Spike Lee's "She's Gotta Have It" (opening Friday at Laemmle's Royal) is a joyfully idiosyncratic little jazz-burst of a film, full of sensuous melody, witty chops and hot licks. At its center is a zestily promiscuous young black woman named Nola Darling (Tracy Camila Johns), held up to the camera for a "Rashomon"-like once-over. We see Nola from many angles and viewpoints: those of her father, her ex-roommate, her analyst, a Lesbian friend and--most importantly--through the blinking, enraptured, wildly frustrated eyes of her three current lovers.
Through it all, "She's Gotta Have It" gives you as non-standard a peek at black American life as you'll get: engaging, seductive and happily off-kilter. There's no overlay of sentiment or cynicism here. These characters aren't the radiant winners or sad victims you usually see, and there's not a normal citizen--or a rapper or a break-dancer--in the bunch.
They're all hip city dwellers, black bohemians--lovers, poets, poseurs, musicians, idlers and dreamers. They live outside routine, enjoy life on the fly. And the movie's heroine, Nola, is perhaps the classic bohemian girl: the woman who lives like a man, loves as she pleases. Behind her you sense Jeanne Moreau's Catherine in Truffaut's "Jules and Jim," torn between several men, bewitchingly rebellious. But Nola is a heartier, healthier, more self-aware Catherine--built to survive.
That's part of the comedy. The men who spin around her brilliant flame are infuriated that she acts as they do, with an equally casual attitude toward sex. Each of them dallies with other women, but they can't stand the idea of Nola with anyone else. And she herself has picked them out--among dozens of amusingly sleazy aspirants--because each supplies something the others lack.
Their very diversity is funny: the quietly virile, sensible Jamie Overstreet (Tommy Redmond Hicks); the narcissistic GQ model and body-builder Greer Childs (John Canada Terrell), the space cadet and speed-rapping clown Mars Blackmon (Spike Lee himself).
So unlike are these impassioned lovers that when Nola invites them over en masse, tempers flare immediately. Greer can't stand "the lower classes"; Mars is a jobless oddball who never takes off his Air Jordan sneakers--even when making love. (He's also an artisan-mechanic of humor and persuasion: His favorite exhortation to Nola is the rapid, wittily deadpan "Please, baby; please, baby; baby, baby, please!" ) Of the three, Jamie offers the most: maturity and a deeper love. But he's no Prince Charming, either. The movie sometimes seems pat, but it's beyond easy, glib resolutions.
Spike Lee is the son of a prominent jazz musician (bassist Bill Lee, who wrote the score and also appears as Nola's father) and his film is a bit like jazz. It fuses black and white traditions; it works creatively out of seeming limitations. There's only a handful of instruments (or characters), a seemingly familiar tune (the heroine choosing between suitors Tom, Dick and Harry), a small stage (the limited resources of a low budget).
And, like good jazz, "She's Gotta Have It" makes virtues out of vices: going sweet and salty in the breaks, improvising and blazing away. Not all of it is good. One color dream-song sequence thuds along; sometimes the acting is uncertain or unspontaneous. But everyone has their moments: Johns is affecting and earthy; actor Lee is often hilarious; Hicks is excellent throughout.
As a director, Lee is an impudent original with a great eye and a flair for humor and eroticism. He's also well schooled: Working with his fine young cinematographer, Ernest Dickerson, he gets creamily beautiful black-and-white compositions that often suggest the European art cinema of the '60s. But this art doesn't paralyze the film; it's never dawdled over. It's done almost ironically, fused with the energy and sass of black culture and the smart iconoclasm of American screen and stage comedy.
There's something genuinely different here, a perspective we don't see enough--the joy and liveliness of an often neglected present. The movie's breeziness is tonic, refreshing. Even when some of the scenes aren't working so well, it grabs you. Lee calls his film a "Spike Lee joint," but that's not a marijuana reference. According to the sloganeer, joint is "New York street talk for a cool place to be." That sums up the territory. "She's Gotta Have It" (MPAA-rated: R) is definitely a cool place to be.
'SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT' An Island Pictures release of a Forty Acres and Mule Filmworks presentation. Producer Shelton J. Lee. Director-writer-editor Spike Lee. Camera Ernest Dickerson. Music Bill Lee. Production supervisor Monty Ross. Production design Wynn Thomas. Associate producer Pamm Jackson. With Tracy Camila Johns, Tommy Redmond Hicks, John Canada Terrell, Spike Lee, Raye Dowell, Joie Lee, Epatha Merkinson, Bill Lee. Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes.
MPAA rating: R (under 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian).