Movie: 'She's Gotta Have It'
Release Date: August 8, 1986
How It Got Made: It's hard to remember now how thoroughly white American cinema was 25 years ago. There were no black directors or screenwriters and few black stars. The few movies that were about black people were about racial struggle or crime, though the mini-wave of black filmmaking that marked the pulpy crime dramas of the blaxploitation era of the early '70s was now a distant memory. What's more, the independent film scene that might have nurtured new talents who would have changed the situation didn't exist yet.
And then, along came Spike Lee, whose debut feature launched not only a renaissance in black filmmaking but also begat the indie film scene that welcomed talented filmmakers of all races. Plus, the crossover success of 'She's Gotta Have It' was the first sign that non-black viewers were interested in movies about black characters that weren't about race as a problem - opening up American film to a pool of black acting talent who could play the same well-rounded, fully-fleshed, starring roles that white actors did.
In 1985, Lee was a recent graduate of the film school at New York University who had earned notice beyond the campus with his thesis film, 'Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads.' Inspired in part by the recent success of fellow New Yorker Jim Jarmusch's black-and-white indie hit 'Stranger Than Paradise,' the 28-year-old Lee managed to raise a $175,000 budget to shoot 'She's Gotta Have It.'
Lee cast the film with unknowns. Tracy Camilla Johns starred as Nola Darling, a Brooklyn woman who is juggling three lovers: dependable but dull Jamie Overstreet, handsome and vain Greer Childs, and goofy and energetic Mars Blackmon. As the suitors who resent having to share Nola, Lee cast Tommy Redmond Hicks as Jamie, John Canada Terrell as Greer, and himself as Mars.
The movie was a family affair; it included a role for Spike's sister, Joie, while the chamber-jazz score was composed by his father, Bill. Lee's film school classmate Ernest Dickerson did the elegant black-and-white cinematography.
Lee shot the film in just 12 days during the summer of 1985. Independent producer's rep John Pierson, who wrote Lee a $10,000 check to help him complete the film, shopped it around to distributors and festivals. He landed the film a deal with Island Pictures (one of the pre-eminent indie film distributors in those days, before the rise of Miramax) and premiered it at the 1986 San Francisco Film Festival. During the screening, the power went out. Lee and Hicks, armed with flashlights, persuaded the crowd to remain until the projector came back on.
How It Was Received: 'She's Gotta Have It' did very well for an indie movie in 1986, earning $7.1 million at the box office. Critics hailed Lee as a welcome new voice in movies. They did tend to compare him to Woody Allen -- both were from Brooklyn, both had unmistakably New York sensibilities, both had a fondness for black-and-white photography and old-school jazz, both created witty romantic comedies and both starred in their own movies as nerdy, bespectacled, sexually frustrated romantic leads.
(It became clear, of course, after Lee's next couple of movies, 'School Daze' and 'Do the Right Thing,' that he was nothing like Woody Allen but was entirely his own artist, with a recognizable visual style and a personal, highly political set of thematic concerns. Still, Lee and Allen eventually became friends, bonding over their shared love of the New York Knicks.)
Long-Term Impact: The film had a wide-ranging and long-lasting ripple effect, starting in Brooklyn, which Dickerson's camera had made look like a sophisticated hangout for casual bohemians and yuppies -- which, indeed, is what it became in the years that followed. The movie launched several careers, notably, Lee's and Dickerson's. Among the actors, Johns would go on to roles in Lee's 'Mo' Better Blues' and Mario Van Peebles' 'New Jack City.' Hicks and Terrell would both appear in Robert Townsend's 'The Five Heartbeats,' among other films and TV shows. Joie Lee would appear in several of her brother's films and wrote his movie 'Crooklyn,' a roman a clef about their childhood. The small role of Dr. Jamison was the first credit for S. Epatha Merkerson, who would go on to star on TV's 'Law & Order' for 17 years.
Executives at Nike were so taken with the Mars Blackmon character that they incorporated him into ads for Air Jordans. The series of sneaker spots was tremendously popular, making Lee and Mars familiar among countless TV viewers who had never seen 'She's Gotta Have It.' It also launched a successful side business for Lee as a commercial director and advertising guru.
Another career essentially launched by the movie was Pierson's. His success in making a hit out of an unknown director's first film made him a much sought-after producer's rep over the next decade, which would see him play a similar mentor role in shepherding the careers of such rookie filmmakers as Michael Moore, Richard Linklater, and Kevin Smith. Years later, Pierson would call Lee "my hero," adding, "My life changed when his life changed."
Along with Jarmusch, Lee and Pierson had proved that independent movies could enjoy real box office success and cultural impact. Their work inspired other filmmakers and distributors, giving rise to the phenomena of the Sundance Film Festival and Miramax that would be the twin engines of the indie film boom for the rest of the century.
Most profoundly, Lee had shown that a black filmmaker could make a film about black people that didn't rely on stereotypes or address the issue of being black in America - it was just about everyday people living everyday lives - and get audiences of all colors to watch. Within a couple years, black talent proliferated behind the camera, as Lee's example inspired such directors as Robert Townsend, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Mario Van Peebles, Julie Dash, Matty Rich, Reginald and Warrington Hudlin, Allen and Albert Hughes, and John Singleton. And black faces in front of the camera, too - Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Laurence Fishburne, and such Lee discoveries as Samuel L. Jackson, Wesley Snipes and Halle Berry.
It's still been a tough road for African-Americans in film. There still aren't many black people behind the camera, either in the director's chair or the executive suite. And black performers (aside from Smith and Washington) still continue to have a hard time finding non-stereotypical roles. (Witness the current handwringing over Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer having to play maids in 'The Help,' a situation that would hardly raise an eyebrow if there were more quality roles for black actresses of their caliber.) Still, the movies have come a long way since the pre-Lee '80s, when there were no black directors or screenwriters and exactly two black lead performers (Eddie Murphy and Whoopi Goldberg).
How It Plays Today: Given how increasingly political, even strident Lee's later films became, the gentle 'She's Gotta Have It' almost seems like the work of a different filmmaker. That said, the film holds up very well. Its black-and-white photography and jazz score help give it a timeless feel. And the sexually liberated Nola is just as radical and provocative a heroine today as she was in 1986.
"There's a whole generation of grown black people that have seen 'She's Gotta Have It,'" said John Canada Terrell in a 2007 interview, noting that he still gets recognized on the street as Greer Childs. "It's amazing that a film could have that kind of sense memory in a people." Of Lee, Terrell said, "He opened a lot of doors. He should get some accolades and some love." He added that 'She's Gotta Have It' "was the beginning of the next renaissance in black filmmaking. I'm proud to have been a part of that. Everything else came from that."
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.