Spoiler warning for major narrative plot points and ending, trigger warning for themes of sexual assault.
In Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It (1986), we follow the love life of powerful female protagonist Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns) and explore the relationship dynamics she has with her partners. She sees three men simultaneously: Greer Childs, (John Canada Terrell) Mars Blackmon (Spike Lee), and Jamie Overstreet (Tommy Redmond Hicks). Though an 80’s film, She’s Gotta Have It is surprisingly progressive with its themes of female sexuality, although at some points in the film it is handled clumsily. Overall Nola is an incredibly compelling character especially for modern women, as we as a society acknowledge female sensuality more and more without the negative stigma.
The film is largely framed through interview-like takes, mostly from other character’s perspectives about Nola, and some directly from Nola herself. Often, the other characters (especially the male love interests) take up a judgmental tone when discussing Nola’s promiscuity. However, Nola stands up for herself in her interview scenes and directly to the men when they press her, especially in the scene where Greer accuses her of being a nymphomaniac.
The film highlights the double standards there is between men and women being sexual entities. While Nola is constantly chastised for having multiple sex partners, there is no real negative connotation to the idea of men playing the field. A scene that comes to mind involving such ideas is when Mars calls Nola to see her for her birthday (she declines as she is with Jamie) and when she hangs up, he murmurs in response, "Fuck that girl, man.” He proceeds to call another woman, presumably with the intention of sex.
Unfortunately, the narrative has one major jarring scene that blemishes an otherwise leveled film. The moment in question happens when Jamie comes to Nola after she calls him over, “needing” him, where he then essentially assaults her. She tells him he’s hurting her, and yet he keeps going, while making derogatory slut-shaming comments. While the dialogue dances around this being rape- Nola in a later scene describes is as near-rape- it is a very disturbing scene, and even more uncomfortable that Nola doesn’t cut him out after such a harrowing interaction.
Soon after this, Nola seeks out Jamie and he gives her an ultimatum: either lose her multiple partners, or lose him. In the scene she chooses him, chooses monogamy, and while the film doesn’t show us exactly what happens ultimately at the end of the film, she decides to embrace her sexuality instead of staying with Jamie. She admits she should have never went back to him, and in her own words, she says, “He wanted a wife, that mythic old-fashioned girl next door. But it’s more than that. It’s about control-my body, my mind. Who is gonna own it, them...or me?” This feels so empowering, especially since she had plenty of suitors to choose from in the end and she ultimately chose herself, pursuing her own desires over being pressured by those around her on how to live her life.
Besides having a strong female lead, the film is generally well-rounded in diversity, having an all black cast as well as positive representation of a lesbian character, Opal Gilstrap (Raye Dowell). While not as overt as the male characters, the audience can pick up on subtle sexual tension between her and Nola, although the latter turns her down. A piece of dialogue that openly dismisses stereotypes on lesbianism comes from an interaction between Opal and Jamie, where he tells her, “Opal, you’re a very beautiful woman. I would have never thought that you were gay.” In which she answers him saying, “How one looks has no bearing.” While this exchange is nothing groundbreaking in the eyes of modern viewers, in the context of a 1980's film (a time where homophobia raged due to misinformation on the AIDS pandemic) its portrayal is very progressive. Overall, She’s Gotta Have It is a feminist, diverse film with a compelling narrative full of intriguing character interactions and thoughtful scenes, though some moments are handled jarringly.