I’ve always wanted to see Spike Lee’s first feature film, the ambitiously independent effort She’s Gotta Have It. Released in 1986, I would be born the next year, but in the years that followed as his filmography grew, the first film I saw of Lee’s was Crooklyn. It had all the right ingredients to be a personal favorite of mine. It took place in the early 1970s (I was already obsessed with The Brady Bunch, which I watched re-runs of on Nick at Nite and TNT), the location was Brooklyn, New York (which I was familiar with from regular visits during the summer and Christmastime), and the protagonist was Troy, the second youngest and only girl of the Carmichael family. Though I was younger than Troy, I related to the 9-year old character Lee had created. It was highly exciting to see someone that resembled and just felt like me on the big screen. The film was also part-tribute to the Black pride movement of the era and the humor was delivered as stomach-aching real, considering the conflicts and worries that arose and were generally based on the dynamics of close family unit.
As years went on and during the decade of which the quarter-life crisis would occur, as an adult, I still wanted to see his first feature. I almost felt it imperative to my growth. I read up on it every now and then when I remembered and so I knew it explored the idyllic notions of dating and in obtaining a regular sex life as a single woman in a cosmopolitan city. Nola is the focus in She’s Gotta Have It. She’s an attractive, sassy, black woman, who actively plays the field the way any man would and in particular has three suitors vying for her body and attention. I knew that much, but still, I hadn’t seen the film in its entirety. Dang.
What piqued my curiosity once again was a regular visit to Jezebel.com that posted a news brief about how Lee regretted including a rape scene in the film. A rape scene? I never knew of no rape scene. That was news to me. I’ve always heard so much about the film but never that. I was shaken and stirred up about it. This factor of the movie was revealed to me through an interview Lee had done. On top of discussing his collaboration with the movie network Showtime in developing She’s Gotta Have It into a series, one of the questioned proposed was if he had any professional regrets. The brief rape scene towards the end of She’s Gotta Have It was singled out.
It made light of rape, and that’s the one thing I would take back. I was immature and I hate that I did not view rape as the vile act that it is. I can promise you, there will be nothing like that in She’s Gotta Have It, the TV show, that’s for sure.
Interesting. Of course Jezebel accused Lee of delayed maturity, but I appreciated his response. It seemed very honest and gentile, a combination we don’t see very often from this combative filmmaker. With so much talk of the horrendous label of “rape culture” such a commonplace term in today’s news of women’s rights and its progression, I had no idea, and I definitely, had to see the film now. I had viewed Clockers, She Hate Me, He Got Game, Bamboozled, to name a few, but ain’t none of them showed overt sexual assault. What was sought was found, and finally I watched She’s Gotta Have It.
The title itself embodies the dream life of any girl in their twenties which is wanting to have it all but that not necessarily meaning a picket fence and babies. It means having a job you don’t hate. Good friends. Choices on choices, and nothing’s more validating than having the pickings of men to choose from, which Nola displays in spades. When a man is at your mercy at the age of 23, 25, even 26 years old, a young woman often abuses this power of being the chosen one in their eyes and mind. In She’s Gotta Have It, Nola is honest with her revolving door of three guys (including Lee’s iconic 80s/90s character Mars Blackmon). Though sympathetic to their pleas to be monogamous, they sell her dreams of what could be and she kindly listens and smiles and continues to do what she wants. I watched this film after having had a first love, a carnal fling, my first real, yet volatile, relationship, and a literal handful of boys declaring their crushd out thoughts of me out of the blue. Have I been Nola before? Hmmmm, nooooo….yesssss…but I got the game she was playing. Watching She’s Gotta Have It, it was kind of like looking back at the mirror and trying to break and piece together how is it you got to where you are in the first place.
While watching the movie I kept in mind that once again that occasional moon of a man challenges himself to imagine to the fullest extent how it must feel to experience joy and heartbreak as a woman in his art. I’ve always thought this to be nearly extraordinary, like when listening tracks written by Babyface for female artists, cue the Mary J. Blige classic “Not Gon’ Cry”. Even as a little girl, I knew he was treading on tricky territory. Writing from the perspective of a woman scorned, hurt, and temporarily defeated, how could a man possibly understand? Aren’t you the culprit! That joke aside, it’s always impressive, which was also said of the novel She’s Come Undone. It’s like, how as men did they know all of our secrets and dreams? I felt that way a bit in listening to the dialogue of Lee’s script, though decidedly less enraged and ripened than the “I Will Survive” motif of Babyface’s lyrics. What She’s Gotta Have It does expose is the amusing dichotomy of while being in your twenties you may be doing grown-up things like having sex, but you still likely have so much to learn about love and life and how to handle it all with some grace. In the film, you see scenes of childish bickering and coquettish manipulation, followed by genuine confusion as to why things aren’t going as planned and hoped.
Now the rape scene at hand that brought the film back on my radar? Yeah, it’s there towards the end of the film and while a short scene, it’s uncomfortable and more so on the awkward side for lack of a better word. It’s a bit clumsily executed but that may had been a bit of the point. The male she’s violated by is someone she’s already been intimate with and it’s as if the man uses this advantage in knowing Nola may not necessarily fight him, topped by her “guilt” of being a one-man kind of girl. The brief scene is real in how it escalates, and then there’s that one line that really makes you cringe because it’s one of those phrases that edge on being reversible depending on the emotional climate. To be real, I kind of just hated the movie for including it once the character walked out the door. Even as Nola and the degenerate acknowledge what happened, Nola somehow finds it in herself to kiss him goodbye on the cheek as she has said goodbye to all her potential suitors and chooses to reevaluate her life. That clip was almost more disturbing than the assault because why as women do we still find it in ourselves to be the bigger person? Ugh. As Jezebel.com added, one review from 1987, though lightly sympathetic, treated Nola as if she should’ve known better. If anything, the film uses a character you wouldn’t think of participating in something so repulsive in the first place as shock value, even if he exposed controlling tendencies in earlier scenes.
She’s Gotta Have It came nine years after the dark Looking for Mr. Goodbar that starred Diane Keaton in 1977. Her character, Theresa Dunn, went through a similar story, as she was a teacher by day and a gallivanting about town woman with no cares in the world about who she slept with and just looking for adventure at night. It was based on the real-life demise of New York City teacher Roseann Quinn as Nola’s fate was at least given a chance to start anew. Both films are kind of like cautionary tales for women and their sex lives.
Much of Lee’s film wasn’t news to my ears and nothing I didn’t know before about dating in your 20s. It reaffirmed that relationships are not at all easy to come by (duh), matched by feelings of general apprehension of not really knowing who you’re with. It’s a challenge. If you want to yes to someone, the game is making you say “you can wait” but how long is anyone willing to wait for they want right now?
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