Shot in less than two weeks in the summer of 1985, this film was Spike Lee’s feature film debut that some would say put Brooklyn on the map. Working off an investment from his loving Grandmother, Lee was able to illuminate a black and white film by showcasing his hometown as a progressive way of life. A blend of sex, comedy, and drama encapsulate the life of a young lady named Nola Darling, who plays by her own rules and refuses to conform to the standards of society. Actress Tracy Camilla Johns plays Nola and is vibrant in her sexuality and demeanor, as she is intimate with whoever she wants whenever she wants, and values a life of freedom over the dullness of a monogamous relationship. In spite of the negative connotations that often come with this lifestyle for a woman, Johns plays the character as empowering, and more or less a heroine for any woman that’s ever wanted to reverse the roles of societies norms.
Of course while John’s is the film’s star and central theme, the supporting cast is just as meaningful to the story as the performances by the men are equally as unforgettable. Nola juggles three suitors in her life, and all three of these men are naturally chagrined to know about one another. They all try to make their claim for her devotion, but Nola never flinches, simply choosing to love all three while she’s faithful to herself. She has the self absorbed model Greer Childs (John Canada Terrell), the childish comedian in Mars Blackmon (Lee), and presumably the perfect gentlemen in Jamie Overstreet (Tommy Redmond Hicks). All three characters are poetically different from one another, as they all have a mix of desirable and undesirable qualities that reasonably make it hard for Lola to make a choice. Childs is the most accomplished but he’s pretentious, Mars may not even be employed but he makes Lola smile, and Jamie is perhaps not as humane as he promotes himself to be. Nonetheless the chemistry between Nola and her men is evident, primarily in the bedroom where Lee’s vision can make a typical sex scene look more like an abstract work of art.
Yet one scene in particular is more than likely the most polarizing as it is the most thought provoking, in which Jamie arguably rapes Nola during a rendezvous where his frustration boils over. It’s crucial to note that the term rape must be used loosely in this circumstance, as it can easily be characterized as aggressive sex that is consensual (although after the fact Nola describes it as “near-rape,” which probably only complicates things further). The other dynamic at play is the ‘how’ and the ‘why,’ as despite there being absolutely no justification for a man to force himself on a woman, it’s fair to wonder how this decent man can lose himself and transform into such a monster. For a moment if we concede that it wasn’t rape, the logical thought is that Nola’s promiscuity lends itself to make Jamie feel disrespected; a feeling that is legitimate but flawed as the door to walk away is always open. However for many that is always easier said than done, as Jamie loves her and wants to be the one man in her life, in which case Nola gives him an interesting proposition. She agrees to be in a faithful relationship with Jamie only if it’s abstinent, only to cheat on him after he reluctantly obliges. The reality is that Nola is a flawed individual who is undeniably selfish, and while Lee was later said to regret the scene in question, I would argue that it’s effective in demonstrating how convoluted their relationship truly was.
Controversy aside the film is permeated with comedy throughout, as Lee once again delivers on both sides of the camera like a natural. For too long it’s been understated how impressive of an actor Lee is, or perhaps he just gives himself good material to work with, yet in any event the character of Mars Blackmon is one for the ages. A sneakerhead who loves him some Nola, Air Jordans, and of course the New York Knicks, Lee’s character was funny and clever enough to land him in commercials with MJ for years to come. In this film Lee shined throughout but was never better than during the Thanksgiving scene where all the three men shamefully spend the evening together over at Nola’s place. The dialogue between all three of the men is priceless, but my favorite exchange is when for a moment Jamie and Mars team up together on Greer, because after all “what does he know he’s a Celtics fan.”