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In his opening sequence to Jungle Fever, Spike Lee introduces the
theme of the appropriateness of sex. Through the red haze of a Harlem
morning, we are introduced to Flipper and his wife Drew in a very
compromising position. Entangled in both the sheets and a moment of
the couple begin their morning in copulation, all the while trying
desperately not to `wake the baby.' This `baby' could be a child who
already produced or a child who is potentially in the making.
This notion of sex as a means of producing children runs throughout the film. We find that even after Flipper has begun his relationship with Angela Tucci, he would never think of having children with her. Flipper's fear of having mixed (`octoon, quadroon, mulatto') children is very high. We learn that his wife is mixed herself. Her father is white and her mother is black. During the scene in her office, we get a glimpse of the kind of heartache that she has suffered from her skin color, a result of the intermingling of the two races of her parents. This sex-and-its-aftermath theme manifests itself in the dysfunctional parent/child(ren) relationships throughout the film. Angie is tied to her father and two brothers as a sort of domestic slave. Not only does she have to work hard in a distant part of town all day, but she also has to return home to cook for and clean up after her three male family members. She seems to receive no financial or emotional support for her efforts either. This becomes very clear when her father beats her up after learning of her relationship with Flipper. We see a similar relationship develop with Paulie and his father. His father's constant nagging about the number of each of the periodicals that he orders on a daily basis coupled with his lack of gratefulness for the meals that he cooks for him each day drive Paulie mad. Though Paulie's father isn't as physically abusive as Angela's father is, we see his proclivity toward violence we he forces his way into the bathroom and whaps a teary-eyed Paulie on the head with a magazine. Eventually, Paulie is able to stand up to his father, telling him `I'm not your f***ing wife; I'm your son.'
The most powerful and destructive parent/child(ren) relationship that unfolds on the screen is that of Flipper's family, including his brother Gator and both of his parents. Lee's choice to introduce the reverend doctor and his wife as parents of Gator first necessarily colors our impression of them as good parents. What type of parents produce a crackhead? Certainly not the same type of parents that produce an upstanding architect, but maybe the type of parents who would rear an interracial adulterer. Other than Drew, who we really never see interact with her child, Gator's mother is the only mother to which we're physically exposed in the text. She loves both of her children and would rather not talk about the problems that exist in their relationships. Instead, she closes her eyes to the truth of Gator's drug habit and hands him money while he does the dances that she likes, and she would rather change the subject at the dinner table than broach the topic of adultery. This approach to parenting doesn't work any better than that of her counterpart. The reverend doctor doesn't ever want to really talk to his kids about their problems without using biblical metaphors. These one-sided diatribes seem to drown out any potential discussions just as much as the wailing of his favorite Mahalia Jackson records. In the end, he must kill his neglected son because he has deteriorated so extensively from crack use. The film's concluding sequence has brought us full circle. The framing of the newspaper landing on Flipper's stoop initially suggests that everything has returned to normal - that Drew has accepted her husband back into her life. Their daughter's smiles and giggles also point to the same conclusion. But we find, as Drew rolls over in bed and tells Flipper he better leave, that the sex is only a temporary fix for a desire for pleasure. The sex will not solve the problems that it has created. In the film's resolution, we see echoes of Paulie's father's former explosion in the bathroom: `All they think marriage is for is humping.'
The final, seemingly confusing line of the film - `Yo, daddy, I'll suck your big black d*** for $2.' - sums up this theme well. It both mirrors in video and echoes in audio an almost identical part from earlier in the film. When Flipper was walking his daughter to school, a crack whore approaches him with the offer, `I'll suck your d*** for $5.' By the film's end, the price has lowered, the sex has been cheapened, and the whore is addressing Flipper as `daddy.' In this final line, the importance of parent/child relationships is emphatic. Sex, a supposedly physical manifestation of love, often results in a product - a child. This child will then live in a society where sex and love is misguided or undirected altogether.
This movie is more about sex than race. Lee was quoted in the NYT as
follows: "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."
Thus at its core this film is a feminist critique of the nature of
sexual attraction in contemporary America. These folks are wrong for
each other but they both are stereotypically "attractive." There is
"chemistry" between them, but no shared values that are the bedrock of
a serious relationship. The "black stud"/ "sexy white girl" is just one
way this could be instantiated.
In one sense, this is a serious issue and it is worth exploring. My own misgivings about this film is that Lee's moral seems to be: values = good, chemistry = bad, and this strikes me as somewhat simplistic.
Spike Lee's films are consistent in one respect, even for the lesser
ones, which is that they're always pressing buttons. In the case of
Jungle Fever, it's another work where messages come out more than from
a guy on a postal route. But that's perhaps part of the point, where
such points come in many forms and sometimes like a barrage. This time,
it doesn't completely gel as well as Lee's Do the Right Thing, which
also held anger, contemplation, humor, and pathos about city life. But
this time it's also a tale of sexual morays, where both white and black
sides have their share of racism and prejudices, and at the core is a
story of outcasts. The interesting thing then about Jungle Fever is how
Lee's own decisions in casting and in the unique way he shoots his
subjects and implements a subjective take more often then not trump
what comes out in his script. Then again, maybe it's close to being
inevitable with how the elements mix, and at the end there are some
parts of the film that are the best that Lee's done so far as a
Wesley Snipes and Anabella Sciora star as the said 'jungle fever' couple, the man being married with a kid, of all things to a woman who is also light-skinned and with her own 'issues', and the woman having an 'old-fashioned' Italian father. When their affair becomes known to both sides, the costs come out and they both become outcasts. And at the end of all of the points that are made in Jungle Fever by Lee, even through the ones that are pounded and (of the period) quite topical and prominent, this notion of society and culture being the biggest culprit is hard to ignore. This main point is made very well by Lee's script, and even as sometimes the script doesn't have the best dialog or lines a little 'too easy', if that makes any sense, there are many scenes which do support this to the fullest. And as the job of any good director is to cast right, this film is filled with a who's-who's of professionals and character actors.
One could go on as to who appears in the film, from Anthony Quinn to Tim Robbins to Ossie Davis to John Turturro, and they all fit their parts and contribute to adding a level of fascination in each. When the less desirable aspects peak in even more, it only adds to what ends up working on screen. Sometimes the script, as mentioned, is a little derivative and trying to touch ALL bases, with a but the film is more often than not alive due to (some of) the music at times. Maybe the most genius pieces of casting were Samuel L. Jackson, in (arguably) one of his very best performances, and Halle Berry. In a sense there are similar points made in the "A" storyline and the "B" one, where there is some extra interest in the supporting characters and their connection with the main ones. Jackson and Berry are crack-heads, and outcasts, and to their own degree have the same crap end of the stick as the leads to. Among many scenes where confrontations reach a great emotional intensity, the best comes with Snipes going into the crack-house and seeing just the purest dark side of society, what really does bring people down.
In the end, Jungle Fever is one of the Lee movies that is worth seeing, that may prove on a repeat viewing to bring even more thought than previous. It's energetic, somber, occasionally funny and shocking in equal measure.
Flipper Purify is a successful architect with a beautiful wife and a
smart young daughter back at his apartment. When he gets a new temp in
to work alongside him he is not pleased that she is white but her hard
work impresses him. Working late one night, chatting becomes a
connection which becomes flirting which becomes sex. Their affair
continues even as Flipper quits his job to branch out alone. However
his life is thrown into chaos when his wife Drew finds out.
The opening credits are catchy and the material is just the sort of racial issue that Spike Lee made his name but somehow the film itself really failed to catch my imagination or hold my attention. The central plot is simple enough but Lee fills it out with characters, debate and a couple of subplots but yet somehow doesn't manage to pull it all together into one compelling film. Of course those that like Spike Lee know that even when he is at his most average he can still make an interesting film. And so it is here because the film does have plenty of interesting scenes but it is the narrative and formulation of his point where it fails to come off. In his defence Lee has written some convincingly real characters with unfortunately real attitudes but by leaving these people mostly unchallenged to deliver their opinions he allows two things to happen. Firstly the film feels like a series of disjointed conversations most of which are interesting enough to listen to but don't a total film make.
Secondly, and more importantly, Lee appears to be in agreement with some of his characters that mixed race relationships are not a good idea. If this is not his opinion then he has done a poor job in putting his thoughts across. If he is in agreement then he has done a poor job in presenting this point in a coherent and convincing fashion. Instead it seems like the racists have won which is maybe is his point but if so yet again he hasn't done a good job of putting it across. In fact thinking about it, his point probably is that it all isn't worth the effort but, like I say, it isn't very well delivered and a lot of the ideas are half-cooked. The cast make it well worth a look regardless thanks to Lee's usual skill in assembling his actors. Snipes has massively fallen from grace in regards his career and his personal life but here he is pretty good. The material is just a little beyond his range but he does the basics well. Sciorra is better and works well with him. Lee is Lee while McKee is rather wasted with her simplistic race rage. Quinn is a nice touch in support while Turturro is as good as I have come to expect from him. Davis and Dee are good but they exist in another film, albeit the drugs subplot is interesting and both Jackson and Berry are impressive but it doesn't really fit. Lee's direction is his usual style but his use of soundtrack is weak the tunes themselves are good but he doesn't put them across the film with any reason or sense of meaning.
Overall then an fitfully interesting film as is usually the way with Lee but one that failed to come together or deliver a convincing central message. The depressing message that does come across isn't that well made and as a result isn't as thought provoking as it should have been. The casting is interesting though and the performances mostly do as required in the many good individual scenes. Famous but not as good as the names attached would make you hope.
Spike Lee made "Jungle Fever" in the era when he also made masterpieces
like "Do the Right Thing" and "Malcolm X". I will admit that the
subject matter here is nothing that we haven't seen many times (an
interracial love story), but Lee knows how to do without getting
idiotic or manipulating emotions. In this case, African-American
Flipper Purify (Wesley Snipes) has an affair with Italian-American
co-worker Angela Tucci (Annabella Sciorra), thereby setting off a
racially charged chain reaction.
A previous reviewer said that Lee throws in so many subplots that the movie gets too confusing. I agree that the various subplots do this to an extent, but I think that Lee mainly wanted to show how people's lives were getting affected by the series of events portrayed. There were some clichés, namely the bigoted Bensonhurst residents, but this is certainly a well done movie. Watch for a young Halle Berry as a crack addict, and I believe that Queen Latifah appears as a waitress.
With some interesting ideas about racism, some creative camera-work, and generally solid acting, there is enough in this film to make it worth checking out, albeit not enough to make it a great film. Spike Lee's depiction of a modern society build about racism lacks credibility, as it is hard to believe that the only thing the characters care about is racism-related. Lee's colour scheme hurts the film too, as the hues, in particular the oranges, are very harsh on the eyes, this distracting one from the on screen action. There are also some drug addiction subplots fitted in, to no certain advantage, and despite Terence Blanchard providing a nice multi-style score, it is used rather awkwardly throughout. Plus, there one large unanswered question: is Lee endorsing segregation and racism in the film? Believe it or not, in spite of these problems, the film has enough in it for adequate viewing. Seeing Halle Berry in her first big screen appearance is quite interesting, and Queen Latifah makes her debut appearance too as a waitress. It is very well shot, competently acted and it provides some things to think about, even if it is not too great overall stuff.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
New Mood, Lost Groove--Second Take on Jungle Fever
Jungle Fever (1991)
Was life so different 18 years ago that I would think this movie a brilliant if affected romance, and today I find its preachy stiffness clichéd to distraction?
If so, why? And when does a lack of realism rise above artifice to become art, and artful directing? I still admire Spike Lee, but with more caveats, more questions.
There are internal clues to Lee's choosing style over realism. The highly chromed gun, still hot from the preacher/father archetype killing his son the sweetly selfish druggie archetype, is set squarely on an open Bible. The black lead male, playfully wrestling with the white lead female on top of a car in what seems like a rape out in the street (like they weren't a little bit cautious?), of course leads seconds later to cops acting brutal and protective of the girl, guns pointing at heads, and there is the realization that a biracial affair might be nearly impossible. Snap, like that. It's all artifice. Even the steady flipping and exaggeration of stereotypes in the movie, and the drumbeat of political conversation about race, race and sexual stereotypes, reveals a director with a purpose, and a purpose that overwhelms the drama, the narrative romance.
Because this is a romance, plain and simple. And yet surely Spike Lee said to himself at an early stage: who needs another routine if well made romantic movie? Even if the two leads are of different color. And so we have a confession (if he ever said this) that he is after something more, and that something more is going to consume the romance. Fair enough. But do we need to be lectured to? Even if we agree, or especially if we agree, that people should love and make love to whoever they want, does it help to have transparent points about textbook injustice constantly scratching at us while wanting to just enjoy all the emotional, interracial conflicts?
Well, let's defer for a minute. Because it would frankly be easier to dismiss the movie as a heavy handed polemic failure. Which it is not. It has many moments of both cinematic and theatric brilliance (from a hugely talented cast). I really wanted to get sucked in, and when I sometimes did start to disappear into that world, I was pushed back out.
Take the scene with all the women, ostensibly black (or actually black) but of different color skin, talking with great elevation and personality about being of color, and of men wanting women of color (or not), and of them wanting men of color (or not), and really batting the issue around with a kind of grad school but earthy intelligence. Everyone is correct in their own context, and within their character roles they make their points vivid, and sometimes a camera angle or shift from one face to another is elegant and affecting in the best way. But hey, no matter how truly cerebral these women would be in real life, and how well meaning, and how well versed in these issues through life and on paper, would they have this kind of gem of a discussion the way Lee presents it? Unlikely. Or impossible. No, he compressed it into something unreal, something better than real perhaps, built on kernels of reality. We know it represents the truth, not just sociologically but as individuals with complex emotional responses. That's good. That it remains a represented truth lacking narrative transparency is less good, or less easy. We believe, we nod, we assent, and we nod off. Contrivance intrudes and rebuffs.
There are lots of high profile movies that live on their un-realism (they are actively non- real), from Night of the Hunter to Kill Bill with West Side Story and every other musical thrown in the middle. Certainly, the first five decades of film history are about stylized worlds that we must read through, suspending our realities, accepting the form. We are not usually made to believe we are watching reality itself. Jungle Fever is not like The Bicycle Thief, not one bit, and that's fine.
But then, accepting this (tentatively), we still need to care enough about the movie to watch it through. That is, of the many movie-making tricks for grabbing the viewers and holding them, one or more have to be persuasively in place. As a top-of-the-head counter- example, consider Crash, which a decade after Jungle Fever dealt with some of the same issues in a different kind of city, and in a more lyrical, almost dreamlike way. Crash held me with very few reservations from start to finish. It held me and sometime entranced me even though I knew it was as "false" and at times as obliquely preachy as Jungle Fever.
So I struggled this second and third time, even though I remember loving the movie when it was released. But look at it this way: if the movie said things we needed to hear in 1991 and we don't respond to as well now, it might be because we've moved past some of that in 2009. That's what my students say, and so that's a pretty terrific thing. If it means the movie is aging badly, let's wait for another decade to correct itself it once again.
Lots of hate and not much love is the feeling I get when looking this
film up; ironic then that the idea of interracial relationships in
1990s America has much the same stance on the idea stick to what you
know or else people who have long since died will be angry at you, oh
and the current parent who hasn't died (the father in both cases) will
either threaten to or indeed literally beat you senseless.
I don't think Jungle Fever, directed by Spike Lee, is all that bad in fact I found it interesting, engaging and somewhat tragic which means I liked it; I liked it a lot. I think one of the primary reasons this film works is that it achieves something extremely difficult and that's being able to get across a narrative of love, loss and temptation all the time being able to put across and offer opinions on race and ethnicity whilst also being able to merge in a healthy and satisfying amount of humour which, oddly enough, only really comes along when the film is dealing with its 'tragedy' sub-plot involving Gator (Jackson). The idea behind the character is tragic but it is Jackson's presence and approach to the material that makes it humorous: a crack addict that turns up at the most inconvenient of times asking for money, often doing a little dance in order to get it; but he does not learn the wrong of his ways and that's the tragic thing.
So you see, the fact that Spike Lee has created this universe for all these issues to be digested and be put across all the time keeping you interest with some individual acting performances, good music and a fair amount memorable dialogue moments is extremely impressive my favourite of which is Spike Lee himself portraying a character who goes up in extremities when he learns of an affair, the fact the wife doesn't know and then that the girl is actually white. Jungle Fever starts out in pretty humorous yet tragic circumstances, echoing the atmosphere to come for the rest of the film; the pre-film titles have road signs displaying things like 'drugs, left; crack, right' which is a damned if you do, damned if you don't idea that works amongst the upbeat music. It's this sort of juxtaposition in visuals that works and challenges the viewer as well as possibly being Lee getting across what life is like in these sorts of places 'No matter where you turn, you cannot escape certain failure'.
So, to have the rather oddly named Flipper Purify (Snipes) as an architect who is living a good life with a great job with great prospects with a wonderful wife and kid gives us the sense he is an achiever but he cannot live in a district that is pleasant, so that 'tag' that you never escape the ghetto is present. Likewise, Flipper is a big cheese in his company but he must answer to two white yuppies ahead of him and when things get a little heated, it seems the two white men have defeated the hard working black character. But it is Flipper's own stupidity that sees him go on his journey of hell and self-discovery and all in the name of curiosity which is the film's only real flaw but I cannot hold it too much against it. This is a film in which everybody gets a bite of the cherry; the African-American characters in the film are people who are striving to survive (the credits suggesting the ghetto is a no win place suggests this) doing whatever means necessary no matter how high up you are (crack head or rich architect); Italians are people who perhaps come across as quite needlessly aggressive and yet are the sorts who hold onto values and friendships despite whatever situations arise they are also people who look out for their sisters.
Then there are the women; in what is one of Jungle Fever's more remarkable scenes, a half dozen women sit around and consolidate Drew (McKee) as she comes to terms with the affair. It is remarkable because it shows women have a voice and they are voicing their opinions in a true-to life manner remarkable that Lee scripts this scene and shoots it not in a voyeuristic manner but one that lets us know how they feel; I wonder how many other films revolving around an male instigated affair would stop to include this scene? Jungle Fever is a film that has heart but it has brains to boot; there is another great scene when Frankie Botz (Badalucco) is being wound up over his girl and he slams people who are Aryan, blaming Hollywood (another Spike Lee scripted dig?) for it but this is right after heart of gold Italian Paulie Carbone (Turturro) points out that Italian's several decades ago who paid the blacks equal wages were hung for doing so; this echoes the overall theme of the film in a single scene, that being that "it is the 1990s, things like this happen" says Debi Mazar's character and that the disapproving parents should not be too affected by something that supposedly insults tradition.
Jungle Fever is not about 'x' is black and shouldn't date 'y' because they're white; if anything it's about the reason to stick with your partner: if Flipper was curious as to what 'white' would've been like, surely that echoes compliment to Drew because he doesn't consider he so; even though she has been bullied over the light tone of her skin. Spike Lee has made something here that is epic and intriguing; tragic and yet funny at times. This is a modern piece trying to push out what's wrong and what's right: 'stay with partner' is better than 'stay with race' but that doesn't mean you have to choose the latter if you cannot keep the former.
I saw Jungle Fever for the first time years ago, when it first came out on video. By the movie's end, I was lost. Part of it may have been maturity - I was in junior high - and part of it was that the movie I was sold was not the movie I got. Part of this selling is Stevie Wonder's title song, which frequently finds its way into my tapedeck. And the kind of color-blind love Wonder sings about is not the relationship in this movie. Something I feel now as I felt then was that the film does not let us get close to these people, let us see them in love. Only now do I realize that this is because the film is not about two people in love. When I first saw it, I thought the film was advocating segregation from the "other side." Now I realize that it just showing the complexity of issues which come to play when a black person and white person from separatist neighborhoods come together, and mostly how those environments are changed. There are things to overcome, but this relationship will not overcome them. I am still puzzled by the rather large subplot involving Samuel L. Jackson as Wesley Snipes's crackhead brother and by the final shot where Wesley Snipes clutches a crack-whore to himself and screams "NO!" while the camera rushes from halfway across Harlem to end in a close-up on him. It's indelible - most of what has stuck with me about this movie over time involves this subplot and that shot - but I am still puzzled by its intention in the overall scheme of what the film is trying to say. Something about the endless problems facing black people?
Just by the poster alone, audiences in 1991 were intrigued by Spike Lee's new offering. Just what was it that he had to say about interracial liaisons? The film was scripted specifically for Wesley Snipes as a vehicle for his career. The same year he appeared in 'New Jack City' by Mario Van Peebles, and had come from being beaten to pulp in the back alley of Spike Lee's 'Mo Better Blues' with Denzel Washington by Samuel L. Jackson. The 90's was Wesley Snipes and Denzel Washington's decade, and Spike Lee had capitalised on this to lift their careers to their rightful stature. Wesley plays a middle class interior designer in a professional company whom he feels does not appreciate his input. This is highlighted when he is given an Italian-American secretary who does not carry the same baggage as he does. The irony comes when, after stating that he wants an African-American secretary, he engages in hot sex with her in the office in the same way that Michael Douglas did with Glenn Close in 'Fatal Attraction' and with Sharon Stone in 'Basic Instinct' (fresh from appearing with Forest Whitaker in 'Diary of a Hitman'). I guess Spike Lee was saying that the black man should have the opportunity to ride the white American woman in the same way that Michael Douglas has. In that sense, the interracial liaison worked. But from the argument of probability, it was an unlikely scenario. Everything happened way too quick, and his prejudices of non-African American women no longer carried any weight. Yes, he was curious. We all are. But the juxtaposition of his curiousity and his prejudice appeared unlikely. In Act 2, we explore the relationship between Wesley Snipes and this Italian-American woman. There are shades of repercussions from 'Do the Right Thing' where Spike Lee is almost speaking out about the interaction between the African American and Italian American communities. It becomes less of a race thing than it does a cultural thing, and you can almost be forgiven for feeling that Spike is saying something about the Italian-American community rather than just the white community in general. In Act 3, Wesley's marriage breaks down, he splits up with the Italian-American woman, and decides that the most important thing in his life is his daughter. A much too unsatisfying ending for anybody's tastes, and despite all the adversity that they had to face, one felt that it would be good if they stuck it out together. The theme of 'Jungle Fever' alone does not maintain your interest throughout the film. Like Alfred Hitchcock, Spike Lee enlists the talents of other great artistes such as Stevie Wonder for the score, Anthony Quinn to play the bigot father, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee to play Snipes's parents, Halle Berry to play the drug addict, and last but not least, the neglected Samuel L. Jackson who gives a cracking performance as a crack head. To look at Samuel L. Jackson you would never guess that he was a university graduate with a slur. He has performed Shakespeare on stage in New York, and a demonstration of his pure acting talent is seen in his portrayal in this film of Snipes's crack head brother. There is nothing commercial and token about what Jackson contributes to this role. He is overlooked as pure talent, but he offers nothing but pure talent. The film, in terms of its concept, stands alone as a self contained film, but the true star of the film is Samuel L. Jackson. Even though Spike wrote the script specifically for Snipes, Melvin Van Peebles does more justice to Snipes by casting him as Nino Brown in 'New Jack City'. The same way that 'Malcolm X' was a vehicle for Denzel Washington at the hand of Spike Lee, 'New Jack City' was a vehicle for Wesley Snipes at the hand of Melvin Van Peebles. Although Samuel L. Jackson did not receive the same level of recognition and exposure as Denzel and Wesley for his contribution to Spike's films, he would have to wait until Quentin Tarantino came along to cast him as the philosophical gangster in 'Pulp Fiction'.
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