Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 30, 2008)
When I realized that this 2008 DVD of Spike Lee’s 1986 debut She’s Gotta Have It marked the film’s debut in the format, I felt shocked. How was it possible that such a well-regarded and important flick never hit DVD? I don’t know, but now that it’s here, I can revisit Gotta for the first time in decades.
The film focuses on single girl about town Nola Darling (Tracy Camila Johns). She has no trouble meeting men; her problem comes from deciding which guy is the one for her. Three suitors compete for Nola’s heart. There’s Jamie Overstreet (Redmond Hicks), a nice, romantic guy with some jealousy problems, and there’s also Greer Childs (John Terrell), a suave model who might be a little too stuck on himself for his own good. As the dark horses, we find pint-sized, motor-mouthed bicycle messenger Mars Blackmon (Lee) and lesbian Opal Gilstrap (Raye Dowell). Nola claims she doesn’t go that way, but Opal holds out hope she can open up her Sapphic side. The movie follows Nola’s quest for love – or at least her attempts to settle on one partner for the time being.
Spike Lee burst on the scene with enormous energy when he created Gotta. Indeed, the film’s influence and success opened doors for many filmmakers to come. Black directors were a rarity 20 plus years ago, whereas now it’s not nearly as unusual or as big a deal. It’s not dissimilar to black quarterbacks in the NFL; while Doug Williams received a lot of fuss in the 1988 Super Bowl, now no one says a word when a non-white QB does well.
Impact and importance aside, does Gotta still work as a film? To be honest, not really. As I mentioned earlier, I’d not seen Gotta in years, and I think I’d taken in almost every other Lee flick in the interim. Lee’s work has serious ups and downs, but I must admit I prefer most of the others to what I saw here.
Gotta clearly represents a first rough draft of a filmmaker in training. Lee would reach maturity as a director with 1989’s Do the Right Thing, but even the flawed follow-up School Daze worked better than the amateurish Gotta. Daze was a mess of half-baked ideas, but it had its moments, and at least it featured a much more polished tone.
Rough-hewn isn’t necessarily bad, but in the case of Gotta, the results seem too unfinished to make it work. This is especially apparent during the first half, which doesn’t really click. Matters improve as the film proceeds, especially when Nola actually introduces all of her male suitors to each other. The Thanksgiving sequence offers a hint of how good the flick could’ve been if it’d been more fully realized. While it still has its ups and downs, that dinner party scene shows real sparks and promise.
Too much of the remainder of the film never really goes anywhere, and the generally amateurish feel mars it. Actually, much of the flick seems reasonably professional, as I can’t fault the music, camerawork or the like. It’s the acting that lets down the material, especially in terms of Johns. From minute one, she feels stiff and artificial, as she can’t deliver lines, attitude or anything else with an ounce of believability.
Frankly, I can’t figure out why Johns got the role. She can’t act, and I don’t think she’s nearly hot enough to be the object of such desire. Even if we exclude her mini-Bride of Frankenstein hairstyle, she looks too much like Barry Bonds for me to find her even vaguely attractive. Contrast that with the much lovelier Dowell as Nola’s gay friend and Johns seems even less appealing. Shouldn’t a movie about a really hot woman feature an actual really hot woman?
Most of the other actors do better than Johns but not by a lot. Even Lee’s goofy Mars only occasionally hits home with his work; a lot of the time he feels just as forced and uncomfortable as the others. Redmond provides arguably the only good performance among the main characters, as he manages to come across as notably more real and believable than the others.
Like most Lee films, too much of Gotta feels like it exists for no apparent reason other than the director’s fancy. Why do we take off for a brief color interlude with a dance sequence? I don’t know – maybe Lee wanted to use that scene as a calling card for future work.
Of course, Lee always wears his politics on his sleeve, and that extends even to seemingly innocuous segments like the early lovemaking scene. That piece goes on forever and appears to come along solely to make a statement that Black People Can Make Beautiful Love! I get the impression Lee wanted to make up for all the negative depictions of blacks in films, and some parts of Gotta strike me as nothing more than attempts to right wrongs.
I wouldn’t call She’s Gotta Have It a bad flick, as it does show glimmers of talent and possibilities. Too much of it simply lacks much depth or naturalism. If viewed as a student film or a “work in progress”, it’s a “B+” that demonstrates promise. As an actual final product, it’s too up and down to be a success.
Credits footnote: viewers may get confused about the identity of the actor who plays Jamie. The opening credits call him “Redmon Hicks” while the closing text refers to him as “Redmond Hicks”. At the film’s end, we also see a montage where the actors tell us their names, and there he calls himself “Tommy R. Hicks”. I went with “Redmond” but I guess any of the three works.