Directed by Spike Lee
Starring: Wesley Snipes, Annabella Sciorra, and Samuel L. Jackson
Friends and family of a married black architect react in different ways to his affair with an Italian secretary.
Spike Lee will forever be known by his 1989 masterpiece “Do The Right Thing.” Rather than rest on his laurels, Lee has made numerous quality films since, but all overshadowed by his breathtaking earlier work. Jungle Fever is one of those underrated works.
Wesley Snipes plays Flipper Purify, an architect living in Harlem with a loving wife and daughter. He’s a family man that’s trying to become partner in his company. One day the partners (Tim Robbins and Brad Dourif) hire Angie Tucci (Annabella Sciorra), a secretary for Flipper. As with most Spike Lee movies, he’s going to use the film as a commentary on society. Immediately Flipper doesn’t like Angie because she’s white and he had asked for a black secretary.
Through some late night dinners at the office, Flipper and Angie begin to like each other, until it culminates into a late night tryst. When they later tell their friends of the ordeal, the racism from each side comes out, and soon everyone knows of the affair.
Flipper is kicked out of his house by his wife, and Angie is beat up by her Italian- American father (Frank Vincent) and kicked out as well. Both are left to themselves as they’ve been ostracized by society as a whole. In one painful sequence, Flipper brings Angie to his parents house for dinner. Flipper’s dad, The Good Reverend Doctor Purify (Ossie Davis) seemed to only invite them so he could verbally assault the couple.
Eventually, Flipper can’t bear being shunned by his community, and they end the relationship. Flipper goes back to his wife and daughter, and Angie goes back to her father and brothers.
However, what truly makes this film great and unique is that there’s more below the surface to this film. The more I think about it, this isn’t a film about interracial relationships as much as it’s about not focusing on real problems.
Samuel L. Jackson plays Gator Purify, the older brother to Flipper, who is a crack head. He’s constantly hitting up his loving mother Lucinda (Ruby Dee) for money. He promises her he got a job but needs $100 for the application fee, or that he’s sick and he needs the money for medical treatment, or he needs to borrow the color TV so he can watch the game. His heartbroken mother wants to believe the lies, and gives him the money out of sight of The Good Reverend Doctor Purify, as he wants nothing to do with his first born anymore.
Spike Lee tries to always make a point with his films, and he tries to invoke thought and discussion. He presents us with the situation, but he doesn’t try to give a solution. In this film, just like in Do The Right Thing, he doesn’t put the blame solely on one race, but distributes it equally. The Italians in this film are angry that Angie is dating a black man, and the African Americans are also angry that Flipper is dating a white woman. In one scene, Flippers wife is with her girlfriends talking about the affair, and they also talk about the racism blacks have against lighter skinned blacks.
The photography by Ernest Dickerson is extraordinary. This is a good looking film. When Flipper and Angie are becoming attracted to one another, he photographs Sciorra with white diffusion, making her really beautiful. This also implies a slight mystery about her, which serves later on when they break up with Flipper saying he was “curious about white.” When the couple does break up, it’s served in an image which is one of the best lit shots in Spike Lees career. Both actors are facing away from each other on either side of a bed. Angie has some streetlight coming in through the curtain onto her face. Flipper is in silhouette with the wall behind him being lit. This is a perfect shot to accentuate that they’re breaking up because she’s white and he’s black.
The one sequence that will really stand out is when Flipper enters a crack den to find Gator and get back his mothers TV. This is just a chilling sequence and shows a great collaboration between Lee, the production designer Wynn Thomas, and Dickerson. I really don’t want to try and describe it, as it simply just needs to be seen.
The performances in this film are great all around. Long before Snipes became Passenger 57, or the Demolition Man, or Blade, or dodging the IRS, he was a good actor, and his skill is shown in this film. Annabella Sciorra’s performance makes me wonder why I haven’t seen more of her, and Ossie Davis is solid as always. Ruby Dee turns in a great performance as the tortured mother, and Spike Lee does a solid job as Cyrus, Flippers best friend.
John Turturro also does a great job as Angie’s ex-boyfriend who tries to fend off the racial slurs of his friends, and Tyra Farrell does a great job in her small role as Turturros eventual love interest.
But the standout performance goes to Samuel L. Jackson, who gives a heartbreaking performance as the drug addicted older brother. Astonishingly, he was a drug addict and was barely clean before doing this film. His role is unforgettable and brutally honest.
When I saw this film I wasn’t sure what I thought of it. The ending definitely had me confused. The final shot is Flipper leaving his wife and child and walking down the same street he walks his daughter to school. A drug addict pops out from around the corner and asks for two dollars in exchange for a sexual favor and calls Flipper “Daddy.” Flipper then clutches the girl close to his chest and yells “NOOOOOOOOO,” much like Darth Vader did at the end of Episode III.
For awhile I thought this was a weird ending until I realized what the film is really about and what Lee is trying to say. However, I’ll leave you to your own interpretation of this very complex film; but I will say that I think the clutching hug would’ve been enough without the “NOOOOOOOOO.”