She's Gotta Have It
Throughout She’s Gotta Have It, the audience learns how to watch the series through each song and its accompanying scene. According to film theorist Michael Chion, through this “forced marriage,” or joining of a film clip with a musical piece, the audience is given opportunities to interpret meanings differently. Chion argues that film and audio hold equal weight in film’s multisensory aesthetic nature, and I will be exploring how the musical choices in She’s Gotta Have It are fundamental to its storytelling. Songs serve as both a practical way to establish characterization and a vehicle through which broader themes are revealed.
Our initial perception of each character is largely influenced by music. Nola’s three lovers, Jamie, Mars, and Greer, are all introduced with their own song, and we gradually understand who Nola is through her interactions with these men following their introductions. The first time we are able to observe Nola with other women is the scene in which her and her friends casually catch up over drinks. In the background plays Mary J Blige’s “My Life”. The song’s lyrics describe coming out of a dark place and into a better life. Blige, a symbol of female perseverance and empowerment, talks about seeing life through the eye of your own experiences, taking your time to discover yourself, and trusting God. By choosing to pair this song with this scene, we are able to draw conclusions that director Spike Lee wants us to recognize that Nola has her own life and experiences outside of the men, further developing her character. Observing Nola’s interactions outside of her sexual partners is an important inclusion due to the feminist themes of the series, and this scene’s dialogue successfully involves that theme.
Another song with a meaningful position is “Tender Love” by Force MDs, which plays in the background of the first scene that overlaps with another character. We see Jamie in his sophisticated office, waiting for a call from Nola, while it cuts to Mars and Nola engaging in sexual acts. Even with no interaction, tension is created between Nola’s two lovers. “Tender Love” sings of a longing for love, which we see in Jamie. The song serves one character while contrasting the other, and this strategic choice lets us know who we should empathize with. The scene ends with Mars and Nola talking on her bed, an almost victorious recap for Mars that makes us forget Jamie’s desire. Creating this tension shows that Nola will have to make decisions in the future about who she decides to pursue.
Beyond the microcosmic purposes of each song in its respective scene, the music links together themes of black empowerment. After researching each of the artists highlighted in the episode, I realized that all of the songs were written by black artists who were discovered in New York City, perfectly parallel to Nola’s character. Blige was discovered when she sang at a karaoke bar in the Bronx, while Force M.D.s were discovered on the Staten Island Ferry. Highlighting these songs within a plot set in gentrified Brooklyn creates a call to action to keep New York a safe place for black creators and honors the black artists who have paved the way so far. A determined Nola stares at the camera in the final scene and declares #blacklivesmatter, but the story told here expands further: black art matters and black culture matters. This episode is the beginning of a beautiful love letter to black artists of the past and the future.