Spike Lee’s inventive debut is a continuation of past (George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, David Lynch’s Eraserhead, and Leos Carax’ Boy Meets Girl) and further (Kevin Smith’s Clerks and Darren Aronofsky’s Pi) iterations of a convenient tradition in budget filmmaking—debuts shot in black and white as a choice borne by necessity first, and then style. Buoyed in large parts by a Bohemian sensibility, it showcases his native Brooklyn as a free-spirited haven for his oddball cast of urbanites, a mainstay trend in almost his entire filmography. This urban Bohemia is revisited in Lee’s next films, first, in the urbanized hermeticism of School Daze and Do The Right Thing, before peaking in Mo’ Better Blues as a purely artistic extension of said subculture. It is not at all a stretch to see Cassavetes’ Shadows in the latter for example, nor in the title reviewed today, specifically for what it subverts and, in doing so, achieves in keeping with tradition alongside those aforementioned debuts. In a nutshell, the film focuses on She/Nola and her four-way amorous entanglement with three men of disparate values, a set-up was considered revolutionary for its time for its liberated portrayal of a black woman.
The eponymous “She” is a mythical Aphrodite. She is Nola, the nymph, the sultry Venus sat on a pedestal, propped up figuratively and physically by a trio of lovers. Those are Jamie Overstreet—an actual working professional; Greer Childs—a narcissus and false casanova; and Mars Blackmon—a lanky, infantile loiterer. They’re all on her speed dial for lust, on call either to be chosen on short notice or changed on a whim. Indeed, her unapologetic admission of being in love with the totality of their individual traits is the polyamorous answer to build-your-own-quarterback. Brady’s brain, Rodgers’ legs, Flacco’s arm circa 2011, and etc.; a selection criteria considered solely for the athletic production instead of actual body parts, of course. This realization is made with hindsight, but the bulk of the plaudits heaped on the film was for Nola’s unorthodox endeavor in finding fulfillment, no strings attached, which is achieved by the three-legged stool for love. The films earns an A for [its protagonist’s] effort, as each lover brings something different to the table—though mostly it is their own drama packaged as juvenile baggage that is comically contrasted against Nola’s nonchalant reaction to each man’s futility to negotiate exclusive access into her good graces. And the majority of the time is dedicated to scenes taking place in her artisan-friendly home turf, a barren, minimalist loft. A showpiece moment sees her invite all three over for Thanksgiving where the focus of her interventionist gesture is overshadowed by her lovers hijacking the evening for their own pitch as to why each deserves the trophy as solely theirs.
She (the film) must be taken with a grain of salt in large part because at the height of the AIDS scare, the idea of a woman shacking up with three lovers simultaneously, not just in close succession, would not fly. And in a community still ravaged by single-parent households the way urban America is, a suspension of disbelief is required for the polyamorous arrangement to remain credible. The plot eschews consequences such as STI’s and unwanted pregnancies as a possible dealbreaker for the men to consider. Lee is not interested in realism or big-picture social commentary, drawing instead from some myth-making (Mars Blackmon would next appear in a series of Nike ads alongside Michael Jordan) and the film should be taken in with the leniency extended to that degree of license. The idea that a unicorn archetype or an unattainable gender-centric sexual freedom should exist counter to the double standard enjoyed by men with more liberties in that area of mate selection is at the center of the film’s hypothetical logic. And the film is all the better for it. And being that it proved a diamond in the rough as evidenced by a serialized revival on Netflix (was it also greenlit to double as Lee’s revisionist mea culpa?) along with a jazzy and unconventional narrative mode when it breaks the fourth wall, Spike would devote the nineties-half of his output exploring strands and stylings first seen on day one. Ultimately the plot slogs as the vignettes feel clunky without the smooth transitions that will later become a staple of Lee’s repertoire and there is an undeniable student film feel to the crude stitching of scenes and sound design. Is it all brave? Not exactly, but as with most of Spike Lee Joints from that period, there’s something daring.