Playing Mon Feb 27 at 7:30* at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]
*Q&A with directors Nelson George & Diane Paragas
BAM’s regularly recurring “Brooklyn Close-Up” series hosts a very special evening with a documentary on its resident neighborhood, Ft. Greene, an epicenter of progressive black culture and thinking in the 1980s. The documentary – which features interviews from former locals Spike Lee, Rosie Perez, and Chris Rock – will screen alongside Lee’s debut feature. Directors Nelson George & Diane Paragas will be on hand for a post-discussion.
Mike Hale for the New York Times:
A look at an earlier, happier social and cultural renaissance in “Brooklyn Boheme,” a highly personal, shoestring documentary written and narrated by the music journalist Nelson George. Mr. George interviews neighbors, friends and colleagues who were part of the flowering of African-American arts in the Fort Greene and Clinton Hill neighborhoods during the 1980s and ’90s, including Spike Lee, Chris Rock, Rosie Perez, Branford Marsalis, Vernon Reid and Lorna Simpson.
The film is both a celebration and elegy for a scene that faded away in the face of real estate pressures and gentrification, the forces that are already working on Williamsburg and Greenpoint. Of course, in the legacy department Fort Greene can claim, among many other things, Mr. Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It,” which may be enough to win right there.
Troy Patterson for Slate:
She’s Gotta Have It.Cool, hot. Uptown, Brooklyn—very specifically Fort Greene, depicted as an urban paradise populated by black nerds and the women who have got to have it from them. A revelation! Nelson George, a talented journalist and a producer of that film, has lived in that neighborhood since back in the day and delivers it a love letter in the form of Brooklyn Boheme.
The best moments in the film find George chatting warmly with old friends and neighbors including Lorna Simpson, Rosie Perez, Branford Marsalis, and Spike, who mentions buying a brownstone for $45,000, a sum that, these days, is a good start on kitchen renovation. The highlight is Chris Rock’s visit to his old apartment—a pilgrimage far more satisfying than Lady Gaga’s was last year on 60 Minutes. I fear to know what broker’s fee the current tenant paid for a place where once burglars came at Rock’s door with a sledgehammer.
Stewart Nusbaumer for Filmmaker:
Filmmaker Nelson George presents an intimate portrait of an exciting place at a creative time. The film begins in the 1970s when the neighborhood is impoverished and riddled with crime, yet also cheap to live in, followed by the 1980s and 1990s with the incredible creative explosion, and finally the gentrification of the neighborhood that has resulted in an exodus of artists.
Told by those who lived there and participated in its artistic community, Brooklyn Boheme presents a gripping story with the voice of authenticity. While a similar artistic gathering occurred at roughly the same time in downtown Manhattan (mostly white and documented in numerous films), the story of this once dynamic African-American community across the East River in Brooklyn is much less known. Brooklyn Boheme fills an important gap in the history of American bohemia and does it extraordinarily well.
Celena Cipriaso reports on the film, for The Root:
The film celebrates the artistic collaboration in the community. When Lee lived at 132 Adelphi St., he conceived and edited his breakout film, She’s Gotta Have It, which Nelson George helped finance. Lee stationed his production company, 40 Acres and a Mule, at the firehouse at 124 DeKalb St. In the film, when George asks Rosie Perez, another resident of Fort Greene, to describe the time she spent at 124 DeKalb, she becomes emotional when describing the first reading of Do the Right Thing. That same sense of collaboration and community was also behind the film’s creative process. When George decided to make the documentary, he approached Paragas to join him as co-director. Paragas told The Root that she was inspired to work on the film when George told her, “We have this opportunity to mark history while these people are still alive.”
Needing to raise more money for the film, George and Paragas utilized Kickstarter.com, an online funding platform. On his director’s statement on the website, George wrote that his motivation behind the film was “to capture the excitement and spirit of the brilliant artistic community I was so proud to be part of.” The project inspired 200 strangers to donate $10,000 in just 15 days. These funds went primarily to the film’s opening aerial shots, which give us a bird’s-eye view to appreciate the beauty of these neighborhoods but also to acknowledge their changing face: Taller buildings and an almost-finished sports arena reflect the neighborhoods’ development and gentrification.
In the film, when George and Rock visit Rock’s first home in the area, a kind white woman who has just moved into the apartment invites them inside. She shyly admits that she had heard that Rock once lived there. As they walk through Rock’s old home, Rock recalls with humor how a burglar once broke in. The tale highlights just how much the ethnic and class makeup of the community has changed.
Joi-Marie McKenzie also talks to George, for Loop 21:
“It’s where I’m from.” The documentary is indeed Gerorge’s love song to New York’s home to some of the most influential artists, musicians and directors in hip-hop culture. There are other memorable moments in the film as co-director Paragas points out. “You will see Spike Lee in a way that you’ve never seen him before. He was so honest and so natural and so vulnerable and he really talked about his influences…” Lee was indeed a heavily used reference in the film, which could denote Lee’s influence on Brooklyn or Nelson’s affection for the fellow filmmaker.
Still, Nelson’s genuine affection for Brooklyn is what makes the film so endearing. If you ask him to name his favorite place to hang out, he can’t name just one: Junior’s for a piece of chocolate cake or Brooklyn Bowl in Williamsburg or even Roberta’s pizza. “These are spots that didn’t exist two years ago,” he says with unwavering BK pride.
Salamishah Tillet covers the 25th anniversary of Lee’s debut, also for The Root:
“She’s Gotta Have It changed the playing field,” says Donald Bogle, film historian and author of Heat Wave: The Life and Career of Ethel Waters. “Spike Lee made the black filmmaker a viable force in mainstream cinema. There had been black directors who had gotten attention before, but with Spike, there was something totally different. It was so contemporary and had such an interesting edge to it.”
That edginess was inconceivable a decade before. She’s Gotta Have It was celebrated for its technical tricks. A mini mashup of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon and Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, Lee’s film boasts of multiple points of view; characters who speak directly to the audience; an unconventional nonlinear narrative; jump cuts; photo montages of black urban life; and Ernest Dickerson’s black-and-white cinematography, which both supported and subverted the film’s documentary feel.
But more than bringing novelty and hype to black film, for the first time in American cinema history, Lee exposed audiences to a vibrant, black bohemian subculture that was well established in places like Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Chicago and Oakland, Calif. By 1986 a whole generation of African-American artists and writers had come of age in the wake of the civil rights, feminist and black power movements. They had also created their own world of Malcolm X murals, jazz interludes, hoop earrings and spoken-word poetry. She’s Gotta Have It was a cinematic cipher of and for the post-soul generation, a film that was, as film critic Nelson George said in a telephone interview last week, “a coming of age and coming together” for black people in their 20s.
That a movie made on a shoestring budget in black Brooklyn remains the archetype for all black and all indie filmmakers that followed proves that Lee’s first major work was a revolution all its own.
Lee’s first feature focuses around the attempts of Nola Darling (Johns), aware but not ashamed of her reputation as a good-time girl, to sort out the three steady men in her life with a view (maybe) to marriage: the sincere and caring Jamie (Hicks), the self-obsessed model Greer (Terrell), and the outrageous bicycle messenger Mars (Lee). Each lover, convinced that he is the solution to Nola’s problem, makes his prospective pitch (to the girl and audience alike) in a series of painfully funny character vignettes. The action centres on Nola’s spacious Brooklyn studio, where the men take it in turns to assassinate each other’s characters, before gathering round Nola’s Thanksgiving table to do it face-to-face. Structurally, it could be compared to Kurosawa’s Rashomon for its subjective cross-examination of Nola’s loves; but this delightful low-budget comedy, with its all black cast and black humour, is 100 per cent Lee.
Peter Keough for the Chicago Reader:
Spike Lee takes the minimalist blackout style of fellow NYU film school grad Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise and jazzes it into the funniest comedy of summer ’86. Nola Darling (Tracy Camila Johns), an earthily charismatic young woman, refuses to be dominated by any man. After a series of “dogs” (hilariously lampooned in a montage of fatuous opening lines), Nola selects three paramours: Greer, Mars (Lee), and Jamie—a narcissist, a space shot, and a grim believer in true love. Her independence and their clashing styles combine in comic situations that build into giddy fugues; in one example, a plaintive soliloquy by Jamie morphs into an argument with Mars about basketball and the ugliness of Larry Bird. Made for less than $30,000, Lee’s first feature posed him as a rival to Woody Allen, nearly equaling him in psychological authenticity, perhaps bettering him in virtuosity and sheer creative glee.
Marilyn Ferdinand for Ferdy on Films:
Lee’s debut feature film, She’s Gotta Have It, is a derivative affair—one is constantly reminded of Woody Allen while watching it—but at the same time, it has all the vitality and fizzy, alchemic mix of amateurism and professionalism our best directors demonstrate in their juvenilia.
The film incorporates a collage of styles Lee must have studied in the Tisch School of Arts’ film program. There’s a little bit of Chris Marker’s La Jetée in Lee’s use of photographic stills, shot by his brother David, to create certain montage scenes, a technique he seems to echo in the collage Nola creates on her wall. He’s goes the full-color route for the dance duet in the park as an apparent homage to the great Technicolor musicals Hollywood churned out in its Golden Age. And his architectural landscapes reflect both Antonioni and Allen’s Manhattan.
Lee would return with more force to the subject of love and independent agency in subsequent films, such as his superlative School Daze (1988) and Jungle Fever (1991), as well as the intraracial politics in the African-American community that he subtly explores here. His body of work is polished, accomplished, and important, but She’s Gotta Have It is an exuberant, homestyle film that deserves respect and affection.
Stuart Henderson for PopMatters:
Spike Lee’s breakout feature remains as odd, daring, and significant in 2008 as it was when first released in 1986. An intellectual treatment of sexuality, identity, responsibility and, yes, race, Lee’s mostly black and white homage to his filmmaking heroes is as entertaining as it is thoughtful. Suggestively titled so as to trick people into thinking it might be porn, shot in 12 days for less than $200,000 (much of that cash put up by black cultural critic Nelson George), and yet grossing more than $7million, She’s Gotta Have It is a classic of successful guerilla filmmaking.
Lee’s approach to She’s Gotta Have It, thoroughly elaborated in his 1987 book on the subject (“Spike Lee’s Gotta Have It”), was to represent the kinds of people he actually knew, not hollow stereotypes and expected role-players. And so, his simple gambit was to present a film about a black New York comprised of educated, sophisticated urbanites.
Indeed, Lee’s Brooklynites share much more in common with Woody Allen’s New Yorkers than, say, Martin Scorsese’s. No less necessary today amid the calamity of racial backstepping which underwrites such so-called “black” movies as Norbitt and Big Momma’s House, wherein the celebration of ignorance acts as a stand-in for culture and community, She’s Gotta Have It revitalized the idea of a black filmmaking that didn’t emphasize a despairing blackness as the dominant trope. Lee’s characters are black, yes, and so much more…
Jonathan Pacheco for Indiewire:
She’s Gotta Have It, while playful in ways we haven’t seen from its director in a long time, wouldn’t be a Spike Lee joint if it didn’t address and attempt to annihilate some serious, thought-provoking issues and stereotypes. Lee’s characters in this film are nonviolent, artistic, intelligent and successful (mostly). I don’t recall hearing the n-word, and in the closing credits Lee proudly points out, “THIS FILM CONTAINS NO JERRI CURLS!!! AND NO DRUGS!!!” Clearly, his first feature is a call to abandon past stereotypes and think progressively about how we socially and sexually identify black men and women — heck, all men and women.
Through the film we discover a relaxed, familial production environment. When Mars is introduced, he’s seen speeding down a hill on his bike, heading straight for the camera, swerving at the last moment to miss it as he screams. Lee cuts to a title card, but over it we hear laughter and chatter from the crew. It fits within the documentary facade of the film, but to my ears it sounds like real reactions from Lee’s crew. Just before the end credits, the director lets his main players come out and take bows by having them slate a shot, then introduce themselves. A few add their own flair: an impersonation, a bass riff, a certain smirk. There’s a joyful atmosphere to the production that Lee wants you to see.
Despite its humble budget and brief shooting schedule, She’s Gotta Have It is a great looking film, at times beautiful. Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson makes great use of black-and-white film and the occasional dose of slow-motion, most notably in a few of the film’s sex scenes with characters set against a stark black background, lit almost exclusively in highlights and shot only in tight close-ups. Her breasts. His face, then hers. Mouths open in ecstasy. The film deliberately tries to be sexy, which is typically a turnoff for me, but here it absolutely works, as does one of its boldest moves, a single scene shot in color. Its inclusion is surprising and striking enough that it conjured an involuntary “Whoa” from me when it arrived.
Marlaine Glicksman introduces an interview with Lee for Film Comment (Sept 1986):
Set entirely in Brooklyn, the film is, like the borough’s namesake bridge, laced with the tangles and crossed wires of love and its accompanying emotions, as well as a warm and generous sense of humor. She’s Gotta Have It uniquely tackles an age-old controversial topic, the discrepencies that exist not only between the sexes but also in the judgments rendered by society. Ironically, the film’s willingness to investigate the hot spot where love meets sex landed it in hot water. The MPAA thrice gave the film an X rating. Since the film features a woman and her three lovers, naturally there are sex scenes. But there is no more to be seen than the breasts and butts that grace the lovemaking of white maintstream R-rated films. Spike had to reçut his film three times, plus cut in half an overhead shot of Greer and Nola in bed, to get down to the R rating dictated by his Island Pictures contract for its domestic release. “It’ll be shown the real way in Europe and on tape,” Spike said.
Why did you set and film She’s Gotta Have It in Brooklyn – because you’re from there?
I was born in Atlanta, Georgia, but I’ve lived in Brooklyn all my life. When you are doing independent filmmaking, you don’t have the means to go anywhere else. She’s Gotta Have It was really shot in a one-mile radius, the whole film, in the neighborhood where I lived. That’s the only way we could shoot a film in 1 2 days, only if locations are within a block from each other.
You shot the film on a very small ratio.
It’s just my style. There’s really no need to take eight million takes of everything. We were well-rehearsed. And we try to just get it within the first or second take, move it on to the next shot.
Why did you decide to shoot the film in black and white?
Well, the images came to me in black and white. This had nothing to do with the budget. I just felt that the subject was a black and white movie.
The script was written remarkably from a woman ‘s point of view.
I’m a good listener. And I think I really try to be honest. And if you really try to go about the truth and honesty in your work, then you can hurdle my not being a woman. But you have to understand, I have not attempted to make a feminist film. Kor me, it is about a woman who has three lovers. My friends are always boasting and bragging about how many women they have. But when word gets back to them that one of the women in their stable is even thinking about seeing somebody else, they go berserk. That’s insane, that double standard. So I decided, let’s make a film about a woman who is actually living her life as a man.