Few American movie directors have aroused as much controversy in the past decade as Spike Lee. Do the Right Thing (1989), his incendiary drama of racial violence, provoked raging debate in the media. Mo’ Better Blues (1990), the contrived tale of a jazz trumpeter’s improvised love life, was less memorable. But it gave credence to a number of complaints about Lee—that he was far less sensitive to sexism than to racism, that his female characters lacked substance and that drug abuse was strangely absent from his street-level vision of black America. With his new movie, Lee answers his critics on every count—and erases any doubts about his brilliance as a director. Jungle Fever, a visceral drama about inter-racial romance, ventures into terrain previously uncharted by Hollywood. It is a passionate, witty and profoundly moving film—a contemporary tragedy with Shakespearean dimensions.
Jungle Fever delivers a well-aimed blow at the solar plexus of urban America where conflicts of race, class and gender intersect. Reversing the plantation stereotype of miscegenation between white bosses and black slaves, Jungle Fever's story centres on an affair between a black yuppie named Flipper (Wesley Snipes), a successful architect, and his new secretary, Angie (Annabella Sciorra), an Italian-
American trying to escape the working class. Flipper lives with his wife and young daughter on a gentrified street in Harlem; Angie lives with her father and two squabbling brothers in Bensonhurst, the race-tom Brooklyn neighborhood that served as the setting for Do the Right Thing, the story of a violent showdown between a white pizza-parlor owner and his black customers.
Their affair is triggered by racial curiosity, not by love. And they consummate it with blind urgency—at night, alone in the office, under the harsh white light of a drafting table. Flipper maintains that he is happily married. But when rumors of his infidelity filter back to his wife,
Drew (Lonette McKee), his marriage is suddenly in ruins. Drew, a mulatto who has a classy job as a buyer for Bloomingdales, is outraged that her husband betrayed her for “low-class white trash—I guess I just wasn’t light enough.”
Flipper’s adultery also provokes the wrath of his father (Ossie Davis), a retired preacher and one of the movie’s three unyielding patriarchs. When Angie’s father (Frank Vincent) finds out that she is dating a black man, he viciously beats her. But her brokenhearted boyfriend, Paulie, poignantly played by John Turturro, defies the racism of his belligerent peers.
Standing up to his own bigoted father (Anthony Quinn), he emerges as the movie’s most sympathetic figure.
Like Lee’s previous films, Jungle Fever unfolds from a male viewpoint. But the director, who has a minor role on-screen, goes out of his way to create strong and authentic female characters. In one scene, Lee throws the movie open to an excoriating discussion about men by Drew and her women friends. The actresses appear to be freely improvising on camera. Asking “Are there any good black men?” the women explore the sexual politics of skin color in fascinating detail. And the phenomenon of black men lusting after ever-lighter skin tones, one of them finally concludes, represents “a fundamental disrespect for women.”
Jungle Fever bristles with insight and attitude. Lee tries to portray the conflicts of an entire community through his characters. But his expansive narrative achieves a remarkable level of intimacy, an emotional power that makes Do the Right Thing seem like a pale polemic by comparison. It also covers a lot more ground—including the issue of black drug abuse. Flipper’s brother, Gator (Samuel L. Jackson), is a dangerous crack user who harasses his family with demands for money. Eventually, Flipper searches him out in a crack house, a vast warehouse of the damned that Lee depicts with an almost biblical sense of doom.
The moral eloquence in Jungle Fever displaces Lee’s habitual smugness. It is evident in the heartrending performances by Snipes, Sciorra and Turturro, and in the rage summoned up by Davis, Vincent and Quinn. Singer Stevie Wonder, who composed the movie’s uplifting score, seems to be cast as the voice of God—or Lee. His sound track, which sometimes overwhelms the dialogue, is initially distracting. But as the movie’s tension builds, it becomes a dynamic component of the drama, like a Greek chorus. Lee also uses several Frank Sinatra songs as ironic ballast. In one scene, Paulie’s friends sling racial insults about black mayors and Central Park rapists while Sinatra croons, at equal volume, It Was a Very Good Year.
Jungle Fever offers no redemption, but it does provide an overwhelming catharsis. It æ is a loveless Romeo and Ju liet, a story of star-crossed z lust. Sciorra, however, insist| ed that her character was c? driven by romantic impulses, I according to Lee, who quarrelled with the actress during the shoot. Although he praises her performance, he says that he could not get her to accept his vision of the film. “I couldn’t put a gun to her head,” the director told TV talkshow host Arsenio Hall last week, “and it was too far along in the shoot to fire her.” It is perhaps appropriate that Jungle Fever, a movie of febrile contradiction, has risen out of such violent cross-purposes.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.