Jungle Fever Review

Flipper Purify (Wesley Snipes) has a well-paid job, he’s married to Drew (Lonette McKee) and they have a young daughter, Ming (Veronica Timbers). Then one day Angie Tucci (Annabella Sciorra) starts work as a temp at the same firm. There’s certainly an attraction between African-American man and Italian-American woman, so they star an affair…and are quite unprepared for the ensuing fallout.

In Jungle Fever, Lee returns to the theme of racial tensions that marked his breakthrough film, Do the Right Thing. The result is big, bold, vibrant and more than a little sprawling. By the end of it you feel run over by a truck. Everyone in the film has been somehow touched by Flip and Angie’s affair. Drew throws Flip out of the house (and some people may wonder why Lee finds the affair’s interracial nature more of a sin than its being a marital infidelity). Fathers on both sides disown their children. And a lot of people become selfconscious about their own ethnicity – dark-skinned Italians just as much as light-skinned blacks.

Lee’s forte is scenes of confrontation, and Jungle Fever is a series of them, scorchingly written, extremely well acted and utterly riveting. (Sensitive souls should note that, along with Goodfellas, this film held the Hollywood record for profanity, though it’s long since been surpassed.) What he isn’t able to do – at this stage of his career at least – is to organise them into a shapely narrative. The film doesn’t really build, but stays pretty much on one pitch throughout. And, towards the end, Lee loses the love story in favour of a subplot featuring Flip’s crack-addict older brother Gator (Samuel L. Jackson). The scene where Flip has to go to a crack den called the Taj Mahal to find Gator, scored to Stevie Wonder’s “Livin’ for the City”, is terrific, and one of the best-sustained sequences Lee has ever filmed. But it’s in the wrong film. Gator’s story has no relevance to the central story of interracial love, apart from his addiction being a parallel sin of the flesh to Flip’s adultery in the eyes of their father, played with painful dignity and restraint by Ossie Davis. Samuel L. Jackson broke out from a series of minor roles as hoodlums with this performance, which won him a specially-created Supporting Actor Award at Cannes. But by this time in the film, Flip and Angie’s story has almost been forgotten. That’s Halle Berry, by the way, as Gator’s equally addicted girlfriend.

You could say that Lee is less interested in the love story than in examining its effects. He’s also far less interested in Angie (though Sciorra does her best with the part) than he is in Flip: the film ends with him with her all but written out. Lee had faced accusations of sexism from his first feature (She’s Gotta Have It) onwards. He certainly tries to answer them here: there’s a long sequence where Drew and her friends pour out their grievances about the men in their lives. It’s a brave attempt, though it fails Joanna Russ’s test for fully-dimensional female characters: do two women have a conversation at any time in the story that isn’t about men? Not here they don’t: the conversation is entirely about men, their ways, and their dicks.

Other pluses are Ernest Dickerson’s camerawork, the visual stylisation toned down somewhat since Do the Right Thing - though Lee has developed a signature shot, where characters seem to glide rather than walk. The film also benefits from several newly-written songs from Stevie Wonder, though the best-used example is a pre-existing one, “Livin’ in the City” cited above.

Jungle Fever forms part of the five-film Spike Lee Joint Box Set, sharing a DVD-10 disc with Clockers. The disc is encoded for Region 1 only.

As with all the other films in the set, Jungle Fever is transferred in its original ratio of 1.85:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. No problems with the picture, which copes ably with the range of textures that Lee and Dickerson use: romantic soft focus, bold colour, washed-out urban grain and grit. Shadow deal is fine.

The soundtrack is surround-encoded Dolby Digital 2.0, derived from the original Dolby SR mix. The surrounds are used mostly for music and ambience, though there is the occasional directional effect. There are nineteen chapter stops. As with the other films in the set, there are no extras, not even a trailer.

Jungle Fever is big and messy and, while undoubtedly flawed, hard to forget. It’s one of Lee’s key works, and for me, along with Do the Right Thing, the best justification for buying this set. However, you get three other films thrown in, all at least interesting, so no complaints about value for money.

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