She’s Gotta Have It (1986)

shesgottahaveit

Directed by Spike Lee

The She in She’s Gotta Have It is Nola Darling.  These the object of desire for three men: Jamie, Mars and Greer.  Nola dates all three at once, insistent that she can’t or won’t settle for just one of them.  She is upfront with her decision, and all three men know about the other two.  Nola isn’t normal, and she’s not a freak.  In fact, she hates both of those words.

Plot-wise there isn’t much to say about this film because nothing really happens.  I realized that by the end of the film we don’t even know all that much about Nola.  She’s still a mystery to us and certainly a mystery to the three love interests in her life.  This is because the entire story, until the very end, is told through the eyes of the men in her life (as well as a friend, doctor, father, etc.).

In short vignettes, these characters talk to the audience (camera), discussing what’s going on with Nola.  They’re all very different characters that speak to a different aspect of Nola’s personality, but none of them consider that (well, Greer has a bit of a transformation later in the film).  They just think they know everything about her, but they only know what they see.

Nola is a free spirit, to use an over-used term,  but when the three men get tired of being strung along, she tries to settle for just one of them, Jamie.  Jamie is the only person to have rejected Nola, when he had enough of her, having been through hell and back because of his possessiveness.  Nola breaks up with the other two men and chooses Jamie. She then talks to the audience, for the first time, and says it didn’t work out with Jamie, but she’s very clearly not concerned.  She is happy with herself, her body and her choices, and she doesn’t really care what people think.  It’s very liberating, and this is basically who she was when the story began, but she simply proves that she knows how to be alone.

So everyone thinks something is wrong with Nola.  Greer even tries to get her to go to a doctor to address her possible sex addiction.  Nola goes to a session but decides it’s not for her.

The entire film just shows a bunch of people talking about her freely, like they know everything about her.  They treat her as a very simple entity, diagnosing her problems like a car that won’t run: “it’s the radiator belt, that’s what it is.”  But there is more going on with Nola than they know.  She’s just an ordinary person with some questions about her lifestyle, but she doesn’t seem to have a problem with it until the three men force her to make some changes.

I mean, the whole story is really just about objectification.  The three guys are all somewhat redeemable, but they’re mostly irritating to listen too.  Jamie’s possessiveness is troubling, and Greer’s vanity is similarly off-putting.  Mars is probably the most likable character, but even he brushes Nola off quickly, using her to fill a need rather than appreciating her on even the most basic level.  He treats her like a mother in some ways, asking to move into her spacious studio apartment, having her fix his hair, etc.

Greer only likes her physically, even remarking that he’ll dump her if she gets fat, and Jamie just wants a wife, expecting her to fit into his predetermined mold.  So the men in this story have agendas, and they force them upon her.

Rather than simply forcing back against these constructed images of her, Nola tries to reform them similar to how they try to reform her.  She hosts a Thanksgiving dinner and invites all three men, hoping they can get along.  Of course they do not get along, but Mars and Jamie seem to have some sort of begrudging friendship later in the film.

I’m still trying to think of what I know about Nola.  She’s an artist, and she is curious about making love with another woman.  She has questions, and she’s testing her hypotheses on the world.  The men take a stance before any sort of experiment, thinking they know what they want in life, but Nola is still trying to figure herself out.  It’s not that she’s behind the men in this regard.  They most likely don’t know themselves as well as they believe.  They should ask the same questions that Nola asks, but they don’t.

The film is about objectification and the way these men intrude on Nola’s life, despite her inviting them in.  The film begins with an extensive sex scene between Nola and Jamie, one that’s usually not shown in such a carefully intimate manner unless it occurs between two characters we know and love, usually much later in a film.  This kicks off the film, and the whole story is a very sexual one.  Nola communicates through sex.  When I picture her in this story, I picture her in her large bed, underneath a series of candles, like a renaissance painting.  Her bed is often (particularly in the first sex scene) lit like it’s on display in an otherwise dark art gallery.  These moments of physical passion are performances in some ways, particularly on the part of the men as the audience gets to compare and contrast the way Nola interacts with the three guys in bed.  Jamie brings up her sex life with the other two guys, and Mars even asks how he compares to them.

So despite their objectification of her, Nola is always in control, as if she’s constantly holding auditions for these guys, making them earn their keep.

The most dramatic moment of the usually light-hearted film is when Nola calls Jamie over to her place late at night.  He’s already fed up with her behavior, but he comes over anyway, and then he rapes her.  It’s a quick and brutal scene that seems to come out of nowhere.  Jamie takes the act that is Nola’s most sacred, love making, and it makes it horrible.

So when Nola decides soon after to be with just Jamie, it’s a bit of a surprise.  They get together, but just as quickly she tells us it didn’t last.  Nola is the master of her domain.

There are a lot of similarities between this film and Cleo From 5 to 7 in terms of the way a women is treated by the men around her.  In both cases they are looked upon and reduced to something simple, whether it’s how they look or one specific part of their personality.  The guys take one small aspect of Cleo and Nola and magnify it to represent who she is completely.

This film constantly breaks the fourth wall with the vignettes of each person talking to the camera about Nola.  These “breaks” feel customary to independent films.  There’s even a song and dance scene filmed in color, which Jamie organized for Nola’s birthday.  It’s largely a summation of her character, from what I remember, but I can’t recall all the specifics of what the song was about.  What I do remember is that it seemed to address Nola directly as well as any man she may be dating, essentially telling him to be careful and to watch out for himself.

So Nola is presented as foreign and outside the norm.  It’s a character outside the heteronormative standard.  She’s trying to break free of the labels placed on her, and by the end she does.

 

I’m sure there’s something I’m missing about this film, something deep and profound, but I’ll keep thinking about it.  The film opens with still images of people in Brooklyn, again like the shots of the Parisians in Cleo From 5 to 7.  I’m not sure exactly what these photos mean other than simply existing as portraits of strangers.  I guess this entire film is one portrait of a woman, and when we leave the viewing, we wonder what we really know about her.  When you look at a portrait of someone, you can only know so much about them.  Whether it’s an expression, their clothing, their location, who they’re with or how they hold themselves, you still have to fill in the blanks.  Well, you don’t have to, but we do anyways.  I can think about a few people scattered through my life, and despite knowing logically that I only know a few things about them, I’ve filled in the rest of the picture with who I think they are.  Even people I’ve been close to in the past are definitely not the exact person I think they are.  So I suppose just don’t label people too quickly.

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