She's Gotta Have It
(Excerpt from John Pierson's Book Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes)
"In thirty years, you'll be able to tell your grandchildren you were there."
--Spike Lee, March 28, 1985 9:30 A.M.
Tube Socks and Tube Steaks
Spike Lee is my hero. Oddly enough, I can't remember the first time I met him. It must have been the winter of 1983, when I was programming the Bleecker Street Cinema, a legendary repertory site in Greenwich Village. Although it may seem impossible to believe now, he was the invisible man. He wasn't sitting courtside at Madison Square Garden, he wasn't selling sneakers with Michael Jordan, he wasn't lecturing at Harvard, and he wasn't debating Bryant Gumbel or Ted Koppel on television. He was sitting unobtrusively, with his Mets cap pulled down low, inspecting the scratches and splices on 16mm prints at a small, independent distributor called First Run Features in the Bleecker building, a stone's throw from his alma mater, NYU.
I think Spike decided to start talking to me for two reasons. I wore my Baltimore Orioles baseball jacket just about every day making it pretty clear that I liked sports as much as movie--a feeling he shared. A further inducement was that First Run, which was basically a filmmaker cooperative, had a staff of about ten squeezed into an office space that was identical in square footage to one that I had all to myself. First Run's mom and pop were Fran Spielman, formerly of Cinema 5, and Seymour Wishman, formerly a defense lawyer. Spike's future editor, Barry Brown, was one of its founding filmmakers.
It's no secret that Spike is short and slight, but he still felt cramped. So he would wander next door for some elbow room, then proceed to tease me about the Orioles, who were on their way to a World Series win in 1983, or occasionally ask me to show something like Blue Collar or Rashomon. Unsurprisingly Spike's requests weren't nearly as obscure as those of his NYU classmate Jim Jarmusch, so I tried to accommodate him. Then one day he asked me to show his own hour-long thesis filmJoe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads.
In March 1983, Joe's Bed-Stuy was the first student film ever selected for the high-profile New Directors/New Films series at the Museum of Modern Art. I played it on the smaller, second screen at the Bleecker for a couple of weekends in April just around the time that Jim Jarmusch was screening his Stranger Than Paradise short at Danceteria. Spike got an agent at William Morris, but no further work. I stopped running the beloved Bleecker just before the Orioles clinched the championship in October. I passed Spike on the street from time to time as he geared up for a self-produced feature called Messenger with Larry Fishburne and Giancarlo Esposito. That film collapsed during preproduction in the summer of 1984. Spike was invisible all over again, collecting a paycheck back at First Run for inspecting prints of movies like Lizzie Borden's Born in Flames.
The next time I heard from Mr. Lee, I was wheeling and dealing with Parting Glances. He told me that he planned to screen a double-system rough cut of his new feature, She's Gotta Have It, at the end of October. Of course I laughed when I heard the title. Everyone does the first time. I immediately wanted to repeat it to other "virgins" and hear them laugh. I wondered why I hadn't heard about this one while Spike was shooting in the summer. After the previous year's humiliation with Messenger, he didn't want to shout it from the rooftops until the right moment this time. The monumental struggle to attempt to raise money to shoot She's Gotta Have It is documented in excruciating detail in his book. As far as money for principal photography was concerned, two funding organizations played critical, contrasting roles. The New York State Council on the Arts provided an $18,000 grant and became a hero, while the American Film Institute withdrew a $20,000 grant made to Messenger. Spike showed no mercy in trashing them for years afterward.
Despite the two and a half years that had passed since Joe's Bed-Stuy, Spike reassembled his core support group. Monty Ross switched over from actor to production supervisor and all-around right hand man. Tommy Hicks was back to play the earnest, loving teacher instead of a slick gangster. Spike's dad, Bill Lee, composed another wonderfully effective jazz score. Spike's key collaborator since NYU days, Ernest Dickerson, had further improved his cinematography skills by shooting John Sayles's Brother from Another Planet and the first studio rap feature, Krush Groove. That Michael Schultz film, whose producers included George Jackson, Doug McHenry, and hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons, was one of the tiny handful of black films in the eighties. Starting years before with Cooley High, Schultz was just about the only black director carrying a very dim torch after the blaxploitation movement died out. A Soldier's Story and The Color Purple may have been heavily marketed to black audiences, but they were directed by white men. After the She's Gotta Have It screening on October 30, 1985, it seemed like that situation might change very soon.
Spike invited an audience of potential investors, writers, and ocher industry types to an evening show at NYU's Bijou Theater. Spike was all dressed up with his pants hitched high, and the atmosphere was quite lively. The sound in a rough cut screening is quite crude, production dialogue only, no effects, no automated dialogue recording (ADR, done later in the studio), almost no music. Consequently the atmospheric Brooklyn Bridge shots at the beginning of the film and Nola Darling's introduction could not fully work their magic. The crowd perked up with Jamie Overstreet's introduction followed by the first sex scene. But there was an absolute explosion of laughter about ten minutes into the film, when a succession of twelve black men in all shapes, sizes, and skin tones demonstrate their most uproarious pick-up lines. Monty popped up on screen first with the irresistible come-on, "You so fine baby, I'll drink a tub of your bathwater."
The sequence ended with the most lascivious statement "Girl, I got plenty of what you need, ten throbbing inches of USDA, government inspected, prime cut, grade-A tube steak." It turned out that the "dog sequence," which also featured Ernest, rapper Fab Five Freddy, and director Reggie Hudlin, was the very first thing that Spike shot, and he shot it right there in NYU's Bijou Theater. Not too long after the dogs, Mars Blackmon, a part Spike decided to play himself about halfway through writing the script, made his first crowdpleasing appearance leaning into the camera importuning Nola with his "Please baby please" repetitions. Was this destined to be the legendary first public showing where absolutely everything goes right? Spike described it in his book as an overwhelming response that "rocked the house."
My memory is markedly different. Near the end of the first reel, the double system projector slipped our of sync and then a splice broke, stopping the show. It wouldn't be the last time. There was so much goodwill toward the film that it didn't really matter until the infamous color sequence. Conceived as an homage to Vincente Minnelli and The Wizard of Oz, the nearly five-minute dance sequence featuring Spike's exgirlfriend brought the movie to a dead stop. Previously, when Spike proudly had shown the sequence to his father, Bill Lee reportedly said, "It could make a glass eye cry." Like father, like son, like no one else, The film certainly recovered with more Mars, the Greer Childs pixilated sex scene, and Thanksgiving dinner, but the sex psychologist was another dead spot and Jamie's near-rape of Nola at the end really threw people for a loop. It looked and sounded especially brutal in this primitive presentation. This version of She's Gotta Have It ended with Nola's fantasy wedding, a scene that was never again seen.
In screenings like this, there are lots of viewers, even film educated viewers, who can't see the forest for the trees. The color sequence and the rape were two big trees. None of the black cadillac dealers or other outside investors came through with any money. Village Voice critic David Edelstein didn't get it at all, a confession he made publicly in giving the film its first great review when it opened nine months later. Friends of Spike, like the writer Nelson George and Earl Smith, who had already put money in, added some more. Long after the official limited partnership was tossed aside, I became the sixth and largest individual investor in She's Gotta Have It. It was the best business decision I ever made in my life. I announced my intention walking over to the Great Jones Cafe, a popular New York film-community hangout, and repeated myself at the bar inside, explaining that I would simply roll over my $10,000 fee from the sale of Parting Glances.
The New York Times ran a feature by Gary Bradford on the difficulty of raising money for independent film, that started and ended with Spike. He led off with his already standard story about the credit office at DuArt, run by a very unpleasant man named Howard Funsch, threatening to auction off the She's Gotta Have It negative for nonpayment. Spike took the threat quite seriously, as anyone in his shoes would, not realizing that Howie's role, which he savored to an unsettling degree, was to be the aggressive bad cop to Irwin Young's good cop. More significantly, the article concluded with Spike repeating a wonderful line that he'd used at the Bijou rough cut screening: "If I don't raise some money, I'll be selling tube socks on 14th Street."
No matter how cocksure you feel about an unseen movie, its first public exposure is still a time for nail biting. And to enhance the value of a low-budget, no-name first feature, especially a comedy, you have to put in in front of an audience. Every single word that's written and every laugh from that audience winds up under a magnifying glass. Therefore, even when you believe a movie has good genes, you still need to raise it in a nurturing environment while it's a baby.
Spike was ready to go out and start promoting a week before the premiere, as soon as the blowup came out of the lab and the Cannes screening was over. DuArt blew it, falling a week behind schedule. But by now She's Gotta Have It had entered a remarkable state of grace where nothing could stop it. The Directors' Fortnight selection duo of Pierre-Henri Deleau and Olivier Jahan had to see the film in less than ideal 16mm double-system conditions the night before Spike's twenty-ninth birthday. At least they heard the fully mixed soundtrack. About half an hour in, they decided to invite it. At that time, it was the only American film they chose for the 1986 Quinzaine, although they would eventually select Lizzie Borden's Working Girls as well.
Spike left town with the same unfinished print in tow for the San Francisco press screening. Herb Michaelson, Judy Stone, and twenty other journalists were shoehorned into a stuffy, ridiculously cramped postproduction suite. No one fainted, and the result was pretty electrifying. Judy's minor qualms about the sexual politics disappeared after talking to Spike. You could just feel Spike's confidence growing throughout the week leading up to the prime-time Friday-night curtain raiser.
Twenty-four hours before the show in the 900-seat Palace of Fine Arts, the black audience had not yet been mobilized to buy advance tickets for She's Gotta Have It. The finished blowup hadn't arrived yet either. Friday morning I woke up at Ray Price's house, read two very good reviews in the Chronicle and the Examiner, then sat down with a cup of coffee to listen to the virtually unknown Spike Lee give his first major radio interview on the morning drive-time show on Oakland's toprated R&B station. After two entertaining, occasionally tongue-tied hours during which Spike kept saying the word "ideal" when he meant "idea," the smooth-talking DJ, Lee Hildebrande, asked if he had any final words. Spike said, "You're going to want to be at the show tonight so you can tell your grandchildren in thirty years you were there." Ray Price almost fell off his chair. Over 600 tickets sold that day, right up to the 7:30 showtime. The final late arrivals made it a sellout. When Janet and I picked up Spike at the Diva Hotel, he volunteered another astonishing prediction when he said, "I guess my life won't ever be the same after tonight." When I encouraged him to share a couple of his goals, aside from making a movie a year, he mentioned two things. He wanted Stevie Wonder to do a soundtrack for him. Stevie, who is known for being perpetually late, came through four films later on Jungle Fever. He also wanted to do sneaker commercials with Michael "Air" Jordan and Mars Blackmon, a character he didn't have other plans to resuscitate. Those ads were on the air at the next NBA All-Star game--in black and white, no less.
The Palace of Fine Arts, which had been built long before for a world exposition, had a classic look along with an out-of-date building code. As the auditorium filled up with industry types, regular festivalgoers, and a substantial black middle-class audience dressed for a night on the town, I suddenly realized that none had seen the 35mm print that had finally arrived earlier in the day. When the lights went down, everyone was ready. I groaned when the show started with a lousy short with a minstrel show feeling. It's a standard festival nightmare to have the programmers put an inappropriate short, which they've decided is a perfect companion piece, before the feature. Once the New York Film Festival put a Peter Greenaway film about people who had been struck by lightning in front of Wim Wenders's Lightning Over Water. Really amusing. I escaped to the lobby and hoped that spirits inside wouldn't sag. Finally a quotation from Zora Neale Hurston tolled down the big screen, signaling the start of the feature.
The newly struck 35mm print looked and sounded great. The audience of nearly a thousand was clearly caught up in the film from the moment the 40 Acres and a Mule production credit appeared. But like the crude screening at NYU five months earlier, it was the "dogs" at the ten minute mark that brought down the house. It was Spike's joint from that moment on, which was a very fortunate development when the screen went dark about twenty minutes later. The Palace was pitch black because it had no emergency lighting. No one knew exactly what had happened, but immediately it was clear that it wasn't a simple projection failure. The power in the building, throughout the neighborhood, across the entire Marina District of San Francisco was out for no explicable reason, just when the crowd was under our command.
I took a deep breath and screamed silently. But I noticed that no one was leaving. No one was even moving--except for one person, a distributor. Ben Barenholtz of Circle Films found me in a dark aisle, pulled out a checkbook, and asked me how much we wanted for the movie. He'd only seen one third, but he made both a bold and smart move. I didn't have time to think about whether he was serious or not because the festival's artistic director Perter Scarlet was conferring with me about what to do next. After an eternal ten or fifteen minutes, we decided to give Spike and Tommy Hicks flashlights to shine on their faces and sent them up on stage to answer questions. Obviously you wouldn't normally do this after thirty minutes of a feature, but we were desperate to hold the crowd while we found out when the power might be restored. The very first question was, "What happens next?" and Spike nearly threw his flashlight at the lunkhead who asked it. After about ten minutes of them buying time, a SWAT team showed up to help empty the theater. No one was leaving, although the room had now been dark for as long as the movie had been on. The police became impatient and were just about to forcibly evacuate the crowd, effectively ending the premiere of She's Gotta Have It, when the lights flashed on followed immediately by a great cheer. Barenholtz showed me that he really had a checkbook and a pen in his hands.
The film resumed at the beginning of the second reel, and the response kept building and building to a tumultuous standing ovation. I got tremendous feedback from the Goldwyn contingent and three key exhibitors. One was Gary Meyer, co-founder of the extremely influential Landmark Theater chain, and another was Ray Price who realized that Spike had made good on his audacious morning prediction, and the third was elder statesman Mel Novikoff, who had recently ceded control of Surf Theaters to Ray. Somehow the Island Pictures duo slipped away before we could talk, and I made a note to track them like a bloodhound on Saturday morning. Then I collapsed in utter elation.