Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For March, we celebrate the birthday (and the decades-long filmography) of one of America’s most pioneering Black filmmakers, Spike Lee. Read the rest of our coverage here.
The world still isn’t ready for Spike Lee. In 1986, Black cinema wasn’t in a renaissance. In fact, it had barely been uplifted, except for a few short spaces of time. Oscar Micheaux (often heralded as the first major African-American filmmaker) produced his own works in Chicago during the ’20s and ’30s: He made race films in fact—and did so when filmmaking still ran akin to the Wild West. Like Micheaux’s works, Blaxploitation flicks during the early ‘70s were originally made by Black directors and existed outside the traditional Hollywood system.
But when Black creatives did hold some agency, even during these brief periods, the economics of the Hollywood system would change that. Race films, for instance, were stymied when World War II began and Hollywood absorbed the Black actors who starred in them (like Sidney Poitier). In the ’70s, white directors began to take over Blaxploitation films from its Black originators, the form losing its boldness under the guise of stereotypes.
Then came Spike Lee’s 1986 debut, She’s Gotta Have It. His first upon graduating from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Lee’s film completely changed Black cinema, from its Black female protagonist to the African-American gaze the new filmmaker offered through his lens. When written, Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns) was light-years ahead of most Black female characters who’d come before her in the nearly forty years prior. Sexually confident and open—intelligent, artistic, and sophisticated—she switches between three men and is even pined for by women too (Raye Dowell’s Opal).
The men in her life espouse the toxic masculinity prevalent in American culture then and now. Mars (Lee), for instance, is hyper-aware of his stature; short and skinny, with massive glasses, he physically doesn’t match the stereotypical male physique. Furthermore, he’s childish, from his humor to his life choices (Mars is unemployed). He wears oversized gold chains to supplement his masculine worry.
Conversely, Greer (John Canada Terrell) is aware of his stature to the opposite effect. His insistence to prove his refinement—in body and financial class—relegates him to the school of masculinity defined by money and build. Moreover, Jamie (Tommy Redmond)—who initially seems charming—is homophobic and distastefully self-conscious. He demonstrates a common misunderstanding of lesbianism and bisexuality, believing Nola can switch off her attractions at will. Jamie worries that any attraction to the same sex by her detracts from his raw sexual and masculine ability.
It’s been said that Nola exists outside the guise of her male partners. The freedom with how she expresses her romantic life—the openness of her sexual desires, the intimacy of her love scenes, during the ’80s was startling, especially for a narrative about a Black woman.
But Nola is partly a reflection of Lee: a fiercely independent artist from a musical family now living in Brooklyn. Because her subjectivity is partly born from Lee’s traits, she never fully escapes the judgments of men, and ultimately, a violation of her body. This is a punishment Lee doles upon her in the uneasy rape scene perpetrated by Jamie—in which she apologizes for her proclivities toward lust, begging for his forgiveness. It’s a character arc reeking of a director still discovering his talents and autonomy, and mapping those insecurities upon a female form.
Lee’s film completely changed Black cinema, from its Black female protagonist to the African-American gaze the new filmmaker offered through his lens.
More assuredly, She’s Gotta Have It exists outside the confines of racial trauma and systemic racism. These are thriving Black men and women existing within the cultural milieu of Fort Greene Park almost unencumbered. There’s truthfulness to Lee’s vision, partly born from mashing both guerilla and documentary styles — seen through his use of his brother’s photography of a vibrant Brooklyn and his now-ubiquitous fourth-wall-breaking monologues.
But because of She’s Gotta Have It’s low-budget style, no film in Lee’s oeuvre feels more personal. It’s a family affair, from his father Bill Lee acting in the role of Nola’s dad (and providing the film’s eloquent, swooning jazz score) to his sister Joie Lee’s cameo, and his brother’s aforementioned gorgeously shot photography.
There’s a whimsical aura to She’s Gotta Have It. Initially opening in black and white, the film switches to color halfway through, as an homage to The Wizard of Oz. The color sequence, shot beautifully by cinematographer and longtime Lee collaborator Ernest Dickerson, pays tribute to the director’s passion for MGM musicals — imbued with wide shots oozing with negative and positive space during the dramedy’s ebullient dance sequence.
After She’s Gotta Have It, Lee would ultimately transition into harder-edged — or as his critics would demur, militant — pieces: School Daze and Do The Right Thing, culminating in Malcolm X. Each successive project progressively weaned away Lee’s sense of levity, which he would not rediscover until Bamboozled. (And even that seminal work has clear political and historical baggage affixed to its dancing feet.)
Instead, She’s Gotta Have It stands singularly as a product of Lee’s euphoria: the joy of creating with family, the us-against-the-world mantra that comes with creating on the smallest of budgets (which bonds a cinematic team together), the reliance on the joyful MGM musical form, and the pure excitement of a fresh vision taking its first breaths in a waiting world.
As a formation of a new voice hitting across the spectrum of sound and the cinematic, She’s Gotta Have It is still plainly urgent and singular, even if the story creaks under the dust of Lee’s still-formative understanding of gender. Nevertheless, Lee’s film is his first fulfillment of all the Black creatives who preceded him, and the light for all those who came after him. And even today, when films like Green Book can dominate the landscape (ironically winning Best Picture the same night the director won for Best Adapted Screenplay), we must admit: We’re still not ready for Spike Lee.