Monday, September 12, 2016

She's Gotta Have It (1986)

Black Narcissus

written and directed by Spike Lee
starring Tracy Camilla Johns, Tommy Redmond Hicks,
John Canada Terrell, Spike Lee

Spike Lee begins this, his feature debut, with a quote from Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, about men's unsentimental attachment to a reality that's bound to mock and disappoint while women lose themselves in daydream, in patently mush-brained expectations regarding life and love. And that's exactly the dichotomy he provides for us with his ostensible celebration of dusky womanhood au naturel that sees his breezily polyamorous, stability-shunning, black-Brooklyn bohemian hump-junkie Nola Darling — emblem of a wholly Great Society-enabled, post-Wimmin's Lib, ladies-of-the-Eighties, I-don't-see-no-ring-on-this-finger, future-single-black-mother sexual initiative — crowing to us that she can't be owned or tamed or made to conform to anyone's square-ass notions of what's normal, while the three suitors she's used and then discarded the moment they dared get too serious are left smarting from the new orthodoxy's high-heeled kicks to their optimism regarding women and their hopes for black-love togetherness.

What no one at the time gleaned from this charmingly clunky bellwether of the Eighties indie-film renaissance was how accurately it recorded the Left's dissolution of black relationships (and, thus, the black community) via the acid of "sexual freedom"; in its pop-cultural status as generally unheeded alarm bell, She's Gotta Have It is comparable to Eddie Murphy's riffs on modern women in Raw, to any number of the day's materialist-single-girl Soul Train anthems ("What Have You Done for Me Lately," "Ain't Nothing Going on But the Rent"), to countless concurrent rap verses indicting gold-digging, alpha thug-chasing "skeezers" and "hoes." It's an understandable oversight, given the film's disarmingly modest aims, its shot-in-16mm-black-and-white-for-peanuts ambience, its talky, Manhattan-esque pivoting on the romantic tribulations of middle-class black New Yorkers just as cozy and charming in their own way as those gosh-darn Huxtables on The Cosby Show. Indeed, promoted as "A Seriously Sexy Comedy," while its writer-producer-director-star was pushed onto the culture-section-of-The-New-Yorker crowd as a sort of sepia Woody Allen, She's Gotta Have It comes off rather like a film student's senior thesis project with its goofball character names (though they're not as ridiculous here as they'd get in later Lee "joints"), with its clumsy appropriation of Nouvelle Vague tics like jump cuts, title cards, musical sequences out of nowhere and characters explaining themselves to the camera, with the varying levels of cue card-reading competence and community-drama-class amateurishness of its cast. (Go figure: Lee himself, as the hyperkinetic B-boy nerd Mars Blackmon, is among the least awkward.)

Even its creator seemed to misread what he was putting onscreen. In Spike Lee's Gotta Have It: Inside Guerrilla Filmmaking, the making-of book released as a companion to the film, Lee considered She's Gotta Have It a riposte to men's supposed hypocrisy regarding promiscuity. "[Men] are encouraged to have and enjoy sex, while it's not so for women," the auteur mused. "If they do what men do they're labeled whore, prostitute, nympho, etc. Why this double standard?" Lee may have set out — or, so he claimed — to explore black female sexuality as force of nature, to salute his heroine's love canal as the Underground Railroad bringing her Kneegrow Spirit to its aesthetic liberation: beholden to no one's rigid parameters, unchained and unchainable. But filmmaking, as it springs from and calls so readily upon the artist's subconscious, reveals true intent, outs hidden fears. Far from any kind of cinematic sistas-are-doin'-it-for-themselves block party, what we get, from Lee's characterizations, from his specific directing choices, from telltale elisions and juxtapositions within the narrative, is Nola Darling the defiant slattern with "no devotion, allegiance or loyalty whatsoever" (as one of her beaus will put it), a future carrier of black children whose ability to maintain bonds past the initial rush of next week's infatuation is as fuck-numbed as her gluttonous and perenially palpitating fudge cooter.

In her scolding She's Gotta Have It essay, "'whose pussy is this': a feminist comment," Bell Hooks — oh, excuse me: bell hooks, "noted author" on the "intersectionality" of race, gender and capitalism, as noxiously self-important a non-capitalizing "cultural critic" and proud black dissolution-by-acid advocate as the unholy union of feminist navel-gazing and post-Civil Rights race-baiting could hope to shit out — bitterly noted that
Overall, it is the men who speak in She's Gotta Have It. While Nola appears one-dimensional in perspective and focus, seemingly more concerned about her sexual relationships than about any other aspect of her life, the male characters are multidimensional. They have personalities. Nola has no personality. She is shallow, vacuous, empty. Her one claim to fame is that she likes to fuck.
For once, the womyn's-choice brigade got it right. Before we even see Nola's face, we register her as a lump stirring under a mass of sheets on what Lee's script refers to as her "loving bed" (a "whoring bed" to match that of her kindred spirit, Joe, in Lars von Trier's two-part Nymphomaniac epic). She appears to us as if connected primordially to that bed, to whatever mystical, life-giving powers are contained inside that well-ridden old war horse of a mattress. Lee encases her total essence within about a minute's worth of montage in her first sex scene with beta nice guy Jamie: Jamie reduced to shadow entity in cinematographer Ernest Dickerson's velvet chiaroscuro, tending to his queen's body like a grateful serf; Nola, eyes closed on her horizontal throne of reception, as she fortifies her pretense to surrender with a naughty-little-girl grin; Nola and her near-triangular Jack-Nance-in-Eraserhead/Larry-Blackmon-from-Cameo 'fro profiled in isolation as she tilts her head back and succumbs to self-worship, her utter possession by Eros. Later, Lee treats himself to one of cinema's greatest tit shots: Nola's naked brat-feeders in close-up as two insurmountable chocolate mountains — pyramidic monuments constructed by some ancient race in tribute to the indomitable no-man's-land of distaff sexual will. Mars' face lowers itself into frame — a monastically concentrating god from above or perhaps an overpowering alien force — as he claims her left nipple in the PG-13 decade's most dedicated homage to giant silver-dollar-pancake areolae seen in a non-European, non-XXX-rated production.

When she opens her mouth to hit us with the aforementioned I-can't-be-defined-by-society babble, we'd rather she didn't: it sounds like every steaming pile of a defensive whore's rehearsed self-justifications you've ever rolled your eyes to. She has no original thoughts, no real identity beyond walking female id — Players Magazine centerfold given life by the devious Dr. Frankenstein (emphasis on the -stein) of cult-Marx sexual politics. But this isn't due to limitations within Lee's conception of women, as the knitting circle inveighing against the film charged; the film's tunnel-vision is Nola's tunnel-vision. Lee's sketched the full spectrum of the "liberated," sex-obsessed modern woman's tonal palette without sweetening — from dim to dimmest. (No wonder he shot this in black and white.) Despite Nola's harebrained, Bechdel-test delusions of existing in some mythical sphere free from male influence, men absolutely define her, as they define all women; it's "Her Life, Her Choice" as the menstrual-art-and-Birkenstocks set would remind us, and her choice is to exist solely as a receptacle for her trio of blackamours — for their fantasies, for their projections of what they want her to be, for their regular injections of man-milk.

If it's true that, as hooks asserts, there is no "pure penis" in the film, i.e. no male characters as self-engrossed and as carnally-fixated as Nola, it's because a man can't exist solely as physical extension of his libido; as sperm is a plentiful and comparatively inexhaustible commodity in relation to a woman's precious eggs, society places absolutely zero value on swinging dicks for swinging dicks' sake. (Camille Paglia: "A woman simply is, but a man must become.") It's the way of the world that estrogen-blinkered ideologues and oppression-of-the-vagina fantasists refuse to understand: a female's worth is internal, it's based on her God-given (and eminently finite) fertility whereas a man's worth must be proven; it has to manifest itself to the world, via his having worked to develop an intriguing aura (Mars' joke-laden super-confidence), via his display of ability as provider/protector (Jamie as Mr. Dependability), via his honing of some skill or talent that might lead to financial reward or personal accomplishment (the preening cover model Greer).

Yet, the men of She's Gotta Have It aren't quite three-dimensional — they merely appear so in contrast with Nola. They're nifty screenwriter's shorthand, a nod to the film's Wizard of Oz reconfiguring; as the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow each sought to attain crucial characteristics of the Ideal Person, so the men in Nola's life each represent a single facet of her Ideal Boyfriend that they combine, Voltron-like, to provide for her. They sum themselves up for us with pithy statements of belief: there's Jamie the Romantic, proffering 'til-death-do-us-part with talk of soulmates; there's Greer the Physical Specimen, who pulls up in his convertible and tells us he was God's gift to Nola; there's Mars the Comic Relief, careening toward us on his bike over a primitive early hip-hop beat, condensed for us into a giggle-inducing jumble of Cazals eyewear, oversized Nikes, and tacky gold nameplate with matching belt buckle. Mars wastes no time informing us that "bonin'" is his chief motivation for seeing Nola and, true to his riotous intro, he's a hoot: entreating Nola over the phone to "just let me smell it" before hitting her with the film's oft-quoted "please, baby, please, baby, please, baby, baby, baby, please"; ridiculing a poem Jamie's written as if its writing-class earnestness were literally causing him pain; wearing Nola's panties on his head and calling himself a superhero named — what else? — Panty Man before leaping his scrawny frame across her bed in his spastically expressive, little kid's approximation of an African dance number.

Lee as Mars — both here and in his once-ubiquitous pop-icon ad blitz pushing Nikes alongside Michael Jordan — will undoubtedly surprise those working their way back to this from schadenfreude triggered by his post-Do the Right Thing career. Though his films, excepting Malcolm X and perhaps one or two others, have never fully lost their outlandish comic setpieces, their black-comedy-club banter and stop-and-smell-absurdity's-roses detours, Lee was given to sly-dog impishness here in a way we'd never truly see again. She's Gotta Have It is a snapshot of Lee the scrappy indie upstart before the weight of Important Black Filmmaker™ settled onto his shoulders. It's before all his publicity-seeking back-and-forths with celebrities, before his media self-caricature as the apparent inspiration for the "White Hating Coon" comic book in Kevin Smith's Chasing Amy. Here, his levity as the Pre-Asshole Spike Lee is yoked to the subtle emergence of Future Spike Lee in his dogged refusal to Do the Hollywood Thing and sugarcoat. Slackerdom aside, Mars is the film's only realist: he's got the only sane assessment of Nola right from the start ("All men want freaks, we just don't want 'em for a wife") and he's under no illusions about what the pipsqueaks on the wrong side of 6'1" have to do to compete with the chiseled Greers and husband-material Jamies. As chronically unemployed and as childishly needy as he is, Mars knows he'd better be a barrel of laughs in order to keep a spot in any woman's rotation. And when they stop laughing, he's out before they can say "leave" — the thrill is gone, the flame is extinguished, and his ephemeral, perpetually second-string value to women has expired once again. (Nola drops the bomb on him as she does the other two, but you feel he's the least affected by it — he knew he'd only get so far with her, anyway.)

We know Greer isn't the "one" for Nola. Lee may send him off on a note of introspection over having allowed Nola to use him, but he's written and acted so depthlessly that it comes off less as comic broadstrokes than it does Lee's filmic revenge on all the "fake Billy Dee [Williams]" types he'd ever glowered at from the sidelines — guys who effortlessly scooped up all those real-life Nolas who never had the time of day for a gangly four-eyes like himself. Greer obsesses to a proto-Patrick Bateman-ish degree over his workout regimen, he puts sex on hold so he can gingerly fold each item of clothing that he removes, and casually assures Nola that he's leaving her the second she gains weight. He also boasts a practiced, Bryant Gumbel/black-anchorman-trying-to-sound-white voice, he's given to rocking a most un-brotha-ly bowtie, and — quite conspicuously, given Lee's public lambasting of not-black-enough black celebs and offenses to Afrocentrism such as Whoopi Goldberg's blue-eyed contact lenses — he sports that most sinful of post-black consciousness hairstyles: a slicked-back, chemically straightened "process." When Nola gives him the boot, he huffs that he's off to find himself a white girl (naturally) and, during a Greer-Mars face-off over a Thanksgiving dinner that Nola's devilishly invited the three men to, Lee even implies that — quelle horreur! — Greer might be a Republican. Nola can hardly tolerate Greer in their scenes together: Lee's self-assurance, no doubt, that looks and unmitigated arrogance are all the pretty boys have to offer women.

So that leaves Jamie, whom Lee endorses with his most flamboyant Wizard of Oz curlicue: Jamie has Nola laughingly do the heel-clicking "there's no place like home" bit, then Lee cuts to a sequence of them in the park, watching a private performance wherein a pair of dancers acts out the ups and downs of their courtship as an interpretive recital. It's Jamie's birthday surprise for Nola — what should be the turning point in her recognition of him as her best bet for that family with "five rusty-butt boys" she's claimed to want — and Lee underlines it with a switch from black and white to hyper-saturated candy-color. Despite Lee's professed non-judgment of his heroine's sexual non-exclusivity, what he's suggesting is that, for this brief interlude, Nola leaves behind the drab monochrome Kansas of her boy toy-juggling modern-skank sex life for something much brighter and more fulfilling: a taste of monogamy and all the soul-bonding and permanence that it promises.

Of course, we know our Nola, and we know that Mr. Ebony Romance is essentially putting his late grandmother's fine crystal stemware in the hands of Michael J. Fox. Essayists in quarterly black-arts journals and white liberal virtue-signalers have held two specific elements of the film against Lee: his portrayal of Opal, Nola's lesbian friend who yearns for a taste of the Darling and whose every word pertains to her clam-clamoring (documentary truth for anyone who's spent .003 seconds around the real thing); and the climactic rough-sex tantrum in which Jamie, frustrated by Nola's commitment to nothing but toying with his affections, bends her over, shoves himself inside her over her protestation of "You're hurting me!" and, while rage-pumping her with all the this-is-what-you-cunts-want-this-is-what-you-cunts-get bile that wells up inside every lifelong gulper of the love-song Kool-Aid who's finally come to terms with woman's debased nature, he demands of her: "Whose pussy is this?!" It's the white flag that every man needs to see a woman wave before deepening his commitment to her; in its pornographic crudity and gut-level reinforcement of mating-dance realities, it's to our end-of-Rome, fornication-as-lingua-franca times what female chastity and deferring to one's husband as head of household were to our grandfathers'. Nola answers Jamie with an unequivocal "It's yours!"; brain matter painted theater screens across the West from all the feminist heads enacting tributes to David Cronenberg's Scanners in response.

Hectored to a nub by the privilege police who relish their Pravda-esque vise grip on the balls of the artists' community, Lee's since distanced himself from this scene; he now claims regret over what these p.c.-appointed arbiters of right-think have bullied him into viewing as its barbarian lack of sensitivity. His instincts were sound, however; as sound as Sam Peckinpah's in Straw Dogs when that great, sozzled maverick Nostradamused to us about how woman's innate genuflection at the altar of unvarnished male domination would come to work its ugly little head closer and closer to the surface of our body politic, the longer we tolerated the trespassers at our civilizational gates. (Not the only time in his career that Lee would call up echoes of Bloody Sam, but more on that in future entries.)

Her latent submissiveness batter-rammed into sudden prominence by Jamie's summoning of his inner will to the cock as biological Panzer Division, Nola begs his forgiveness as the newly conquered territory that she is: "It's you I always wanted," she purrs as he scans his newspaper with nary a twitch of the neck muscles to turn his head in her direction. His hard-ass façade crumbles, though, as she tempers her come-to-Jesus awakening with an announcement of her intent to go celibate for a spell — a stab at resetting her sexual response mechanism's odometer as close to zero as possible, no doubt, but also a sop to am-I-normal? insecurities played upon by Greer when he'd insisted that nice girls don't go around hoarding cocks as if their pussies were afraid of an impending man shortage. (She'd even seen a therapist over it — so much for rejecting male influence.) Jamie drips regret over his Wehrmacht invasion of her cervical Poland and, as she billows away from him in the first of Lee's trademark character-moving-on-dolly tracking shots — that special someone he'd rhapsodized over, bidding him farewell in the extended agony of slo-mo — he folds like a lawn chair. Mess up once more, he assures her with as much testosterone in his voice as he can muster, and it's over for good.

So then: Happily Ever After? Actual tidy conclusion to a Spike Lee Joint? Optimists are referred to the film's final scene, in which a smirking Nola dances the Makossa over Jamie's shattered expectations without bothering to pick the shards from her soles. The no-sex kick didn't last, she tells us; neither did her crawling back to Jamie the Joe Neckbone who couldn't keep the Iceberg Slim mask to his face without dropping it for fear of suffocation. She ridicules his longing for the wife-and-nuclear-family deal but Jamie's real crime is that he's failed her most crucial of emotional and psychological shit tests, thereby confirming to her his hopelessly marshmallow constitution. (Nola, upon meeting Jamie: "You look pretty safe.") In time, the Jamies of the world — sick of trying to mend fences with recalcitrant, unappreciative, increasingly bellicose Nubian queens — would simply follow Greer into the beds of white and other non-black women, for whom the combination of racial "otherness" fetish plus "diversity!" mandate from the gods of mass-media trendsetting would gradually make it acceptable to keep a black man in their lives as something other than the, ahem, dark secret in their sexual closets, stuffed in the back next to a Great Dane from that one night in college and their pervert uncle.

And Nola? For now, she retreats to her masturbatory existence, her world of one. In Red Hook Summer, his 2012 installment in the "Chronicles of Brooklyn" series that She's Gotta Have It kicked off, Lee resurrected his former avatar of sluttish contumacy as a Jehovah's Witness in the projects. (Recall Julie Christie as the madam in Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller: "When a good whore gets time to sit around and think, four out of five times she'll turn to religion...") Instead, Lee should have tossed a latter-day Nola in with Jungle Fever's sista-squad of ain't-no-good-black-men-left bemoaners: just a few years past her pyrrhic-victory gloating here, Nola will undoubtedly be wondering aloud where all the "good brothas" went — head-shaking and teeth-sucking in a living-room war council with her similarly embittered gal-pals over all the upwardly mobile black men with vanilla status symbols, while remaining willfully oblivious as to her own culpability in pushing them away; while ignoring that it was her choice, and hers alone, to man-juggle and fritter away what little sexual-market leverage she had in a world where the white woman as Holy Grail is an across-the-board fact of life, defining man's greatest desire from mud hut to penthouse, from New York to New Delhi.

But, hey — she had to have it.

©2016 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

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