Thirty one years after the original film was released, Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It has gained a new life as a 10-part series on Netflix. The film and the series form a convenient bridge from which to view not just the director’s career, but also the changing nature of sexual politics and black representation in American cinema.
For those who have not seen either version, the story concerns a young African American artist called Nola Darling who lives in Brooklyn and much of whose leisure time is spent juggling three male lovers.
In 1986, it was something of a radical scenario. In the first place, arty black independent films were a rarity and ones focused on a liberated woman and her busy sex life were, until Lee’s debut, nonexistent.
Shot in moody black and white, She’s Gotta Have It was made for just $175,000 in two weeks and went on to earn 40 times that amount at the box office. Although the film showed distinct traces of its director’s inexperience, it was also stylish, funny, cool and confident.
It was obvious that a genuine talent had arrived and equally apparent that the person who was most convinced of that opinion was Lee himself. From the outset, he was not prepared to be underestimated or overlooked, a fate, he felt with no little justification, which had been standard for many black film-makers. “Being black,” he said, “means you have to be 10 times better than everybody else.”
Before Lee, there was blaxploitation, a subgenre that acted as a kind of film backwater for black film-makers who were not going to get mainstream films to direct. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Lee almost singlehandedly changed the image of African Americans behind the camera in Hollywood.
Another of his achievements with She’s Gotta Have It was putting Brooklyn on the hip map, long before Girls, Master of None, hipsters, gentrification and perfect espressos made it the place to move to in New York. Having grown up in the borough, Lee has remained loyal to the cause of what he often refers to as the “Republic of Brooklyn”, although he now lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where his children attended an elite private school.
But undoubtedly the film’s boldest statement was to present an independent black woman who, far from clinging hold of her man – an all too familiar cinematic cliche – was uncommitted to three different men. It was, in many respects, a neat reversal of the black-dude-playing-the field stereotype. More than that, perhaps, it depicted African Americans doing things such as kissing and making love, which astonishingly was – and to some extent still is – a less than common cinematic sight.
However, at the film’s centre was a scene in which Nola (played by Tracy Camilla Johns) tries to reignite her affair with Jamie, seemingly the most sensitive and mature of her lovers. But when her seduction backfires, he rapes her, after which Nola decides to start a monogamous relationship with her rapist.
Even at the time, it was a disturbing scene, though one sidestepped by many critics. Viewed from today’s perspective, it looks shockingly wrong.
Lee has always been tremendously defensive of his work, tending to lash out at critics who draw attention to perceived shortcomings. But three years ago, in a conversation with a journalist at the Cannes film festival, Lee said the scene was his biggest regret in his career.
“If I was able to have any do-overs,” he said, “that would be it. It was just totally… stupid. I was immature. It made light of rape and that’s the one thing I would take back… I can promise you, there will be nothing like that in She’s Gotta Have It, the TV show, that’s for sure.”
And he’s as good as his word. Whereas Lee wrote and directed the original film, the TV series features four women screenwriters, including the Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage and Lee’s sister, the actress Joie Lee.
In the TV version, Nola is physically assaulted and catcalled, an event that is treated as a trauma she works through in her art and in therapy. Both takes are self-conscious, partly as a result of the characters occasionally speaking direct to screen, but the TV series seems almost painfully concerned to get its sexual and identity politics absolutely correct.
At times, it can make for slightly strained viewing, as if its creators had spent too long in a workshop on sex and intersectionality. And while it attempts to do justice to millennial preoccupations and – there is no other phrase – self-obsession, it steers an uncomfortable path between depicting Nola’s scrutiny by the “male gaze” and the camera’s own fixation with her naked body.
When it comes to identity, Lee has never been in doubt of defining himself as an uncompromising black man from Brooklyn. It has shaped and defined his work as well as his bristling image. When he started out, there was very little promotion money for She’s Gotta Have It, so he made sure that he got attention by promoting himself in a provocative fashion.
Bringing attention to racism and prejudice can often be seen as a provocative act – if done by a black man. But Lee, who’s been described as a “slight man with thin skin”, was at the beginning a very effective showman. As if to underline the point, he acted in the first 10 films he directed, playing the ridiculous but amusing Mars Blackmon in She’s Gotta Have It.
Although Lee was born in Atlanta, Georgia, he moved as a child to Brooklyn, where his mother taught art and literature and his father was a jazz musician and composer.
It was a middle-class upbringing and he attended Atlanta’s Morehouse College, the celebrated black university whose alumni include Martin Luther King and Samuel L Jackson.
After doing a masters in film back in New York, he made a 60-minute film Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads as his degree thesis. After She’s Gotta Have It and School Daze, Lee wrote, produced and directed the film that made his reputation and perhaps still dominates his CV: Do the Right Thing.
At the time, it was seen as an incendiary piece of film-making, with several critics suggesting that it would provoke riots (the film, set again in Brooklyn, features a riot). “Don’t these folks realise that my whole point was to provoke discussion so that the incident that happens in the film won’t happen in real life?” Lee quite reasonably protested.
The film was also criticised for its failure to portray the drug problems then afflicting inner-city America. Nonetheless, it was startlingly ambitious, full of energy and shone a light on the simmering racial tensions that had been too often neglected in the cinema.
For many observers, it also marked Lee’s directorial high point. There have been others, most notably Malcolm X in 1992. In the first episode of She’s Gotta Have It, Lee has his characters complain that Denzel Washington, who played the lead, was robbed for not winning the Oscar for best actor.
Having never been nominated for a directorial Academy award, Lee has frequently criticised the Academy’s racism. He’s also expended quite a bit of creative energy in spats with Quentin Tarantino (whom he lambasts for his use of the N-word), Clint Eastwood and many others. His tendency to react first and think later has not been softened by the advent of social media.
In 2012, he used Twitter to circulate the address of George Zimmerman, the man who shot unarmed high-school student Trayvon Martin in a gated community in Florida. Aside from potentially inciting a lynch mob, Lee had got the wrong address and had to pay compensation to the entirely innocent occupants who were forced to leave their home.
It’s this kind of activism that has led some critics to suggest that Lee’s public persona has come to undermine his cinematic reputation. And although he has been a prolific film-maker, directing more than 35 films and documentaries, and 15 TV shows, as well as producing, screenwriting and acting, while also teaching a film course, it is perhaps fair to say that he hasn’t quite lived up to his extraordinary early promise.
She’s Gotta Have It will probably not change that judgment, but it will add to an enormously rich and impressively varied body of work.
THE LEE FILE
Born Shelton Jackson “Spike” Lee, 20 March 1957, in Atlanta, Georgia, the eldest of four children of an arts teacher and a jazz musician. He moved to Brooklyn as a child.
Best of times He was nominated for best original screenplay for 1989’s Do the Right Thing, a film that was critically acclaimed and aired a vital debate about race in America.
Worst of times Lee was offended that Do the Right Thing was not nominated for the best film Oscar, particularly as the award went to Driving Miss Daisy, a film about a black chauffeur and his wealthy white female boss. “That hurt,” said Lee.
What he says “Black people have to be in control of their own image because film is a powerful medium. We can’t just sit back and let other people define our existence.”
What others say “The great thing about Lee is that he has not tired or faltered.” David Thomson, editor of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film.
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