Spike Lee has proved himself to be one of the greatest New York filmmakers of his generation, excelling in style, substance, and storytelling. His films approached the intricacies of prejudice, relationships, cultural influence, and the racial structure of America, and did so in a very up-front manner that was heavily stylised, yet entirely life-like. This series brings to light some of the works he directed (and wrote and produced and starred in) in his prolific career, each of which was billed as: A Spike Lee Joint.
Not all great directors can be like Orson Welles and kick off their career with a stunning debut. Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola, Lars von Trier, and James Cameron weren’t able to, and Spike Lee’s breakthrough debut shows a wide disparity in style, entertainment, dialogue prowess, and character likeability than in his later films. She’s Gotta Have It, which centres on Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns) and her three boyfriends as they compete with each other for her affection, is a flat-out annoying, aggravating, and often boring “romantic” “comedy”, which feels twice as long as its not-merciful-enough 88 minute run-time.
The problem indeed stems from Nola, who comes across as smug, entitled, self-centred, and as someone who has more brains between her legs than her ears. This film agonises over her promiscuousness and the array of non-problems that come with it, but the film has hardly any care for these male characters, as all of the film’s sympathies are put on Nola.
She’s Gotta Have It is trying to posit a case for polyamory, which is a hard sell, as only the small minority of any given society has benefited from polyamorous relationships. To the film’s credit, this is a rarely discussed matter in film, ergo one worth exploring. But the film fails hard, as such a subject matter would need to be delicately scrutinised, unpacked, and presented if a film wished to present its virtues and possible utility. She’s Gotta Have It seems to do the opposite, making polyamory seem like a conflicted mess that pits those in the relationship against each other.
The entire film is made up from the perspective of this unchanging character, with no room for taking viewpoints from who may’ve been more interesting characters. Lee tackled similarly strained multiple relationships with the far superior Jungle Fever just five years later, when he had finally cemented his confident filming style and compelling, yet sympathetic characters. I’m sure we’ll get back to the regular Lee goodiness in later instalments of this series.