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Thanksgiving: A Close Reading

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In “She’s Gotta Have It,” Nola’s quest for some form of personal agency (“It”) manifests itself through her control over her relationships with the three men vying for her companionship. Nola’s agency in each individual relationship fluctuates throughout the film. By closely examining one scene in which those three separate relationships collide, we can see what it looks like for Nola to have complete control over all three relationships at the same time—presumably, the exact sort of agency that “It” represents.

The scene in which Nola and her suitors eat Thanksgiving dinner together visually captures a single evening in which testament to the agency Nola achieves the control she seeks from the beginning of the film Agency implies the ability to make one’s own decisions without being subject to outside influence. By extension, the ability to independently make decisions that influence others in such a way that they cede their own decision-making ability is perhaps the strongest expression of that agency.  In choosing to invite Jamie, Greer, and Mars to have dinner at the same table, Nola emphasizes the openness with which she has treated the entire situation. Evidently, she expected—and rightly so—that each man’s desire to win her over would outweigh any anger they might feel toward her for setting up the dinner in such a way. Despite each man’s professed belief that he could control Nola in some way, each one spent the entire evening acting under her control.

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The view we see for the majority of the dinner scene is of the three men seated around the table, shot from a perspective understood to be Nola’s view of the meal. A white tablecloth serves as a stark visual divide between the three men. The very framing of the scene indicates that Nola is in charge. We never see her in the same frame as any of the men, evoking a sense of omnipotence in the mind of the viewer. The shot gives the sense that Nola is essentially holding court as Jamie, Greer, and Mars attempt to make their respective cases for why they should be the only man in her life.

The three suitors confirm Nola’s seat of power through their words and actions throughout the dinner. Each attempts to charm Nola in their own particular way while simultaneously trying to tear the other two men at the table down. Mars cracks jokes, Greer compliments Nola incessantly while casually hinting at his wealth, and Jamie spends the dinner mostly observing as the other two men to embarrass themselves.

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We are made more aware of Nola’s complete control over the entire situation when Mars jokingly declares that the competition for Nola should be decided by a coin flip between he and Jamie. Nola asks, “My fate decided by the flip of a coin?” in a way that suggests that the opposite is indeed true. She has crafted a situation in which any outcome will be the result of her own choices, leading one of the men she is choosing from to acknowledge his own lack of control over the situation.

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When the gathering moves into Nola’s bedroom, the main shot again suggests Nola’s position of dominance. We are yet again provided with a version of Nola’s visual perspective, with the camera situated behind her head and facing the visages of her three suitors. The men are seated between Nola and her bed, which the black and white color scheme makes appear luminescent in the dark room. The men are engaged in a heated game of Scrabble, but the real competition centers on who will join Nola in the bed that visually dominates the scene.

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After Nola finally becomes fed up with the men’s constant bickering and storms out of the room, the three of them are left without a clear winner of the competition they have been engaged in since they each became aware of the others’ existence. After more arguing, the film cuts to a shot that again signifies how little influence the men have over Nola in this situation.

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With no explanation, we see that Jamie has ended up in bed with Nola while Mars and Greer have been forced to sit off to the side. Though we do not know what happened between the Scrabble scene and this shot, we can posit that it was Nola who decided that Jamie would share the bed with her. Her reasoning, while predictable (as I mentioned before, of the three men present at the dinner, Jamie embarrassed himself the least), is unimportant. The stark difference between the men’s positions in the two scenes is the direct result of Nola’s ability to think and act for herself and to dictate what each of her three suitors’ actions.

It is important to note that this one scene is not representative of Nola’s relationship to “It” in the rest of the film. The scene instead serves as a manifestation of the ideal degree of agency that Nola seeks. That the entire evening is chaotic and unenjoyable for her is itself a statement on the feasibility of her plan.

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