I would suggest that before we can answer the question of what it is she’s gotta have, we must determine the speaker of the statement. I immediately understand Nola to be the subject of the sentence, and have no qualms about that assumption. The statement’s pronoun inherently distinguishes its speaker from Nola, but also situates Nola at the center of its claim. Despite this centering though, the third person pronoun indicates that the speaker does not address Nola herself, but instead speaks past, behind, or perhaps in spite of her. The importance of picking this titular statement apart lies in the implications that arise from the prospect of direct address and testimony—two derivatives of agency and autonomy that I would argue constitute the central themes of this film.
Does the speaker of the statement speak from within the film, or do we understand Lee the director as the progenitor of the film and thus the natural source of the title? Both options seem perfectly plausible and well supported by the film. The first would call for a character of the film who would talk about or around or behind Nola’s back, which we know from the film, are in healthy supply. In fact, the cast of the film comprises of nothing but characters who oppose Nola in some sense. The three men in Nola’s life operate as contrasting figures to Nola’s own desires and initiatives. Individually, though they differ greatly from one another and treat Nola in different ways, their collective competition for her affection and all but coordinated complication of her love life unite them as a trio in opposition to Nola’s agency. Their unintentional concerted efforts come through most prominently in the Thanksgiving scene. As a host, Nola takes a back seat to the competitive banter and incessant sleights thrown from one lover to another. They speak in spite of her silence, and her effort to silence their bickering falls on deaf ears. In this scene Nola’s lovers literally speak around her, for her, and barely let her get a word in edgewise—prime candidates for the speakers of the title statement. But does this mean that the “it” Nola’s gotta have represents an edgewise word? Perhaps.
The second option—that of a non-diegetic speaker; Lee perhaps—turns our attention to the structure of the film more broadly, and suggests that the meaning of “it” might lie in the role Nola’s character plays structurally in the film. In the first scene of the film, Nola’s sililoquy inaugurates a tone of testimony and remembrance. The technical and structural elements of the film contribute to and compound this tone through Lee’s use of black and white film stock and the repeated direct address of the characters. The monochromatic palate of this film is simply striking, and especially when compared to the isolated scenes of color, emphasize the film’s past tense affect. Consider for a moment the lack of color alongside the intermittent disregard of the mythic fourth wall. The film feels like a documentary at times. In particular, the montage of less-than-smooth talking suitors, the discrete shifts in narrative between Greer, Jamie, and Mars, and the confessional scenes in which the three recount their relationships with Nola all make a case for a measure of self-awareness in the film’s narrative and for Lee as the speaker in question (10:09). The question remains though, of what “it” is and why Lee insists that Nola’s “gotta have it.” This second option would seem to suggest that what Nola does not have, or what her character inaugurates at the outset and therefore comes ever closer to achieving, is authorship over her own story.
Taken together, I think that these two options enforce one another much more than they contradict each other. On both the narrative and structural levels, Nola Darling lacks something in the way of agency and autonomy in the telling of her own story. Despite her opening address, the occasion for the narrative comes from a defensive posture of setting the record of her motives straight (3:05). Though she inaugurates the narrative, one cannot say that the film moves on Nola’s own terms. Nola speaks her mind throughout the film, but amidst the testosterone-filled competition for her attention, her voice struggles to reach the ears of her partners. Ambivalent though it may be, I think that the answer to the speaker question lies somewhere between the two options laid out above. Nola has to have a say in her own story. Her struggle to juggle Greer, Jamie, and Mars plays out on each level of this film and culminates in her epilogue. Nola’s articulates her autonomy with her reassurance that though her suitors may claim to know what makes her tick, they only know parts of her (1:19) Her silent smile plainly reminds us however, that disparate parts do not always equal a whole. By the end of the film Nola has had her say, but just as important as her final statement of fact, is the exercise of reflection constituted by the narrative body of the film.