In the first three minutes of She's Gotta Have It, writer-director-star Spike Lee offers up a Zora Neale Hurston quote, a plaintive jazz score by his father Bill, artful photos of New York street life by his brother David, and sumptuous black-and-white footage of bridges and brownstones, shot by cinematographer Ernest Dickerson. In 1986, few American independent films looked and sounded as distinctive as She's Gotta Have It, and Lee upped the ante further by seeming to promote a theretofore-unrecognized new Harlem Renaissance. From the jump, She's Gotta Have It announced that it wasn't going to define black life in terms of crime and poverty, just as it wasn't going to bind independent filmmaking to moribund realism.
Nevertheless, a lot about She's Gotta Have It was iffy then and is iffy now, starting with the premise. Tracy Camilla Johns plays a promiscuous young commercial artist juggling three boyfriends: genteel professional Tommy Redmond Hicks, preening model John Canada Terrell, and Lee, a livewire bike messenger. (Johns also has a predatory lesbian friend… best forgotten.) The movie tries to compensate for its lack of story by promising a frank look at female sexuality, but the title tells the tale: When it comes to its central idea, She's Gotta Have It is more leering than revelatory.
Luckily, Lee has more on his mind than just making some nebulous points about gender relations. She's Gotta Have It is a calling-card film in the best sense of the term, in that it doesn't just show what Lee can do, but what anyone can do. In spite of his small budget, Lee shoots a musical number in vivid color, and works in a poetry reading, a comic montage of lame male pickup lines, and even a sex scene that looks like something out of Stanley Kubrick's 2001. The movie aches with possibility, and the real shame isn't that the film's plot isn't as good as its style, but that independent filmmakers—and black filmmakers in particular—have largely failed to follow Lee's lead.
Key features: None, which is a travesty. Is it too late for Criterion or Milestone to take over this project?