Spike Lee's take on the "Son of Sam" murders in New York City during the summer of 1977 centering on the residents of an Italian-American Northeast Bronx neighborhood who live in fear and distrust of one another.
A successful and married black man contemplates having an affair with a white girl from work. He's quite rightly worried that the racial difference would make an already taboo relationship even worse.Written by
Murray Chapman <email@example.com>
Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever" is an eye-opening introspection into the limits of that so-called melting pot sold by America as the epitome of tolerance and universalism... yet contradicted by the statistics and all the racial tension that prevailed in the early 90's. As a social commentary, the movie raises many important issues about interracial relationships in a less politically lauded tone than the iconic "Do The Right Thing", which is a wise choice for a movie mostly centered on human relationships.
Through Stevie Wonder's titular song, "Jungle Fever" refers to the diagnosis of that strange mutual attraction between two persons from different races. The term strongly implies the idea of a relationship against Nature's law, if not a sickness, a deviation. And the central couple to deviate is Flipper, an ambitious architect, and Angie, his new secretary. He's Black, she's Italian. He lives in Harlem, she's from Benston Hurst, he's married with one daughter, she has three men, and two too many: her father (Frank Vincent), and her two brothers. Angie's doom is that she's young and single enough to be the overprotected sister, but mature enough to take care of the house. Angie dates Paulie, a shy and affable storekeeper (John Turturro) in a relationship that doesn't really ring true. Whatever is obviously lacking, Angie would find it in Flipper.
Spike Lee's direction patiently depicts the growing attraction between Flipper and Angie. Interestingly, the first door to a growing intimacy is opened when they break the taboo of races and talk about it in the most casual way. And after that, we stop looking at the difference of skins, and pay more attention to the contents of their hearts. So they have sex, and no sex scene is sugarcoated in Spike Lee's film, not overdone either, but what is Spike Lee's point? To insist that it's only sexual like in adultery, or because of the 'Jungle Fever'? Whatever theory we believe in, the relationship would be wrong, but Lee cares less about pleasing us ethically than inviting us to examine the aftermath of that pivotal night where a Black man and a Italian (Caucasian) woman did it.
And the way the relationship evolves could be perceived as bad writing on the surface, while it's only extremely well-written 'bad reactions'. For one thing, the adultery is less condemned than its interracial nature. Flipper's wife, Drew (Lonette McKee) is from a mixed couple, and always feared to be only one step in Flipper's attraction process toward light skinned women, until he'd finally go with a plain Caucasian. Flipper's denial might be sincere but then why did he ask his bosses to only hire African American women? Did he know he would automatically fall in love with a Caucasian? The ambiguity remains and is displayed from a different perspective during a dinner with Flipper's parents played by the veteran actors Ossie Davis, as a fanatic preacher, and Ruby Dee, a loving mother and devoted wife.
Flipper's father reminds Angie that white women always sensed an exciting mix of fear and fascination toward Black men and this is what ultimately tarnished the purity of the race, by providing so many mixed ethnicities. While succeeding on the field of disturbing realism, this scene allows us to understand Flipper's background and the amount of pressure he and Angie would endure, Angie, almost beaten to death by her 'dishonored' father, is then coldly compared to a whore. The couple wouldn't survive this last display of hatred and rejection, and in a very thought-provoking approach from Spike Lee, Flipper breaks up with Angie with a very calculated arrogance by pretending it has never been love. In a way, he joined the cause of those who pretend it's all about black men seeing that white is right women-wise, and white girls seeing blacks as sexual supermen, Jungle Fever again.
Flipper uses an obvious carapace to hide his own weaknesses. In many intimate scenes, he's the one lying beneath the shadow, while Angie's face shines under the window's light. She's genuinely in love with him while Flipper opts for a more convenient pragmatism. Again, no one is right or wrong, Flipper has many responsibilities and Angie's simply in need of a disinterested love, she's the victim of this relationship, as the one who lost the most, her 'honor', her boyfriend, and the man for which she took the risk to lose everything. The counterpoint of this failed relationship is Paulie's tender and more optimistic romance. Paulie who also grew up with an authoritarian fatherly figure (Anthonny Quinn) and endures the racist pressure of his entourage, but finally decides to date Ordyl, the woman who's always so nice to her, regardless of any skin consideration.
But Flipper and Angie's relationship is less the core than the starting point of the analytic journey into the myths that surround sex, part-pride, part-doom, total pressure, marked by a great deal of hypocrisy and suspicion, due to the weight of history. Here comes the most poignant subplot involving the crack addiction of Flipper's brother, Gator, Samuel L. Jackson in an Oscar worthy performance. Gator's descent into self-destruction is the emotional pillar of the film allowing us to put Flipper's romance into perspective. There's more to worry about for the Black community, which in quest of its identity is torn between two unacceptable realities: degradation or obedience to the white man rules. Is 'Jungle Fever' the first step of that assimilation? The ending is a father's cry of despair for never seeing his daughter falling in that trap anyway.
"Jungle Fever" works less as a romance than as realistic depiction of the racial myths poisoning the society. Through many secondary characters with an impressive level of depth and believability, we realize that most of them defines themselves through their ethnicity as pure survival instinct. When the world is a jungle, it can only inspire self-preservation.
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