The interlaced fingers on the poster might suggest intimate connection, but Spike Lee's Jungle Fever (1991) is all about divisions. Of class, culture and, especially, colour. It wrestles with the myths and projections that underpin romantic attraction and social interaction more broadly.
Whether Jungle Fever actually interrogates those issues or merely exacerbates them remains open to debate. Still, 30 years after its premiere and now debuting on UK Blu-ray for the first time, this complicated film – by turns sensitive and shrill, insightful and infuriating – still stands out as an important, and perhaps undervalued, work in Lee’s filmography.
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Taking as its focus an affair between a married African-American architect living in Harlem, Flipper (Wesley Snipes), and his Bensonhurst-based Italian American secretary Angie (Annabella Sciorra), Jungle Fever was notable, among other things, for its harshly pessimistic portrait of a contemporary interracial relationship.
This was significant in a number of ways. With the exception of that one-of-a kind smash hit The Bodyguard (1992), the (rare) early 90s US films featuring Black and white lovers, such as Love Field (1992) or Corrina Corrina (1994), tended to be set in the past, placing their love stories within the contexts of segregation and civil rights. They tended, also, to be ultimately affirmative in tone, invariably offsetting an acknowledgement of the prejudice experienced by the central couple with a hopeful conclusion, however tentative.
Jungle Fever also seems to set the viewer up for a positive ride. Its brilliant, playful opening credit sequence is scored to Stevie Wonder’s ebullient title track with its upfront, loved-up lyrics celebrating mixed race romance.
Prior to that, though, comes the film’s dedication to Yusuf K. Hawkins, the Black teenager murdered in Bensonhurst in 1989 by a mob of white youths who believed he was dating a white girl in the neighbourhood. While Hawkins’ murder is not directly referenced in Jungle Fever beyond that dedication, it’s an incident that ultimately sets the tone for a film in which kneejerk harassment, hostility, violence and ostracism, from the families and communities of both partners, are presented as the inevitable consequences for lovers venturing ‘outside’ their race.
One of the stronger aspects of the picture, especially in its first half, is the attention paid to Flipper and Angie’s different social circumstances and neighbourhoods. She lives in an aggressive, male-dominated, blue-collar household and is involved in a routine romance with the passive Paulie (a fantastic John Turturro, thriving under Lee’s direction as he did in Do the Right Thing).
Introduced during an enthusiastic bout of morning sex, Flipper, meanwhile, enjoys a happy middle-class family life with his wife Drew (Lonette McKee, who is directed to overdo the character’s shocked and angry reactions after the discovery of the betrayal) and daughter Ming. But he suffers microaggressions (and worse) as the only Black employee at his architectural firm.
Further (though somewhat less convincing) context for the character is provided by his interactions with his mother (Ruby Dee), his endlessly sermonising preacher father (Ossie Davis) and his junkie brother Gator (Samuel L. Jackson, in a vivid performance that was awarded the first-ever supporting actor prize at Cannes). In fact, Gator’s woes take over the later stretches of the film – including an elaborate crack den sequence that, while visually impressive, pulls focus from the development of Angie and Flipper’s relationship.
Ultimately, then, Jungle Fever could be seen to scrimp on depth when it comes to showing public prejudice seeping into the most intimate areas of private life. Reserving praise only for Ernest Dickerson’s vibrant, colour-saturated cinematography, critic Armond White contends that “Jungle Fever’s visual sophistication is miles ahead of its verbalized and acted-out political ideas,” criticising the film’s “simplified demonstration of what Black and White people don’t know about each other.”
The ever-ongoing mess of US racial politics still gives the picture currency today, especially given the post-Get Out (2017) vogue for films that, in White’s phrase, “paint a limited, doomed picture of race relations”.
But compared to a more nuanced film released three decades earlier, Roy Ward Baker’s British drama Flame in the Streets (1961) – another drama with a ‘hot’ title that places its interracial couple within carefully drawn familial and social contexts – Jungle Fever can look rigged and less than progressive. Pausing for debates on colourism, the film’s notion that romantic relations between Blacks and whites are inevitably based on sexual curiosity, not love, never receives as much rebuttal as it might.
Where Jungle Fever consistently delivers is in its central performances. In roles originally intended for Denzel Washington and Marisa Tomei, Snipes and Sciorra are vital presences, filling out some of the sketchier aspects of the script through loving, questioning looks, small gestures and complicit silences that have extra weight in a mostly garrulous film.
Ending with an anguished scream on the street, Jungle Fever sounds a fatalistic tone. Angie’s arc feels particularly punitive. The quiet early scenes between the lovers may partially mitigate what comes later, but it’s in these unsettling closing moments that it appears to be not only the depicted society that’s set up in opposition to Flipper and Angie, but the whole dramatic structure and perspective of the film itself.
As challenging as it was when it debuted, Lee’s provocative, problematic film will continue to inspire heated debate 30 years on.
Jungle Fever is available on BFI Blu-ray from 17 May.