The One Scene Spike Lee Wishes He Never Filmed

Long before "She's Gotta Have It" was remade as a 2017 TV series for Netflix, it was best known as the movie that announced Spike Lee's presence to the world — a 1986 classic of contemporary Black American cinema with the kind of artistic self-assurance that you rarely see in debut films. With Lee's creativity unencumbered by the movie's low budget and his relative lack of experience, he made a visionary piece with dazzling visual sensibilities and a striking, modern story of female sexuality. He also made a narrative decision he regrets to this day: a sexual assault scene that he worries made light of the gravity of the event.

That scene is one of the few that Lee will concede to have failed in his intentions. When given a mainstream canvas on which to address contemporary African-American issues, he's often crafted not just indelible, unforgettable stories, but also bold new cinematic modes. His distinctive characteristics and his vibrant, sometimes over-the-top, sometimes genius filmic tics work in tandem with a willingness to address all kinds of topics, no matter the controversies attached. That fearlessness has led to Lee's work being wildly inconsistent, but when all the pieces come together, a great film usually comes with it. And "She's Gotta Have It" is a great film, with one baffling moment that threatens to undo the whole of it.

Male chauvinism

There's a hint (sometimes more) of male fantasy in many Spike Lee joints, as the director himself has noted. Lee has accused himself of letting "unreconstructed male chauvinism" run unchecked through his work, particularly his early work in the '80s and '90s. You see it in the "madonna-whore" dichotomy of "Mo' Better Blues" and the off-screen rape in his HBCU musical "School Daze," which plays it as the disgusting final step for a character played by Lee to be accepted by his fraternity. It's also hard to miss in his 2004 satire "She Hate Me," where Anthony Mackie's character impregnates over a dozen lesbians for money. A movie like 1994's "Crooklyn," with its many nuanced female characters, is a rarity.

While many of Lee's screenplays tend to keep characters in rigid roles to better sculpt the core of his thematic arguments, that hurts his female characters the most. And his focus on the lives of Black American characters means that it's often Black women who end up the target of punchlines or narrative decision-making, at the expense of their inner lives. Exceptions, as Lee noted in conversation with activist and #MeToo founder Tarana Burke, include Betty Shabazz in his 1990 biopic "Malcolm X."

Liberated Nola Darling

Given all that, Lee using his debut film to tell the story of a young woman at odds with her own desires and social expectations may seem odd. Despite being centered on a complex Black female character, the movie still ultimately falls prey to a spirit that Spike Lee now calls "immature," a male gaze reinforced by the conversations of male characters. The knowing sexuality of protagonist Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns) becomes an object of debate itself, something challenged by Nola's collection of male lovers.

While the movie's primary concern is Nola's sex life, her own flightiness and refusal to define herself leads to a focus on her three suitors' perception of her. Her decisions illuminate their own neuroses and insecurities rather than the other way around. Besides the nerdy Mars Blackmon (Spike Lee, in a role he would continue to portray for years in Nike commercials with his hero Michael Jordan) and handsome, vapid Greer (John Canada Terrell), there's Jamie (Tommy Redmond Hicks), whose corny poetics and loving, earnest demeanor are mocked for comedy. As Jamie pushes the hardest for a monogamous relationship with Nola, he reveals the extent to which he wants to control her. It's this "nice guy" character who ends up assaulting Nola, in a scene that interrogates the cruelty undergirding the kindness.

The scene and its aftermath

The scene is disturbing, escalating from a dimly lit conversation about the nature of their relationship to a gentle request from Nola that they make love. But Jamie turns it violent quickly as he tosses her to the bed, verbally comparing himself to Mars and Greer, with Lee using hard, diagonal jump cuts to amplify the impact. Jamie continues after she says he's hurting her, and leaves shortly after.

That Nola casts the blame on herself speaks to Lee's "immaturity." Talking to a friend, she says she really messed up with Jamie, and eventually decides to get back together with him, monogamous this time. However, the movie ends with a clear-cut rejection of that idea, with Nola directly addressing the camera (one of many Spike Lee techniques that sees its origin here) about how it didn't end up working out.

Even when Nola gets back together with Jamie and calls the rape what it was, the two discuss it breezily, never giving it the gravity the act warrants. Its casual deployment in an otherwise richly enjoyable film about sex and relationships taints it in a strong way, undercutting the humanity of its observations. In 2014, Lee would clarify his own regrets about the scene, and why he felt it was his only true regret as a filmmaker: "it made light of rape, and that's the one thing I would like to take back."