Getting back into Spike Lee’s filmography we return with Jungle Fever. This is a movie with moments of transcendent greatness that falls short in its execution.
Spike Lee followed up Mo’ Better Blues with Jungle Fever. Mo’ Better Blues was not a big hit at the box office and received mixed response from critics. Most critics felt it was a let down from the heights of Do The Right Thing which is often the case. When someone makes a world shattering masterpiece any follow up is going to be a disappointment and receive some backlash.
The backlash against Mo’ Better Blues was rather pointed however. One specific aspect stuck out to some critics. That was the depiction of Moe and Josh Flatbush played by John and Nicholas Turturro. They were Jewish club owners who exploited the band for profit. This depiction ran afoul of the Anti Defamation League. Lee stood by his work saying that…
“if critics are telling me that to avoid charges of anti-Semitism, all Jewish characters I write have to be model citizens, and not one can be a villain, cheat or a crook, and that no Jewish people have ever exploited black artists in the history of the entertainment industry, that’s unrealistic and unfair.”
Lee’s dedication to his characters and his refusal to backdown from controversy lead to Jungle Fever. A film about interracial relationships, drug addiction, and racial tensions. The film follows Wesley Snipes who plays a successful architect with a loving wife and a delightful daughter. When Annabella Sciorra enters his office as a new secretary, the two begin a torrid affair. Sciorra is from a very traditional Italian family. Who react very badly when they discover she’s sleeping with a black man. Snipes faces his own excoriation when his wife and friends discover he’s having an affair especially with a white woman.
Snipes is great. He’s charming and has wonderful screen presence here. It’s easy to get on his side even when he’s behaving very badly. Sciorra is also wonderful. She has such feistiness yet such vulnerability. She walks that line and creates a full life on screen. The thing is, this central relationship seems tertiary to Lee’s true interests. Lee surrounds these two with far more interesting and compelling material.
Samuel L Jackson plays Snipes’s brother Gator. He’s a crack addict who charms their mother out of petty cash and outright lies to her to score money for drugs. He dances and twitches his way through the movie all the way to an Oscar nomination, his first. His journey through addiction is clearly something Lee wanted to explore, and he found the perfect actor to take it on. Jackson himself had just gotten clean after years of drug addiction and channeled those experiences into his performance. He is utterly convincing in this role. There is a scene in which Snipes goes looking for Gator and he ends up in a crack house. It is a scene that encapsulates the crack epidemic of the 80’s and 90’s. The scene is horrifying in its implications. It’s like something out of Dante’s inferno.
Another group of character’s Lee is clearly interested in is Paulie who owns a little shop. He’s played by John Turturro. He’s a mild mannered young man with a terrible 90’s haircut who was engaged to Sciorra’s character before the affair with Snipes. His place is inhabited by the regular guys who are all varying degrees of racist. There scenes are full of some of the most interesting contradictions on film. They complain about the black mayor, but refuse to vote. They hate black people but love hip hop music. Paulie lives with his father played by Anthony Quinn. Quinn is especially powerful in one scene in which he tells Paulie about marriage. Its a fascinating scene that is absolutely to notch.
There is one more scene that is a true A+. It involves Snipes and Sciorra. They are at this point living together. On their way home, they begin play fighting. A flirty kind of wrestling that looks real enough to someone across the street who calls the cops. When the people show up, the resulting scene is one of the most abrupt, horrifying, and suspenseful ever captured. It puts us completely in the point of view of someone on the receiving end of aggressive policing. It is a challenging scene. to sit through. It gives the viewer a lot to think about.
Finally, there is one final scene that has to be addressed. Snipes’s wife is named Drew, played by Lonette McKee. After she discovers the affair, she and her friends sit in her living room and discuss the implications. Drew is light skinned and wonders if her husband married her because of her light complexion. Her darker skinned friends address how they’ve always been made to feel different. These women offer hard truths and share deep seated fears and insecurities regarding color. It’s revealing scene that addresses topics I’ve never been exposed to. It turns out the scene was real. These women are sharing real feelings improvised on the spot. There is so much truth in this scene that the movie is worth watching for it alone.
These scenes and moments are undeniably great, but the movie as a whole doesn’t work. There isn’t enough connective tissue to pull these moments together. The story is about an affair, but it’s really about everyone around the affair. The central relationship never feels real inspire of the lead actors talents. the movie just does not come together as a unified narrative. For that reason it is a series of peaks and troughs rather than a great movie through and through.
I’d say watch it for the challenging narrative and hard truths it exposes. I’d also say don’t be surprised if it’s not the best movie you’ve seen. It’s narrative shakiness really diminishes the overall impact. Also it has the most annoying opening song of all time. It is repetitive and childish, and it got stuck in my head for a week. I hope I never hear it again. When I rewatch this movie, I will skip the opening credits for sure.
It’s mostly my cup of tea. B+
It is hard to find. This one is not online anywhere. I had to buy a second hand DVD. It’s worth watching if you can get a copy though.