Want to be depressed? Rent Jungle Fever. Spike Lee’s latest State of the Races Address is a filmic cry of despair that scatters its characters across an inflamed urban grid of mutually inflicted pain (Uh, honey? Can’t we just watch Problem Child again?). Lee is such a provocateur, though, that it’s easy to forget how involvingly, engagingly rich his films are. So: Want to watch a movie that’s the product of actual thought and feeling instead of the usual Hollywood hack work? Then rent Jungle Fever.
If you can find it, that is. While most movies targeted to urbanites eventually find their largest audience on tape, Lee’s films have tended to be underplayed by video stores. Home-video retailers effectively ghettoized one of the best films of the ’80s by viewing 1989’s Do the Right Thing solely as a ”black film” for black audiences. Jungle Fever received a higher-profile theatrical release than the earlier film, and some tape distributors have indicated orders are running higher than expected. But the movie’s interracial-romance plot is guaranteed to raise certain hackles in certain quarters. A representative of the Kentucky-based WaxWorks Video, which distributes tapes in the South, told EW that video stores have been buying the movie at only 60 percent of their projected levels.
The reasons for that actually have as much to do with Lee’s confrontational filmmaking style as with Jungle Fever being a ”black film.” His movies are gorgeous hand grenades lobbed straight at the attitudes that audiences — white and black audiences — don’t like to admit they hold. Do the Right Thing used a rogues’ gallery of characters to sketch out all the faces of the racial battlefront: reasonable and hateful, caricatured and realistic. Underneath it all was a fierce black pride so rare in movies that it caused the more moronic white commentators to predict riots in the theaters. Said riots never materialized, of course, and the commentators were left to contemplate their own racism.
It’s the same with Jungle Fever, less successful artistically but still a worthy follow-up to Do the Right Thing (1990’s underrated Mo’ Better Blues, a story of a self-absorbed jazz musician, is a much more personal affair). Fever essentially shows you a black man and a white woman having sex and asks: What do you think about this? And why?
Since nothing is simple in a Spike Lee movie, the affair in Jungle Fever crosses lines not only of race but of class, morality, family, religion. The black man, Flipper Purify (Wesley Snipes), is an upscale buppie — an architect living in the aptly named Striver’s Row neighborhood of Harlem. The white woman, Angie Tucci (Annabella Sciorra), is a tough cookie from blue-collar Bensonhurst. Their romance is an impulsive late-night office fling that turns serious when everyone starts pointing fingers at it, and it’s the paranoia behind each of those fingers that really interests this moviemaker.
Flipper’s wife (Lonette McKee), tense and self-conscious about her own light skin, blasts her husband for what she considers a form of trading up. Angie’s father, to whom there are only virgins and whores, beats her viciously. Flipper and Angie playfully wrestle in public, and the cops call it a mugging. Even the waitress at a soul-food restaurant (a tart cameo by rapper Queen Latifah) pitches in by refusing to serve the couple.
There are plenty more busybodies. Too many, in fact, as is obvious whenever Lee drops the main story line to focus on Flipper’s crackhead brother, Gator (Samuel L. Jackson), and his relationship with their Bible-thumping father (Ossie Davis). That subplot — a caustic fictionalizing of Marvin Gaye’s tragic end — eventually becomes the main drive of Jungle Fever, and while it would make a great other movie, it makes this one feel overstuffed.
Still, there are worse crimes than overambition. Fever’s swarm of acidly etched New Yorkers is as intoxicating and maddening to experience as Lee’s operatic camera moves and Terence Blanchard’s swirling score. We’re used to movies treating us gently, and this one insists on coming on strong. It’s never quite the polemic Lee’s detractors would have us believe, either: For every character spouting jughead slurs, there’s one who catches us off guard with disarming complexity. And critics who complain that Lee’s white characters are cartoon racists simply ignore the fact that the two most sympathetic people in the movie are white: Sciorra’s luminous Angie — the real loser of this story — and Paulie (John Turturro), Angie’s former boyfriend and an angelic wise fool who, despite the livid tauntings of the stool jockeys at his newsstand, refuses to let what has happened make him hate black people. Beautifully given life by Turturro, Paulie is Lee’s most heartbreakingly real character ever.
He’s also the sole ray of hope Jungle Fever is willing to muster. This is one seriously pessimistic movie that says we are governed by our assumptions and our fears, that we are victimized by the people we live with, that love between the races is a useless, pie-in-the-sky ideal. No wonder some video stores aren’t stocking up on it: They know their customers won’t welcome a hand grenade, no matter how artful, lobbed into their living rooms. But what do you think? And why? B