Love’s in Need of Love Today: Thoughts on Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever”

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Ossie Davis, Wesley Snipes, Annabella Sciorra and Ruby Dee in “Jungle Fever” (1991)

As a life-long Hip Hop junkie I’ve always been a huge fan of Spike Lee, his body of work, larger-than-life star persona, and astute, critical wit. It would be a massive understatement not to express how much of an impact his work has had on me over the years. Without Spike, I would not have explored or discovered Early Cinema, Classical Hollywood Cinema, the filmmakers of the L.A. Rebellion and so much more. Essentially, Lee made it cool to be excited about the moving image and cinema for a whole new generation of black youth on both sides of the Atlantic. Especially for those with a Hip Hop-sensibility, a burgeoning sense of urgency, and critical awareness of wanting to speak truth to power about the absence/presence of blackness on the big screen and in all walks of life in the late 1980s and 90s. As well as my parents, Lee is one of the reasons I ended up studying film. Thank you Mr Lee. It’s best to say, I’m a fan-boy and not afraid to admit at this stage in life a Blerd too! * Black Nerd * I proudly confess Spike Lee made me a Cinephile!

Jungle Fever is not one of my favourite Spike Lee joints; that crown would go to Malcolm X (followed closely by Do The Right Thing and 25th Hour), which I still believe to be one of the greatest biopics of all time, a monumentally hard thing to achieve in an already flawed and formulaic genre. I remember going to watch Malcolm X at a local multiplex (yes, Malcolm X was screened in multiplexes in the UK at the time) with my Dad. Until this day it remains one of the greatest bonding experiences we’ve shared together. As the house lights came up after the late, great Ossie Davis’s eulogy and Aretha Franklin’s version of Donny Hathaway’s ‘Someday We’ll All Be Free’ echoed through the auditorium I looked at my Dad and my Dad looked at me and we both burst into tears and hugged each other, at once affirming each others shared historical pain and also our hopefulness for the future.

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Samuel L. Jackson and Halle Berry in “Jungle Fever” (1991)

Jungle Fever doesn’t have the most coherent narrative structure, and Lee has been accused numerous times of sitting on the fence in regards to the films subject matter with the films detractors arguing that very much unlike Lee’s previous work where he is very passionate and clear in telling us what he thinks and feels about the subject matter/themes, in Jungle Fever he takes what some perceived as the easier route of telling us how very specific communities might feel about interracial relationships relying heavily on stereotypical scenarios and characters – only really scratching the surface of a complex, manifold subject and community of human beings who share rich history and generations of experience and cultural and racial exchange. On it’s release in 1991, it was a commercial success and as his fifth feature film release, was his biggest hit financially grossing more than $32 million at the US box office and a worldwide gross of $43.8 million. Distributors still believe black films don’t travel, I for one, cannot wait to see Sorry To Bother You in the U.K.

Jungle Fever is, I contend, a think piece or open-ended essay; not entirely fully-formed in which Lee is expanding-on some of the life long themes in his work, and hot-topic issues of the day in which the film was made – the nuclear family, community, violence, tension, identity, love and hate, the police. The two cops that kill Radio Raheem in Do The Right Thing (1989) are cannily cast again in Jungle Fever, a theme resonating today in the Black Lives Matter movement: women, men, fathers, mothers, role-models, education, history and of course New York. Echoed also in Jungle Fever’s iconic title sequence and in Lee’s love of music, the scorching Stevie Wonder soundtrack. It is as if Lee is proposing, “this is potentially the current state of things, I do not have all the answers to some of these difficult questions and scenarios, do you? If this is how it is, can anything ever really change?” It feels like a whirlwind snapshot of the times with New York’s microcosmic pressure cooker communities being a metaphor for ‘the bigger picture’ with regards to interracial relationships. A snapshot of the times in which it was made, a geographic canvas for the audience to contemplate the subject matter hypothetically, in an almost Brechtian manner. How does one cram four hundred years of history into two hours and twelve minutes?

Jungle Fever also incorporates elements of Romeo and Juliet, an almost kitchen sink approach at times, there are glimpses of Douglas Sirk and melodrama, 1900’s era ‘Race Films’ (Oscar Micheaux et al.), as well as the Hollywood miscegenation film/morality tale Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (1967). All are stylistic choices of Lee’s self-aware cinematic language that has always been highly critical of the history of traditional cinematic canon (famously Lee’s shot of the Klan riding over the hill in the moonlight in Malcolm X, mirroring and deconstructing Griffith’s Birth of a Nation). It’s a mosaic of overarching, styles and approaches to story telling and film-craft. However at times, it also very much feels like a film of compartmentalised (if not utterly inspired) set pieces. Loosely threaded together by our two (supposedly) ‘cursed lovers’. Jungle Fever didn’t quite sit comfortably with me the first time I watched it. The overall feeling is that the film is disjointed, and whether intentional or not I feel this imbues the film with its own strange, insidious and overwhelming power. However conflicted you feel about the film’s narrative structure you can’t stop watching what is unfolding on screen. The nuances of the film grow on the viewer with time and repeat screenings.

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Annabella Sciorra, Spike Lee and Wesley Snipes on the set of “Jungel Fever”.

The film is also blessed with an incredible cast including a cameo from a young Queen Latifah and legendary acting couple Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, also how could I not mention Anthony Quinn? With strong performances from all involved even if the chemistry between Wesley Snipes and Anabella Sciorra doesn’t quite click (some would argue that it isn’t meant to), they still turn in strong performances. I’ve never had the opportunity to see it projected big screen with an audience, so I’m really excited about checking it out at Watershed.

Crackhead, Gator (bravura performance from Samuel L. Jackson, as well as a break-out role for a young Halle Berry) which on first viewing feels like a disparate off-shoot in the films narrative, really resonates when looking back on the era in which the film was made. To really understand what’s at play, it’s worth digging into some context about the socio-political landscape that Jungle Fever was written in almost three decades ago. The film opens with a dedication to Yusef Hawkins who was an African-American teenager from Brooklyn murdered by a gang of Italian-American teenagers from Bensonhurst. Lee is quoted as saying:

I don’t care what people say, the year Jungle Fever was made, 1990 – Some Italian girl brings a black guy home? Maybe you can do that now in Bensonhurst. But back then? Hell, fucking no. Now these white kids are into rap, hip hop and black culture. They weren’t into it that much then…

– Spike Lee: That’s My Story and I’m Sticking to it, Aftab pg.123, Faber and Faber, 2005.

Also at the time, there was the success of the burgeoning gangster rap movement into mainstream entertainment and the black pride of conscious Hip Hop playing out on TV screens via shows like Yo! MTV Raps with on-going debates around positive and negative images of African American youth and life as portrayed via music videos. In addition, New York’s first Black Mayor David Dinkins, crack-cocaine devastating communities from 1984 into the 90s, as well as fears and concerns around HIV and Aids. The film’s release date is also bookended by Silence of The Lambs (31st May) and Terminator 2 (16th August). Apartheid legislation was repealed in June of 1991 in the same month Jungle Fever was released. Nelson Mandela had visited New York the summer before. Operation Desert Storm had preoccupied public attention at the beginning of that year. Things were turbulent, disjointed even, though retaining the potential for hopefulness.

Lee goes on to say how the film is about the dangers of racialised sexual mythologies and constructs that need to be challenged such as age-old toxic notions related to western beauty standards, race, family and sex. Some of these are powerfully and thoughtfully explored in two of the films most revealing ensemble moments; for example, a frank and quite brutal discussion between Italian men in the local luncheonette, and a candid discussion with Drew, Flipper’s wife (Lonette McKee) whilst she and her friends discuss the state of black men, in hard truths ranging from sorrow and anger through to humour. Drew herself is mixed-race, has always suspected Flipper married her for her lighter colour skin, and now fears skin tone is also why he left her. The scene was improvised over a period of two days during which the actresses were asked to contribute their own deepest feelings on the subject.

Paulie, played heart breakingly by John Turturro who is the antithesis of Do The Right Thing’s Pino, is the film’s one glimpse of hope regarding interracial relationships. He isn’t caught up in the spell of Jungle Fever and its corrupting mythologies and the audience believes through his actions and decisions that he truly respects and admires Orin Goode (Tyra Ferrell, who also played Ricky’s Mother in Boyz N The Hood released the same year). Have I also mentioned the cast? Debbie Mazar, Charlie Murphy, Miguel Sandoval, Theresa Randle, Frank Vincent, Michael Imperioli, Gina Gershon, Tim Robbins…this mind-boggling crew is worth ticket entry alone! A big misconception worth tackling is the term ‘Jungle Fever’. It is meant to denote a person caught up in the projection of racialised sexual mythologies/stereotypes, not the actual act of engaging in a mixed-race or interracial relationship.

*Spoiler warning ahead*

What if Flipper’s (Snipes) character wasn’t married and started a legitimate relationship with Angie’s (Sciorra) character: how would that have changed the audience’s perception of the scenario and the narrative of the overall film?

Jungle Fever seems to be three different films at once. A film about the devastation of the crack epidemic, one that explores changes and challenges in American family dynamics in the early 90s, and finally a film about interracial relationships. In retrospect, the theme of interracial relationships feels like a hook that Lee uses to explore all of these other themes and issues circulating around the film’s narrative. However convoluted we may think Jungle Fever is, it still feels like a hopeful reference point for contemporary and future filmmakers to explore and challenge narratives and representations of interracial relationships and mixed-race identity and families on screen; especially poignant and salutary at a time when so many stories need to be told, where visibility is needed in an increasingly multicultural landscape.

It also still retains some of its power to engage and shock twenty-seven years later, to unite and divide audiences and open-up debate around some of the films major issues and themes. A film I think audiences, critics and academics will continue to interrogate and return to time and again.

Adam Murray is a founding member of Come The Revolution. He is a filmmaker, music/film critic and broadcaster at Ujima Radio under Bristol’s Universal Magnetic Crew.

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