The interracial love story that anchors Jungle Fever is the least interesting element of Spike Lee’s 1991 joint. It’s the dull circle from which more compelling plot tangents offshoot. While the director is game for a surface-level exploration of the trials and tribulations of forbidden love, his once-controversial subject matter is merely a selling point designed to get asses into theater seats. Once Lee hooks his audience with the promise of sin, he pivots his social commentary to a tragic secondary character, just as Douglas Sirk did in Imitation of Life. This is appropriate, because Jungle Fever is the equivalent of a 1950s message picture. Expertly wielding his influences, Lee throws a dash of Delbert Mann and a soupcon of Stanley Kramer into the proceedings. Though the outcome is at times woefully dated, it’s also the origin of several ideas Lee would return to in subsequent films.
Flipper Purify (Wesley Snipes) is a successful architect living in Harlem with his beautiful Bloomingdale’s buyer wife, Drew (Lonette McKee). He has a daughter way too interested in her parents’ sex life, and a friend, Cyrus (Lee), whose big mouth causes the Purifys no end of trouble. Cyrus’s Benita Butrell-worthy utterance of neighborhood gossip accidentally tips Drew to her husband’s affair with Italian office temp Angie Tucci (Annabella Sciorra). And like many affairs, this one evolves from lust and sexual curiosity, the latter a byproduct of the taboos of miscegenation. Unfortunately, the two leads share zero chemistry, and far less shock and scandal result in 2016 from their coupling than it did 25 years ago. Separately, Sciorra and Snipes are interesting; together, they’re as dry as a burnt saltine.
Lee is more interested in portraying the similarities between black and Italian family dynamics, as Jungle Fever reveals a quest for respectability and a penchant for violence on both sides. The Purify and Tucci patriarchs—played by Ossie Davis and Frank Vincent, respectively—strive to keep up appearances while barely hiding the same hypocrisies they rail against. When their children fail to abide by familial standards of purity, the physical punishment is swift and severe. In tracing a congruent path of definition—and racist thoughts—for its black and Italian characters, Jungle Fever evokes the old adage that familiarity breeds contempt: The ingrained self-hatred of its characters reflect outward toward those who remind them of themselves.
The film also explores the neighborhoods of its characters. Alternating between Harlem and Bensonhurst, Jungle Fever inadvertently casts a heartbreakingly quaint, nostalgic glow over images of pre-gentrified New York City. Nature is as important as nurture in depicting how Flipper and Angie evolved over time. Angie’s ’hood contains a motley crew of bonehead characters played by Michael Badalucco, Debi Mazar, and Michael Imperioli. Flipper’s Harlem is populated by his religious parents, The Good Reverend Doctor Purify (Davis) and Lucinda (Ruby Dee); his crackhead brother, Gator (Samuel L. Jackson), whom the reverend despises; Gator’s girlfriend, Vivian (Halle Berry); and Charlie Murphy’s “Livin’ Large,” who sets the film’s most harrowing sequence in motion.
Jungle Fever additionally provides one standout character per neighborhood, each a product of his environment. In Bensonhurst, it’s Paulie Carbone (John Turturro), Angie’s soon-to-be ex-boyfriend who runs a soda shop owned by his father, Lou (Anthony Quinn). Normally employed as a tough guy in Lee’s films, Turturro turns in an unexpectedly shy, reserved, and wounded performance. Paulie is the film’s homage to Ernest Borgnine’s Oscar-winning role in Marty—an unlucky in love sad sack surrounded by “friends” eager to keep him trapped in miserable stasis. As in Marty, Paulie meets a potential companion his friends and family don’t approve of, except here she’s a black woman named Orin (Tyra Ferrell). Their brief flirtations spark more powerfully than Flipper and Angie’s love affair, culminating in a moment that highlights the streak of pitch-black humor running throughout Jungle Fever.
And in the film’s Harlem-set sections, it’s Gator, the aforementioned tragic figure that Lee pivots to for maximum effect, who’s most noteworthy. Jackson’s performance is a superb piece of method acting; the actor had just come out of rehab before playing the part, and his performance won him a special award at the Cannes Film Festival. Highlighting the crack epidemic raging in New York City at the time, Gator’s story arc feels like the reason for Jungle Fever’s being. It’s Lee’s Sirkian rope-a-dope, an unsubtle switch to a different cautionary tale than the one he lured viewers in with, and he draws maximum attention to it both visually and tonally.
Gator’s story is a trial run for Lee’s late-career merging of surrealism and social commentary, as it culminates in Jungle Fever’s most theatrical, grandiose, and effective set piece. Led by the agitated camerawork of Ernest Dickerson and Stevie Wonder’s brilliant ode of urban struggle, “Living for the City,” Lee puts Gator, Flipper, and Vivian in a phantasmagoric crack house called the Taj Mahal. It’s the ne plus ultra of drug-den set design, outshining even the outlandish Tha Carter apartments from New Jack City, which also starred Snipes. The jarring unreality of the Taj Mahal inhabits Gator’s penultimate scene, but a jolting reality infuses his final one. Lee closes it on a shocking, provocative image, a marriage of God and guns that is so potent, the film’s love story becomes practically irrelevant.
Today, Jungle Fever plays as an entertaining piece of Spike Lee cross-referencing. Watching it, one can see the origins of some of his late-career directorial and screenwriting trademarks, and the perfection of those he employed early on. But it’s also worth noting for Wonder’s excellent original song score. Lee uses it both as underscore and contrapuntal narration. Additionally, as if musically reflecting the two stories within the film, Jungle Fever begins with Stevie’s boisterous, unapologetic statement of love and ends with the most hopeless song Stevie ever wrote.