Friday, August 3, 2018

The Films of Spike Lee: Jungle Fever (1991)

Jungle Fever (1991) 
Directed by: Spike Lee.
Written by: Spike Lee.
Starring: Wesley Snipes (Flipper Purify), Annabella Sciorra (Angie Tucci), Spike Lee (Cyrus), Ossie Davis (The Good Reverend Doctor Purify), Ruby Dee (Lucinda Purify), Samuel L. Jackson ("Gator" Purify), Lonette McKee (Drew Purify), John Turturro (Paulie Carbone), Frank Vincent (Mike Tucci), Anthony Quinn (Lou Carbone), Halle Berry (Vivian), Tyra Ferrell (Orin Goode), Veronica Webb (Vera), Michael Imperioli (James Tucci), Nicholas Turturro (Vinny), Michael Badalucco (Frankie Botz), Debi Mazar (Denise), Tim Robbins (Jerry), Brad Dourif (Leslie), Theresa Randle (Inez).
There are parts of Jungle Fever that are as great as anything Spike Lee has ever done. And there are some parts that, well, aren’t. Jungle Fever is another of Lee’s films that deliberately courts controversy – that wants to challenge and disturb the audience, and make them leave the movie at the very least thinking about everything that Lee has done in the film. To a certain extent, it’s Lee in his “let’s throw everything at the wall and sees what sticks” mode – and more sticks than doesn’t.
The film stars Wesley Snipes as Flipper Purify, a successful black architect, living in Harlem with a beautiful wife Drew (Lonette McKee) and a young daughter he adores. He wants to be made a partner in his firm – but his bosses (Tim Robbins and Brad Dourif) aren’t convinced – and speak in the way racist liberals speak when they don’t want to sound racist. When Flipper is introduced to his new assistant – Angie Tucci (Annabella Sciorra), from Benson Hurst – he doesn’t realize right away that this is the woman who he is going to throw everything away for. Yes, the pair start an affair – that starts in a terrific scene, where the pair of them are working late over Chinese good, and flirt with each other in a playful way – until they are having sex on the desk. Had it ended there, perhaps what happens next could be avoided – but, of course, it doesn’t.
They other major plot thrust to Jungle Fever is about the crack epidemic – that has hit the Purify family because of Flipper’s older brother Gator (Samuel L. Jackson). Gator shows up either to Flipper’s or their parents (Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee) when he needs money – always with a good story. As long as they give it him, he’s a happy, laughing, dancing fool – but he can turn ugly when things do not go his way.
Do these two plot threads fit together in Jungle Fever? I’m honestly not sure – they don’t seem to have much to do with each other, and when Lee brings together in the final moment of the film, the result is more, well, ridiculous – how Flipper makes the leap he does in that moment in his mind is beyond me. And yet, as separate plot threads, they work in isolation from each other. Lee has a lot of observations about interracial relationships – but despite what you may have heard about the film, he really is not against them. Lee clearly doesn’t like the one at the center of the movie between Flipper and Angie, because that one isn’t based on anything more than myths, stereotypes and curiosity. At one point, Ossie Davis gives a long speech about the history of these stereotypes dating back to the slavery days designed to humiliate his son and his new girlfriend. Lee’s attitude is perhaps not that harsh – the film also clearly does not like Ossie Davis’ character, who it is hinted at has more darkness that he lets on – but it’s not far from it. What is clear though is that these two people don’t really know each other – they don’t throw away their entire lives (both Flipper and Angie lose their family as a result of their relationships) because they’re in love. They’re more curious than anything. But Lee does show another potential interracial relationship between Angie’s ex-boyfriend Paulie (John Turturro) and a customer of his Orin (Tyra Ferrell) that perhaps has a chance. They like each other after they get to know each other as people – and are going into that relationship with eyes wide open. That one may work, because it’s based on something real.
I do find it interesting that the interracial relationship he doesn’t like is between a black man and a white woman, and the one he likes is the reverse. One of the most memorable scenes in Jungle Fever involves Drew assembling all of her friends – a group of black women – who discuss their own feelings of insecurity and sexual desire, and how it relates to the black men in their lives – and the white women so many of them (especially the successful ones) are with. This is perhaps the most honest, sustained sequence involving only female characters Spike Lee has ever put on film – and it addresses the same stereotypes Ossie Davis’ speech does – but in a more real, less preachy way, and its fascinating.
In some way, it feels like the drug subplot of Jungle Fever is grafted on unnaturally to the rest of the film. I wouldn’t want to lose that – it gave Samuel L. Jackson one of his very best roles (his breakout really) – one in which he was so good they invented a prize at Cannes for him that year, and also gives a great role to a young Halle Berry. It also gives us one of the most virtuoso of all Spike Lee sequences – a delirious trip to hell by Flipper has he descends into the darkness of a crowded crack house in search of Gator. It is the single best scene in the film – and one of the best Lee has ever directed. This timeline was especially timely back in 1991 – the height of the crack epidemic in America – and perhaps what links the two storylines together is that Lee perceives them both as a threat to the black community.
As great as most of Jungle Fever is – there are elements that don’t come off quite as well. Lee never really figures out the central relationship in the film – he thinks it’s all based on stereotypes, and whether true or not, it doesn’t make the central relationship any more interesting because he is essentially filming a metaphor. For her part, Sciorra seems to understand Angie better than Lee does – and that gives her character an extra dimension that wasn’t there on the page – and makes her the most interesting character in the film. It’s another reason to be mad at Harvey Weinstein – because of what he did to Sciorra, what could have and should have been an amazing career was derailed. She’s great here. Snipes doesn’t quite figure out how to make Flipper into a real person, instead of a stand-in character – a character meant to represent something larger than himself. He’s fine in the movie – the steady lead needed to ground it – but he’s never quite a real person.
And what can you say about the final scene in Jungle Fever. It doesn’t really work, it comes out of nowhere, and is such an overdramatic moment that you almost have to stifle a laugh of shock when it come son. Lee is a talented, smart filmmaker. I give him the benefit of the doubt that he gets the reaction he wants there – I just have no idea why he would want it. Was there not a better way to end this film?
And yet, despite my reservations about it, I have to say that Jungle Fever is still a great film. It may have aged a little more than Do the Right Thing, but it’s still relevant and provocative today. Watching it today, it is still a challenging film – one that sticks with you, flaws and all.

No comments:

Post a Comment