In some situations, it is necessary to blur the lines between reality and fantasy, between dreams and real life, and in cinema one effective way to make this change is through the use of color. She’s Gotta Have It is shot almost entirely in black and white, and it is this that makes the one scene in color stand out in contrast. Now, one can argue that Lee’s rationale to shoot the film in black and white was budgetary–perhaps it takes more equipment and time to develop 35mm film in color as opposed to in black and white, and that is entirely feasible as he was working on an incredibly tight budget for this film. Nevertheless, in comparing the dance sequence in the park and Jamie’s “near-rape” of Nola, there is more than enough evidence to show that the use of black and white was not only intentional, but tells the viewer more about Nola than anything she says or does in the course of the film. I argue that one of the aspects of Nola we learn through this choice is what “it” is that she has got to have. Through the use of black and white juxtaposed with color, representing a dream world and reality, respectively, Lee shows us some of Nola’s insecurity, and the “it” that she has to have is something she searches for and never attains: psychic stability.
The first scene one can look to is perhaps the most important scene in the movie–the dance sequence (00:31:40-00:36:44), shot entirely in color. The scene shift occurs when Jamie tells Nola to click her heels three times and repeat the famous line “there’s no place like home”. Here, Lee is signifying on The Wizard of Oz, specifically the scene where Dorothy is leaving the dreamworld (literally) of Oz and returning to/waking up in her real life in Kansas. Even though here the color scheme is reversed–Dorothy’s dreamworld is in color, whereas Nola’s real world is in color–the effect is the same. In both situations, “home” is the land of the real, and it is where the character ends up after saying this magical phrase. When Jamie and Nola do appear in the park, in color, they are witnessing a song and dance composed especially for Nola’s birthday. Contained in the visual brilliance of this scene, however, is the negative, if not
demeaning, content of the song. The track is named “Nola” , meaning the song was written specifically for her, and is a warning to other men to not be manipulated by women; essentially, don’t be fooled by a woman going “on her merry way” simply because it is her birthday and thus “she’s queen for a day”. It is as though Jamie is warning other men to not be as gullible as he was, to “not take some sugar in [their] mouth that may be sweet to [them]/ but bitter in [their] stomach later on”. Choreographically, the female dancer laughs as she pushes her male counterpart to the ground, but is upset when he retaliates by throwing a glass of water in her face, and the scene shifts around her emotions. Mapping this onto Nola and Jamie, she is allowed to throw him around how she pleases, but everything would change if he were to retaliate. Within the “reality” portion of the film, Nola is manipulative, and Jamie is trying to warn us of this fact. All too soon, however, the viewer is transported back into dreamland as Nola makes a wish on a candle, leaving behind the “real” world and its color.
About half an hour later, back in dreamland (01:08:24-01:10:48), Jamie is leaving the female dancer in his bed because Nola has called and asked him to come to her. As he travels to her apartment, we do not see a fluid depiction of travel, but instead different black and white photographs of Jamie in transit where his face is blurred or covered. This is the running aesthetic theme of the entire scene, the ways in which light and shadows blur, distort, and illuminate aspects of the frame. There are the initial photographs of Jamie in transit, but upon his arrival to Nola’s apartment they are both lit as though the light is coming through blinds which leaves the majority
of their bodies in shadow. Jamie’s shadowiness is heightened by the fact that he is wearing black, meaning he contrasts with Nola in her white nightshirt but also recedes farther into the shadows of her darkened room. Even so, it is clear that he is in a role of dominance and causing Nola to suffer a traumatic event. When Jamie throws Nola onto her bed before “nearly-raping” her, the most lit aspect of the scene is the painting behind them of distorted, screaming figures similar to those in The Scream by Picasso, and at the end of the scene the camera returns to this painting in a series of closeups. At the end, when the interaction is finished, Jamie is lit from one solid light source, and his entire torso is visible; they are in a dark room still, but he is not in shadow. In contrast to Nola’s “real world”, where she was the manipulative character, in her dream world Jamie is the shadowed, manipulative and dominating character, rendering Nola helpless and hopeless.
Nola floats in between these worlds, in between power and powerlessness, and seems to reach no state of contentment in either setting. This movement, highlighted by the change of color in these related scenes, speaks to the idea that she undergoes this transition in search of the “it” that she cannot grasp throughout the movie–psychic stability. There is a similar movement between worlds of fantasy in Crooklyn, where Mark D. Cunningham argues that Troy is moving between worlds of fantasy as she travels between Brooklyn and Virginia, but when she returns home she has “become” a woman; her fantasy has evaporated and been replaced by reality. Nola moves between worlds too, only as an adult she is forced to have some connection to the real world that 10 year old Troy does not, but neither world holds the sense of stability that Troy seems to gain at the end of Crooklyn. One world, the “real” world, warns the viewer about being manipulated by women like Nola, and the other world, the “dreamland” has her being manipulated by all three of her lovers, and eventually raped by one, but in neither world is she content. Additionally, the stability within reality and dreams is complicated by the
quote from Zora Neale Hurston‘s Their Eyes Were Watching God displayed at the beginning of the movie. She writes that for women, “the dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly”. This alludes to the idea that the viewer is supposed to see the dreamworld as Nola’s “truth”, because she acts as though it is the truth (not her reality, because I think the movie complicates the equivalency of “truth” and “reality”). She does act in accordance with her dream world, the world that depicts her as a figure for manipulation and a space for understanding men, as opposed to acting in reaction to the message conveyed in the “real” world of her as a manipulative figure. Nevertheless, I think the movement shows a level of dissatisfaction with her dream world–she moves into “reality” because she cannot find the psychic stability she needs while serving as the space for her male companions to enact themselves, and then moves back into her dreamworld because “reality” is not helpful, either. It is Lee’s use of color and black/white that allows us to make the distinction and comparison between these two scenes, and become closer to understanding what exactly is “it” that Nola Darling has “gotta have”.