV series of She’s Gotta Have It

So much seemed out of reach to me, then, but not impossible. My parents were highly educated and had left Africa in their youth and so I grew up believing there was more beyond the horizon, but when I looked at the world, I saw very little of myself in it. Watching Nola today, I see a young woman trying to find her way, believing in the possible.

She’s Gotta Have It – shot largely in lush black-and-white – opens with images of a bygone era in the mostly black Brooklyn neighbourhood of Fort Greene, as idyllic in the snow as when street games were played in the summertime. In evoking Brooklyn as a place of memory and dreams, the beginning feels like a gritty inversion of Woody Allen’s Manhattan, in which vivid images of that borough – with its soaring skyscrapers and bustling streets – are set to Gershwin’s lavish Rhapsody in Blue. Lee shows us Nola (Tracy Camilla Johns) alone in bed, and as she sits up, she freezes into the same position as the girl depicted in the painting over her left shoulder – a painting of a black girl modestly dressed in her Sunday best.

Nola’s choice to date three men simultaneously not only baffles her father, but the men themselves, who differ wildly in temperament: Greer Childs, played by John Canada Terrell, is almost a caricature of middle-class prudery. He is obsessed with his physique and shows relentless contempt for “ignorant, low-class ghetto negroes”. In one scene Nola lies naked in bed waiting patiently while, with exacting precision, he folds every piece of his clothing before they make love.

Her second suitor Mars Blackmon, played by Lee himself, is boyish, impish, an incessant talker. His greatest charm is that he makes Nola laugh. It is wondrous to watch their warmth and ease with each other, though he is clearly unsuitable as a long-term partner. Initially at least, it is Jamie Overstreet (played by Tommy Redmond Hicks) who emerges as the best match. He is sensitive, educated, kind and generous – and he wants to take care of her.

A different picture … DeWanda Wise in the new TV series.
A different picture … DeWanda Wise in the new TV series. Photograph: David Lee/Netflix

Lee’s camera worships Nola’s body, capturing it in tender, burnished detail. These intimate shots remind me of Lena Horne, the first African American screen star, who made her 1943 breakthrough performance in Cabin in the Sky, for which she was filmed lazing in a bubble bath, singing. Censors deemed the scene too overtly sexual and it was cut – despite the fact that her white contemporaries, such as Hedy Lamarr to whom she was often compared, were often more risque on screen. Lee’s unhurried celebration of Nola’s flesh, then, resonates as a broader political gesture.

As films age, however, some of the shine rubs off and we also catch glimpses of the weak spots where the cracks have formed. In the original She’s Gotta Have It, Nola is dumped by Jamie after refusing to break up with the other men. She swiftly changes her mind and begs him to come over late one night. He does, and listens sceptically as she promises to commit herself only to him and asks him to make love to her. His response is unsettling, to say the least. In a scene almost too difficult to watch, he rapes her.

It is a shocking twist that brings to mind the conclusion of Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, in which Isabelle Huppert’s Erika is punished for her sexual perversions by a once-adoring male suitor. Whereas Haneke’s depiction is typically cold and ambiguous, however, Lee shows Nola to be full of remorse, as if she had pushed Jamie too far. “I fucked up,” she tells her old roommate, “Jamie hates me.” Astonishingly, she returns to him later to beg him to take her back, telling him she’s going to be celibate for some time to work out her issues. The rape therefore seems almost justified, as the natural outcome of male frustration over a woman’s liberation. Lee has since expressed regret about including the scene and pledged that there will be nothing like that in the TV version of She’s Gotta Have It – it’s a sign of how our culture has changed.

Johns with Tommy Redmond Hicks in the original She’s Gotta Have It.
Johns with Tommy Redmond Hicks in the original She’s Gotta Have It. Photograph: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

Perhaps the most daring aspect of She’s Gotta Have It was not its portrayal of sexuality but simply its willingness to view black people just as people. The film never highlights their racial otherness, exploring instead the whole messy business of their experiences. Lee’s approach to his characters still seems electrifying and gorgeous and heartbreaking: what Nola Darling wants can be hers and should be hers; her desire and autonomy matter. And if Lee’s film still feels true today it’s in its portrayal of her emotions: Nola Darling rejects simple lust for more complicated feelings of desire.

The black experience – to the extent such a thing even exists – is not only slavery and racism and economic disparity and brutality and the endless ongoing struggle, though it is all these things certainly. It is also sex and love and ennui and dreaming and joy. Towards the end of the film, Nola is asked: “What are you searching for? Do you think you’re ever going to find it?” She cannot find an answer. What she is seeking goes beyond the sexual: it has something to do with finding a way to hold on to choice, her right to shun social expectations and the narrow world of her bourgeois childhood. It has something to do, in other words, with a need for freedom, which is felt as keenly today.

  • The TV series of She’s Gotta Have It and the original film are available on Netflix. The film is also on DVD.
Esi Edugyan

The GuardianTramp

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