Tuesday Editor’s Pick: Jungle Fever (1991)

by on November 9, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Tue Nov 15 at 7:00* at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]
*Followed by panel discussion


The Brooklyn Historical Society commemorates the 20th Anniversary of Spike Lee’s exploration of interracial romance, with a panel discussion featuring historian Renee Romano, author of Race Mixing: Black-White Marriage in Postwar America and co-editor of The Civil Rights Movement in American Memory; Michele Wallace, film critic, daughter of artist Faith Ringgold, and author of Black Macho and The Myth of The Superwoman; Imani Perry, author of Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop and More Beautiful and More Terrible: The Embrace and Transcendence of Racial Inequality in the United States.

Kent Jones in Film Comment (Jan/Feb 1997):

There are appalling things in Jungle Fever, but it remains Lee’s most devastating film, perhaps for the crazy reason that it’s the one most packed with interlocking thematic material. That’s the paradox of Lee as an artist: the more linear and streamlined his films are, the duller they get and the more they flounder. The Tim Robbins-Brad Dourif yuppie tag team, the Italian family scenes (Anthony Quinn’s performance as a supposedly prototypical Italian father”Your mother was a real woman!”-is like an industrial disaster in an olive oil factory), the floating conversations between Lee and Snipes all just sit there, but their place in the grid that Lee sets up, the way they counterpoint, amplify, and bruise one another, give the film a remarkable fullness and social threedimensionality. As in Do the Right Thing (which has some similarly awful moments that are nonetheless vital cogs in the machinery, like Lee and Turturro’s conversation about niggers), Lee achieves something rare in American cinema, which is an illustration of the degree to which people are products of their environment, a far cry from the bogus individualism of so much American cinema. Flipper and Angie (Sciorra) are ciphers at the center of Jungle Fever, surrounded by a range of far more vivid characters: Ossie Davis’s terrifyingly stern, separatist, Old Testament father and Ruby Dee’s pathologically genteel mother, John Turturro’s haloed candy store proprietor, and Samuel L. Jackson’s horrifying crackhead. And on reflection what seems like an artistic miscalculation turns out to be a dialectical strategy. Lee is speaking to middle-class people like Flipper (and himself, presumably) who keep things status quo by avoiding the cacophony of warring voices in their ears, just as in Do the Right Thing he is speaking to layabouts like Mookie who try to float through the world and eventually act out of sheer psychic exhaustion. When Mookie throws that garbage can through the window, he is egged on by his neighborhood friends, as Jonathan Rosenbaum has correctly pointed out, but he is also making a fruitless and mindless gesture that is the result of so much heat, aggravation, and sloganeering. It seems appropriate that the characters are diminished by the confusion that makes up their world (was this the reason Wim Wenders made his insane and now legendary comment that Mookie was not enough of a hero?) and that they have no time or room to analyze calmly.


“Hey daddy, I’ll suck your big black dick for two dollars!” drawls the teenaged whore to Wesley Snipes’s Flipper Purify before he screams with indignation and takes her in his arms at the end of Jungle Fever. It’s one of the few sweepingly rhetorical moments in modern cinema that earns its weight and selfimportance because it’s the culmination of a whole battery of anxieties, horrors, disappointments, and subterfuges that have all been laid out by Lee with his typical block-by-block, hard plastic clarity.



Stephen Hunter for The Baltimore Sun:

In his new “Jungle Fever,” Lee sees the pain and hope of interracial love, the despair of drugs, the stifling crunch of orthodoxy, the tragedy of broken communications. He even finds grace and humanity just where you’d think he couldn’t: in Bensonhurst.


The story (primarily) of an interracial extramarital affair, it broadens to encompass a larger tapestry of dilemmas facing blacks (and whites) in America, and yet it almost effortlessly never loses contact with its central thrust. Lee’s audacity is almost as dazzling as his talent.


Lee’s view of America is not optimistic: Everybody in “Jungle Fever” — blacks, of course, but also and especially whites — is enmeshed in a system of oppression. Everybody’s a victim and the movie is an account of how these desperately crippled, crimped people reach out to one another, sometimes successfully, sometimes tragically. It has no answers; but it has millions of questions.



Samuel G. Freedman talks to Lee for The New York Times:

What begins as a standard-issue office affair, with late nights over Chinese take-out leading to desktop consummation, evolves by its racial nature into an affront to two families and two communities, Flipper’s Harlem and Angie’s Bensonhurst. When the pair begin living together midway through the film, it is less as willing mates than fellow traitors, and when they uncouple toward the end, Flipper says, “I give up. It’s not worth it. I don’t love you and I doubt seriously you ever loved me . . . . Love-can-overcome-everything . . . is only in Walt Disney movies, and I’ve always hated Disney movies.”


Those words come as much from Mr. Lee as from the character. Even before “Jungle Fever” had its world premiere last month at the Cannes International Film Festival, he had said its purpose was to inspect and thereby demolish the sexual stereotypes of the black man as stud nonpareil and the white woman as beauty incarnate. But as he acknowledged in a recent interview — in anticipation of the film’s opening this Friday — his concerns extend beyond the affair to its volatile, even violent consequences.


“I hate this whole Hollywood process of breaking down a movie to one sentence,” he said. “My films don’t deal with one theme. They interweave many different things. You have to think. I’m not saying interracial relationships are impossible. Flipper and Angie are not meant to represent every interracial couple in the world. They are meant to represent two people who got together because of sexual mythology instead of love. Then they stay together because they’re pushed together. They’re outcasts. And since their relationship isn’t based on love, when things get tough, they can’t weather the storm.”



Jack Mathews in The Los Angeles Times:

Lee, who wrote, directed and produced “Jungle Fever” and plays a pivotal role as well, said he didn’t intend the film to make a statement for or against interracial relationships. What is important to him about the affair between Snipes’ Flipper and Sciorra’s Angie is that they are attracted to each other initially not by love but by racial myths.


“When you’re a black person in the United States, you’re constantly bombarded in the media with (the notion of) the white woman being the epitome of beauty,” Lee said. “Movies, magazines, TV. You see blond hair, blue eyes, fair skin, thin nose. If you’re not that image, you’re not beautiful. If you’re black, you never see yourself portrayed (as beautiful).”


Snipes, who attended the press conference along with Lee and the film’s composer, Stevie Wonder, added that successful black men often choose white women simply because they can. “If you come from a background where you’ve been deprived of so much and get a certain amount of power, you look for that which you’ve always been denied,” Snipes said. “Why so many successful black men are with white women is because they’ve always been denied that.”



Desson Howe in The Washington Post:

Lee seems to uncover every possible racial hypocrisy he can. It turns out, of course, that everyone in this movie is screwed up about color. Is Snipes’s extramarital transgression worse for being interracial? Bitter wife McKee certainly thinks so, not to mention most of their other friends. When Lee, playing Snipes’s confidant, hears Snipes has strayed, his shock intensifies a hundredfold when he learns Sciorra is white.


The ironies abound. Sciorra’s girlfriends are supportive of her affair but viscerally disgusted. Despite their nasty, anti-black diatribes, the Italian regulars in Turturro’s store are still dying to jump on the attractive black woman who comes in regularly for a paper


The film is dedicated to Yusef Hawkins, whose death at the hands of a Bensonhurst mob made explosive headlines, and Lee keeps things constantly on the edge of violence. But even when the violence breaks out, as when Sciorra suffers a severe beating from her father, Frank Vincent, it’s gone just as quickly. Still, the tensions rise again.



Jonathan Rosenbaum, somewhat ambivalent, in The Chicago Reader:

Spike Lee’s high-powered, all-over-the-place 1991 movie about interracial romance (Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra), crack addiction (a remarkable turn by Samuel L. Jackson), breaking away from one’s family (a theme that crops up in at least five households, with Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Anthony Quinn, and Frank Vincent among the parents), and corporate advancement for blacks (Snipes again), chiefly set in two New York neighborhoods (Harlem and Bensonhurst). The disparate themes never quite come together, but with many fine performances—John Turturro and Lonette McKee are especially good—you won’t be bored for a minute. Overall the film suggests a kind of living newspaper, with stories and subplots crowding one another for front-page space. There are so many voices you may think you’re swimming through a maelstrom, but thanks to Lee it’s all superbly orchestrated.


And Vincent Canby, in The New York Times:

Make no mistake about it, “Jungle Fever” is a comedy, a big, visually splendid, serious social comedy that embraces the sorrowful as well as the hilarious. Lee was speaking from the heart in “Do the Right Thing,” and made no attempt to hide it. “Jungle Fever” is no less deeply felt, but the view is longer, the tone cooler, the command of technique so self-assured that the film can turn on a dime from the tragic to the ridiculous.


– Compiled by Tom McCormack

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