Spike Lee: Jungle Fever (1991) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
17Aug/140

Spike Lee: Jungle Fever (1991)

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Flipper is the only black worker at the architectural firm built on his work.  Angie is the white temp who's been hired to help Flipper around the office.  Both have a curiosity about one another built from the racial sexual myths they've been fed.  When they finally act on those impulses, their tiny community talks and fights their way through their beliefs.  Jungle Fever is the fifth film from Spike Lee, starring Wesley Snipes, Annabella Sciorra, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Samuel L. Jackson, and John Turturro.

Where we're all goin'AndrewCommentaryBannerWhile the quality of Spike Lee's films has been a bit inconsistent trending toward good so far, they've each been united around a single ideological purpose with sub-plots filling in little details along the way.  The best example of this is in School Daze with the students on campus fighting for a better tomorrow for everybody, while aware that there are people from the previous generation who aren't interested in the same advancement.  We get the one confrontation between new and old and then School Daze returns to the campus struggle overall.

Jungle Fever is something of a turning point for Lee because while there is a single idea that drives the narrative forward he adopts a kitchen sink approach to everything else.  There isn't a single idea introduced, ranging from the way that modern businesses continue to extort their black employees to the increased sexualization of youth through popular culture, that is not given equal weight.  Lee's Jungle Fever feels like a precursor to other American multi-plotted films of experimentation, the most obvious of which being Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers.  Both of these films take different cinematic conventions and pushes them to the limit within an overarching narrative, such as the cheesy sitcom dialogue and style that accompanies both films' domestic issues.

This is my first time watching Jungle Fever but as I'm familiar with Spike's later films, Bamboozled and She Hate Me especially, there is a lot introduced here that I'll be returning to.  Some factors in Jungle Fever don't play out well, but overall the effect is dizzying and produces a snapshot of racial tensions in America that rivals Do the Right Thing.  How did you deal with the tonal tilt-a-whirl of Jungle Fever?Myth - BustedKyle Commentary BannerI noticed the same mosaic approach that you did, but I felt a lot more underwhelmed by it. Some of these story threads work great—Samuel L. Jackson’s portrayal of Gator, Drew and her friends' free-flowing conversation about their relationships with the various men in their lives—but using the relationship between Flipper and Angie as the anchor point for the other events of the movie to spiral out from is a misstep. At almost any given point in the movie, I was more interested in any of the other characters and stories than the one at its center, because beside a few statements made by these other characters, we never get any sense of why Flipper and Angie are having their affair or how they actually feel about each other.

Lee seems more concerned with how the two “central” characters' friends and family feel about them and their relationship than how they do—and this could have made for a very interesting movie (and sometimes does) if we weren't always returning to this relationship as the engine that drives the rest of these observations. Nearly every time we return to Flipper and Angie, the air goes out of the movie, which was surprising to me considering that Lee seemed to have so much he wanted to say. Making it worse, Snipes and Sciorra are both really good here, and in scenes dealing with their separate circles they do wonderfully—but they don't have much of substance to work with when they're together.

I wondered while I was watching if some of my issue was the way the movie positions itself as being primarily about the Flipper-Angie relationship. Maybe if I'd approached it as a mosaic plot where that was just a single component, I would have appreciated it more. But it keeps trying to wrangle more insight out of their scenes than seems genuine—it seems like those scenes work better on paper than they actually play in the film.Timid courtshipNewer Andrew cutout commentaryIf you do rewatch it that will help the reception, but it has to be stressed that the central relationship between Flipper and Angie is the worst part of the film.  Spike said that their affair starts because of the sexual myths one has about the other, with special emphasis on the prowess of black men, but even that aspect falls flat.  I like the way that their increased flirtation expressed  through the costumes as Flipper and Angie start wearing more matching tones with Flipper slowly losing the tie and Angie using dresses that cut just a bit lower each time.  But the light teasing that they give one another doesn't give me the impression that these are two people ready to tear one another's clothes off, as they eventually do, but are instead people who see those sexual myths as absurd and are comfortable enough to express that with each other.

I wasn't as impressed with either Snipes or Sciorra in either role.  Sciorra, at least, has an excuse in that she and Spike started off on an awkward note where he cast her after a mostly silent dinner and then they would disagree on how certain scenes played out.  In what's becoming an unfortunate recurrence, the central sex scenes are where they disagreed.  Spike wasn't getting the chemistry he wanted and Sciorra felt like her character was raped, so earlier takes of their scenes were dropped from the finished film.  I think it would have helped the other relationship and sexual comment threads of the film if their whole relationship was just one underwhelming sex scene.  It might have emphasized just how much of a spectacle people were making out of the relationship than what it really was.

It's interesting how many of the romantic relationships in the film are tepid, the only exception being Flipper and Drew's comically overacted sex scene at the beginning.  The adversarial relationships are what really gets the film moving forward, and I like how Spike has different shades of conflict here.  The most subtle, and possibly the strongest in the film, is between Flipper and his bosses.  While architect is an easy way to show a character is successful in many movies, I like that it made a still-relevant point about how businesses are still built on exploited black people, and the scene with Flipper quitting and yelling out what he built extends to great historical significance about the slaves who came before him built.  It also forms the centerpiece of one of the greatest shots in the film where the camera slowly rotates around the desk as Flipper and the bosses trade blows.MineTiny Kyle CommentaryThe idea of their friends and family making an overblown spectacle of their relationship is definitely more compelling than Lee's idea about their mutual indulgence in cultural and sexual myths (as the movie plays it, that is). You also hit on one of my favorite scenes—Snipes walking through his office calling “mine!” as he passes pictures of buildings he designed.

Some of the other best moments for me come in Gator's scenes. Samuel L. Jackson is outstanding here, if for nothing other than the way he subtly shifts roles depending on the company he's in, adopting the persona he knows will get him money to buy drugs. He goes from the wounded son just trying not to disappoint in an early scene with Ruby Dee to the casual, harmlessly irreverent, teasing brother in scenes with Flipper, and finally to the desperate, endlessly angry single-minded addict in the final scenes.

So much of the movie is about the roles people assume—or are expected to assume—within different groups, and while Gator's story certainly fits this theme, his sequences work often at such an intense level, spurned as they are by desperation rather than social and cultural expectations, that it sometimes overshadows everything else going on. I don't necessarily mean that as a flaw—just that these are some of the best sequences in the movie.

What other sequences/storylines worked the best for you?Prelude to the Zulu dickNewer Andrew cutout commentaryThe Gator plotline ends up with some of the strongest shots in the film as well.  My absolute favorite is when Gator comes home the first time to try and sweet talk his mother in to giving him more cash.  When papa steps into the frame for the first time Spike switches to this looming over-the-shoulder perspective shot that makes Ossie Davis look like a harsh judge and Samuel Jackson an infant in a high-chair.  There are other great moments as well, like the emotional distance between Davis and Ruby Dee instantly portrayed with the two in their own elaborate chairs separated by a huge sofa in this immaculately decorated room.

But as strong as Gator's plotline and Flipper's work issues are, my absolute favorite sequence turned out to be the one that Spike had the least involvement in making.  The scene where Drew is having that conversation about sex, race, and societal pressure with her friends is so good I wish it could have gone on for hours.  Spike's camerawork keeps up with the fast pace of the conversation while constantly partitioning the various dueling parties in their own framed spaces.  But the conversation itself is insightful and often hilarious with lines like, "Give me some serious Zulu dick in the bush," had me outright howling from the delivery.  There was so much brought up in that scene that I wish could have expanded on more, especially the friend who was talking about how men feel threatened by educated women and her insecurity at being the darkest person in the classroom.  As strong as Spike is this scene hinted at how great he could be with outright collaboration, and how he might have overcome some of the sexist impulses in his films with a bit more insight.

Another great moment made use of the intertextual elements that Spike has laced through his films so far.  The sequence with Flipper and Angie playing around with each other switches perspectives and styles multiple times, with the soft and playful view from Flipper, to the voyeuristic shaky camera of an unseen observer, and finally the harsh lighting and claustrophobic close-ups when the police arrived.  It's clear that Flipper is in trouble, but it's a masterstroke that these cops are played by the same two actors who were responsible for Radio Raheem's death in Do the Right Thing.  On its own the scene works great, but Spike manages to squeeze in another point about the instability of authorities and violence against minorities, as well as how little they are held accountable to their actions, with this bit of casting.Always a childTiny Kyle CommentaryThat's a good observation, and something I totally missed. But that scene struck me as being off in a similar way to how the movie handles their entire relationship, primarily because of those voyeuristic shots that show how someone may perceive the scene if glimpsing it out of an apartment window. It's obvious Lee's trying to show how institutionalized racism (and how it affects views of relationships in this case) influences not only the actions of authorities, but also the severity of these reactions. It's a topic that extends directly from Do the Right Thing straight to the horrifying events going on in Ferguson, MO now.

The issue for me is that, by showing what such a scene would look like to a random observer, complete with Snipes jokingly spouting threats while pinning Sciorra to the hood of their car—behavior it's safe to say you should always avoid—the movie raises the very legitimate question of what said random observer should in good conscience do. It deemphasizes the issue of race by presenting the situation as one that, out of context, could easily be scene as violent.

Lee's point remains in the way things play out, but you almost have to read beyond the actual presentation of the film to get it. Especially strange since the same effect could have achieved, and with less grey area, by simply having Flipper leaning over her while they embraced on the hood of the car. Just out of curiosity, any indication in Lee's writings on the film why he positions Flipper as being “playfully” aggressive in that scene?No resistenceNewer Andrew cutout commentaryNot that scene specifically, but Spike was very careful in crafting the script to make sure that there was no outright aggression from the part of Flipper.  Spike wanted to explore the myth of black sexual aggression without reinforcing it in any way.  So with that moment, we've got the constant cutting from voyeur back to Flipper to emphasize that they are having fun instead of an outright assault taking place.  But you've made a good point there, one that I think is addressed by the reactions from the police, but doesn't completely deal with the legitimate concern of seeing their play and mistaking it for an actual assault versus playful physicality.

Reading through your response, I realized that almost all instances of embracing positive interracial relationships is met with violence.  Flipper is assaulted by the police for the way he and Angie are playing, but earlier in the film Angie is beaten mercilessly by her father for having sex with Flipper, and later on in the film Paulie (John Turturro's character) responds to his friends and families taunts by lashing out then being beaten in turn.  These moments, combined with the "Caution" imagery used at the beginning with all the construction signs, gives the impression that Spike doesn't support interracial relationships at all.  Paulie's plot line feels like a response to this, but comes off as a half-hearted support of interracial relationships compared to the strong conclusions of the other plot lines - like the Biblical punishment that's doled out in Gator's case, and the end with Flipper screaming as he sees a vision of what his daughter could become.

Since I know Spike did not approve of his father remarrying a white woman, this frequent violence in response to any interracial relationship reads like an argument against it in a simplified way.  This is disappointing considering that the strongest parts of the film consist of people talking through what racially fueled sexual myths do to hurt them.  We know that he can visualize the pain without resulting to outright violence, but that happens many times.  It's not enough to change my opinion of the film overall, which succeeds wildly more often than not, but leaves a bitter taste with me since I know he can write through these issues instead of going for the visceral response.  Once makes the point just fine, but multiple instances of violence as a response to these relationships has the whiff of Spike's own issues with his father.  It's interesting to analyze, but disappointing to watch as a narrative.Cowering from ignoranceTiny Kyle CommentaryThat’s the interesting thing to me, and the reason I think I’m ultimately more on the fence than you are—he has all the pieces in place to portray a problematic relationship based on mutual idealization of cultural myths, but then doesn't seem to think he needs to actually make the case that this is happening in the movie. The simple fact that the two are together is enough, which suggests there could never be a positive, healthy version of this relationship in Lee's mind.

That said, I'm with you that there's enough here that works not to consider it a failure. Kind of like Mo' Better Blues, the problem aspects end up running suspiciously against the grain of the rest of the movie.

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Next time, Malcolm X.Spike Film Selection

Posted by Andrew

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