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Lynchpin Performances: Tracy Camilla Johns in “She’s Gotta Have It”

October 8, 2010

If you didn’t know, my description of a “Lynchpin Performance” is that of an actor in a film who carries the entirety of the script on their back, AND, if you attempted to cast anyone else in the role, the film would simply not work.

Spike Lee, a barely known entity in film back in 1986, having completed his NYU degree with the film “Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads” three years prior, was ready to make his first feature outside of his scholastic umbrella. This was the very beginning of a Black Renaissance in cinema that carried into the mid 1990s and eventually opened the way for filmmakers like Robert Townsend, The Hudlin Brothers, Matty Rich, the Hughes Brothers, John Singleton, Mario Van Peebles (and yes, his dad Melvin back for a second go round) Leslie Harris and several more. The details of this Renaissance for Black Filmmakers is another story for another time, but at this point, Spike’s issue, straight outta Tisch, was in making a film, making it cheap, making it worth seeing and making it worth talking about. He knew that he needed a buzz to get some attention on this effort. So it was a no brainer to write a story about sex.

But this wasn’t just a story about sex. This was a story about relationships, friendships, rivalries and what happens when all of them get tossed into the same bed. That bed was the property of a character named Nola Darling, and played by Tracy Camilla Johns.

Set in Spike’s native Brooklyn and done in glorious black and white (for the most part), the film unspools partially like a documentary, with direct to the camera interviews of Nola and the various players she gets involved with, and the intimate, raucous, hilarious and poignant moments from the stories of her interactions with the people all attempting to be in her life.

What makes this a lynchpin performance is Johns’ remarkable hybrid abilities. Somehow, she captured a childlike quality, and yet was absolutely adult. She reflected the sensibilities of the upscale white world, yet couldn’t possibly be more African American. Her beauty attracted. Her mind games repelled. And there were plenty of games to go around.

Most people focus on the stories of the three gentlemen Nola had floating in her orbit: Jamie, the kind-hearted, earnest and caring devotee, played by Tommy Redmond Hicks, Greer, the athletic male model with only his ego to match his muscles, played by John Canada Terrell and last but not least, Director Spike, playing the role that made him nearly as famous as Air Jordan himself: the righteously surnamed Mars Blackmon, that fast talking, fast moving cyclist who had no inner censor. His famous phrase “Please baby, please baby, please baby, baby baby please!“ still gets used occasionally, though it’s been a while since we’ve seen it on a t-shirt.

But there’s another suitor in the film that often gets overlooked, and that’s Opal, played by Raye Dowell. Opal was a gay woman, fully out and Nola was fully aware. Opal was also a caring friend, who helped nurse Nola through a sickness that had her bedridden. And Nola flirts both with her and with a lesbian relationship as a part of the discussion during the proceedings, and that goes right back to that hybrid element of this character, and how she is perfectly fine with examining her sexuality from every possible position. It’s that element that makes this film somewhat notable as unique in its approach to open discussion about gay and lesbian relationships in the community: something that many black folks were not necessarily at ease with, and likely still aren’t comfortable with, or at least not as relaxed about as Ms. Darling was.

To be fair, Spike doesn’t go very deep into that element, keeping it all at arm’s length. He was focusing on the commercial aspects of the film, and the hetero relationships, and I get the feeling he just wasn’t ready to go very far in that direction. Still, the suggestion that Nola was having (or at least could have been having)  a same sex fling, even if it was just to break up her boredom, was a step.

Nola’s child-like elements come to the fore when everyone in her life demands that she make a selection. Who will she choose? But, she has chosen: she wants everyone! Each one, in their way, provides an element she needed: Jamie was like a father figure. Greer was the guy too focused on himself to ever let a relationship get between him and his ego. Mars was the court jester that made the princess laugh. And Opal was like a mother.

The brilliance of Johns’ performance cannot be overstated. It was a tightrope to balance all of the various facets of Nola and still make her a believable and viable character, and she does so, magnificently. Yes, there are times when the dialog sounds more like something from a Poetry Slam, or possibly an acting class exercise, but even that works to drive the story along and to help convey the tone.

It’s a low down dirty shame that Tracy has left the world of acting. After her famed appearance in Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing” video, and an even more unsavory role in “New Jack City,” she all but disappeared from view, and the most recent word is she has become a born again Christian that wants nothing to do with the sordid elements of Hollywood. I often wonder whether this sort of decision is based strictly on a calling, or more on the fact that the only parts offered to her were that of strippers, hoes and strung out addicts. Really, after Nola Darling, being handed a career of playing the kind of parts she was given in “NJC” would make just about anyone find religion.

Though it seems she will never give us another performance, Tracy Camilla Johns most certainly did knock one out of the park, and I sincerely hope Spike Lee is sending her roses on her birthday, every year, to thank her for helping launch his career.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. October 8, 2010 8:02 pm

    The brilliance of Johns’ performance cannot be overstated. It was a tightrope to balance all of the various facets of Nola and still make her a believable and viable character, and she does so, magnificently. Yes, there are times when the dialog sounds more like something from a Poetry Slam, or possibly an acting class exercise, but even that works to drive the story along and to help convey the tone.

    It’s really a shame she left acting. She showed a preternatural ability to fully inhabit a character in an complex and believable way. I haven’t seen She’s Gotta Have It in a long time and after reading this entry I’m gonna definitely revisit this film. I tend to be pretty “meh” on Spike Lee, partly because I don’t always think the women in his films are well written, though I do really like the character in SGHI. What a lovely tribute to Ms. John. Fantastic analysis, Dean.

    Is there an actress working today that has the same emotional range and screen chemistry as Ms. Johns?

  2. October 8, 2010 8:46 pm

    I remember seeing this and loving how Spike Lee did a Brooklyn version of Jules and Jim.

  3. October 8, 2010 9:50 pm

    It’s a low down dirty shame that Tracy has left the world of acting. After her famed appearance in Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing” video, and an even more unsavory role in “New Jack City,” she all but disappeared from view

    It is very sad, this is a great call on naming her a lynchpin performance. This is definitely in the top of Spike Lee’s movies for me, though the unfortunate ending threatens to unravel the entire movie, I felt, and it’s probably why I never wanted to re-watch it.

    I also totally forgot about the character of Opal! I guess Spike Lee has been fixated on lesbians for a long time.

  4. October 8, 2010 10:30 pm

    Is there an actress working today that has the same emotional range and screen chemistry as Ms. Johns? @Snarky’s Machine it’s a good question, and one I don’t think I have a proper answer for… I think the problem is always in available parts. If there are more roles to play, we see more actresses out there. I guess if I had to name anybody who might have some of these qualities, Jurnee Smollett might be one of the younger actresses that has some of the same skills… Bianca Lawson at times has shown some of these qualities.

    You’re right though. Spike does tend to shortchange women characters in his films. Nola was perhaps his best, most well-rounded effort.

  5. October 8, 2010 10:47 pm

    @redlami Ha! except here, it’s a square, not a triangle! And thankfully, the ending isn’t quite as morbid.

  6. October 8, 2010 10:54 pm

    @raymondj yes, the ending is why this isn’t Spike’s best film for me (that’s still “Do The Right Thing”), but as Snarky points out, it’s rare to have well drawn female characters from him, so that says a lot of good about “SGHI,” and I feel confident that Tracy inserted a lot of herself into this performance and probably altered some dialog along the way as well, which is probably why this particular character was so solid.

    And EVERYBODY forgets Opal! Now, if she had been invited to Thanksgiving…

    Yeah, the lesbian stories definitely have turned up for Spike. Not a lot of equal time for the boys!

  7. October 9, 2010 12:44 pm

    I had to name anybody who might have some of these qualities, Jurnee Smollett might be one of the younger actresses that has some of the same skills

    It’s funny that you mention Smollett, because she was exactly who I was thinking about! Caught her on an episode of Grey’s Anatomy (where the careers of brilliant actors of color go to slum) and kept thinking, “her talent far exceeds the requirements of this role.”

    Spike did try to revisit Nola with Theresa Randle’s character in Girl 6, with varying degrees of success. It’s pretty hard to outshine a soundtrack done entirely by Prince, though.

    *too many brilliants!

  8. October 9, 2010 12:57 pm

    Grey’s Anatomy (where brilliant the careers of brilliant actors of color go to slum)

    LOL! so true.

    Girl 6 has one of my favorite scenes EVER.

    DROP INTO THE PAIN! I say that all the time too.

  9. October 9, 2010 1:08 pm

    Girl 6 was a real piece of work. I kept waiting for something to happen, but instead was greeted with a parade of high profile cameos masquerading as story arc.

  10. October 9, 2010 1:10 pm

    Omg there were a couple of eps of Grey’s featuring TV’s Julia and SHAFT playing someone’s parents! It was surreal.

  11. October 9, 2010 2:59 pm

    @snarky’s I haven’t been watching “The Defenders” so much, but Jurnee is a regular on that series and if nothing else, maybe it’ll help boost her career so that casting agents and directors will see what she can do (assuming she gets to do anything with Belushi and O’Connell in the way).

    and Girl 6 was just a music video series strung together with the skimpiest of plotlines. It’s bad when the soundtrack looks better than the film!

  12. October 12, 2010 12:50 pm

    Girl 6 was written by Suzan-Lori Parks, though. I always found it odd, maybe good, but still odd that Spike decided to ask someone else to write the script for his “I’m trying to resolve my issues from She’s Gotta Have It” movie. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suzan-Lori_Parks

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