All this week, we’re celebrating the great movies that hit screens 30 years ago in 1986. Go here to read more.
Technically, the first film Spike Lee directed was his head-turning, $11,000 student effort, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads. But the movie most people consider to be the first official “Spike Lee Joint” is She’s Gotta Have It, his breakthrough, sex-laced comedy that will celebrate its 30th anniversary this August. She’s Gotta Have It established several Lee trademarks, and its biting satire and sociological pot-stirring laid the foundation for the filmmaker’s entire career, including classics like Do the Right Thing (1989), Malcolm X (1992), and The 25th Hour (2002).
Loosely formatted in a mockumentary style with testimonial inserts, the movie follows the sexploits of Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns), a magazine designer who has three suitors solidly under her spell. There’s the straight-edged Jamie Overstreet (Tommy Redmond Hicks), the haughty Greer Childs (John Canada Terrell), and the comic relief Mars Blackmon (Lee). There’s also a woman in the mix, Opal Gilstrap (Raye Dowell), who’s eager to lure Nola into bed.
Nola’s non-committal stance leads to accusations of sex addiction, one extremely contentious Thanksgiving dinner, and, eventually, a violent encounter.
At its core, She’s Gotta Have It is a film about female sexual liberation and empowerment, a theme Lee has explored a couple of times since, both successfully (last year’s excellent Chi-raq) and not so (2004’s She Hate Me). In She’s Gotta Have It, Lee examines the hypocrisy of how society views promiscuity by gender; since Nola has multiple lovers, she’s considered “a freak,” while the men are free to act as they choose. It’s a socially conscious movie with an eye toward the sensual: The film’s steamier scenes feel like precursors to that sizzling ice cube sequence between Lee and Rosie Perez in Do the Right Thing.
She’s Gotta Have It features other familiar tropes, including Lee’s loving depiction of his native borough, Brooklyn. The movie’s a feast of 1980s, pre-gentrified imagery, from Opal’s introduction on the steps of a brownstone to a lingering shot on the Brooklyn Heights promenade with the Twin Towers beaming in the background.
Lee, then a 29-year-old recent NYU film school grad, had enlisted his classmate Ernest Dickerson — who’d go on to direct 1992’s Juice and countless hit TV shows, including The Wire and The Walking Dead — to film the movie with starkly lit, black-and-white photography. It’s still gorgeous today and lends the movie a timeless vibe that at various points recalls late-1950s Paris in Godard’s Breathless.
The film is a family affair, with Spike’s sister Joie Lee making her acting debut as Nola’s ex-roommate, Clorinda Bradford. (Their brothers Cinqué and David also worked on the film’s crew.) Spike’s father Bill Lee composed the phenomenal jazz score and also briefly appears as Nola’s father Sonny. The elder Lee would go on to score three more Lee projects, culminating with 1990’s jazz-driven drama Mo’ Better Blues.
And then of course there’s Lee’s alter ego, the truth-bombing Mars Blackmon, who was introduced to the world in She’s Gotta Have It as he zips down a city street on a bike to the beats of Strafe’s “Set It Off.” Mars’s look — the huge glasses, the Brooklyn cycling cap, the nameplate chain — was singular. Also there are those iconic kicks, which would lead to a series of Nike commercials. When we talked to Lee for a Director’s Reel interview recently, he said the single smartest thing he did on the movie was fit Mars with Air Jordans. “Nike’s advertising agency saw She’s Gotta Have It and got the idea of putting the greatest of all time, Michael Jordan with my character, Mars Blackmon,” Lee told us.
Lee made plenty of smart moves in the making of She’s Gotta Have It, so whether or not that was the smartest is debatable. Future corporate kick-backs aside, Mars is only one of many rich elements that make the film a classic in its own right.