To understand the reception to Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever” when it hit theaters 30 years ago, it’s important to understand the evolution of Lee himself – not just as a filmmaker, but as a public figure. When he burst onto the scene five years earlier with his debut picture, “She’s Gotta Have It,” he was dubbed, by more than one publication, “the Black Woody Allen.” It was a reductive label, to be sure (and these days, an insulting one), but it wasn’t a complete stretch; it was based on one film, and that was a black-and-white, jazz-scored, New York-set picture with a keen interest in the male/female dynamic. And Lee was, well, a short, bespectacled, Brooklyn native and diehard Knicks fan who quickly became a prolific writer/director/star of Gotham-set movies.
But the comparison didn’t really work for his sophomore effort, “School Daze,” and then it went out the window entirely with “Do the Right Thing.” His new, equally reductive labels were quite different: provocateur, troublemaker, and rabble-rouser, notions informed primarily by willful misreadings of the picture by a handful of the film’s early (but influential) white critics and pundits. The branding wasn’t accurate, but it was lucrative; “Do the Right Thing” was the sleeper hit of the summer of 1989, far outgrossing his first two features, and when his next film “Mo’ Better Blues” underperformed (it was, ironically, kind of a Woody Allen-ish movie; Allen would make a markedly similar picture, “Sweet and Lowdown,” a few years later), both the filmmaker and Universal, his studio, seemed to sense that he needed to return to provocateur mode.
And thus was born “Jungle Fever,” which revisited race, the rich central subject of “Do the Right Thing,” with a twist: this time, Lee would examine interracial relationships, a keg of cinematic dynamite since “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” – hell, since “The Birth of a Nation.” According to its trailers, print campaign, and Lee’s copious pre-release interviews, the film’s subject was the affair between a Black man and a white woman. Lee was going to get people talking again.
To be sure, he did – but perhaps not as anticipated. The reception to “Jungle Fever” was mixed; even positive reviews criticized the picture’s messiness, noting (usually negatively) that Lee had trouble sticking to the subject, instead going on long, barely related tangents. But when you watch the film now, outside of that chatter and marketing and expectation, it becomes clear that Lee was doing something else entirely. “Jungle Fever” wasn’t his Stanley Kramer movie – it was his Robert Altman movie, a rich, multi-storied mosaic of New York life in the Dinkins years. Its messiness was by design; it was no more undisciplined than “Nashville” or “A Wedding” or “Short Cuts,” which came out two years later.
And it’s not like he’s hiding it. Lee opens the movie with a dedication to Yusuf Hawkins, one of four Black teens who were chased by a mob of baseball bat-wielding white youths when they found themselves in the predominately Italian-American Brooklyn neighborhood of Bensonhurst; Hawkins was shot and killed. The murder occurred in August of 1989, just two months after the release of “Do the Right Thing” – exactly the kind of out-of-control, interracial summer violence that Lee’s film dramatized. (Last year’s HBO documentary “Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn” is an excellent examination of the case.) That dedication is followed by opening credits posted on street signs, underscoring that this is a film not just about New Yorkers but about the places where they live and how those spaces define them. (Lee’s credit, significantly, is posted on Malcolm X. Blvd.; “Malcolm X” would be his next feature.)
Moreover, from the beginning, he’s bucking expectations. Stories of adultery typically excuse their subjects’ actions by trapping them in miserable marriages. Still, Flipper Purify (Wesley Snipes) – the surname is a bit on the nose – lives an almost absurdly happy life with a beautiful and sexually voracious wife (Drew, played by Lonette McKee), a precocious kid who walks to school in perfect weather, a gorgeous Harlem brownstone, and a good job at a classy architecture firm. When he meets his new assistant, Angie Tucci (Annabella Sciorra), he’s not attracted to her; he doesn’t even seem to like her. But working late one night, they order Chinese, and talk about food, and then their neighborhoods, and then their lives and relationships, and yes, their races. Lee covers the night in a series of fade-outs and fade-ins, and both actors are wonderful here, circling each other, cautious but compelled. Lee’s cinematographer, the great Ernest Dickerson, expertly puts them into a beautiful silhouette profile lighting situation, almost making them the same shade. (That said, the scene has an extra dimension of discomfort on contemporary viewing; it’s a pre-#MeToo scene, in which one cannot ignore the power dynamic at play as Flipper seduces his subordinate.)
They’re curious about each other, and they succumb to their curiosity. Afterward, they respond differently – he feels regret, she feels happiness – but neither can keep it to themselves, confiding to their friends and immediately encountering suspicion and stereotypes. “The both of youse got the fever,” muses Flipper’s pal Cyrus (Lee). “The both of youse got jungle fever.” No one can keep a secret, it seems, and their affair rocks their respective communities and circles. Then, in a harrowing sequence, Angie’s father (Frank Vincent) beats her brutally, throwing her into furniture, hitting her with his belt, screaming racial epitaphs; he disowns her and throws her out.
Flipper’s expulsion by Drew is played more for laughs, but her pain becomes one of the picture’s most effective threads. In a mostly improvised scene, she talks through the betrayal and the struggles of dating and keeping Black men with her girlfriends. The scene is tangled but honest; it has a feeling, rare then and now, that we’re genuinely hearing private conversations (and controversies). And when Flipper tries to win his wife back, that candor continues; Drew, a light-skinned Black woman, thunders, “I guess I wasn’t white enough for you,” notes, “Only girls you ever dated was light-skinned girls,” and suggests it’s based on his own dark pigmentation – an extension of the discussions of colorism within the Black community that were so potent in Lee’s “School Daze.” And when she runs down the vile names she was called by her peers while growing up, McKee’s pain is palpable; it feels like she’s speaking from experience and blurring a line between actor and character.
The hostilities with which this relationship is met may seem overstated, either to a contemporary audience or one not steeped in the city’s history. But the stakes are always high. A playful street fight between Flipper and Angie turns into a police incident – and the cops who show up to break it up, and put a gun to Flipper’s head, are the officers from “Do The Right Thing” (clearing up any question as to whether they were disciplined for killing Radio Raheem.) The history becomes explicit in a freewheeling conversation in a Bensonhurst candy store, as a group of angry (and casually racist) Italian men discusses David Dinkins, the city’s first Black mayor, the reforms of his police commissioner Lee Brown (also, they’re sure to note, an African-American), and the injustice of Dinkins losing to Rudolph Giuliani – whom it turns out none of them managed actually to go vote for. (They apparently wouldn’t make the same mistake when “Rudy” ran against Dinkins again in 1993.)
Scenes like that are only ostensibly related to Flipper and Angie, but they’re part of the Gotham mosaic Lee is snapping together. In his scenes set in Angie’s home and neighborhood, Lee continues to mine the Italian family dynamics he first explored in “Do the Right Thing.” But he casts John Turturro in a role that amounts to a 180 from his vile racist of “Do the Right Thing”; here, he’s Paulie Carbone, Angie’s high school boyfriend, the soft-spoken neighborhood nice guy who took over the family “candy store” from his traditional Italian father (Anthony Quinn), and bucks the old man’s wishes by nurturing a crush on Orin (Tyra Ferrell), a classy Black woman who comes in every morning for newspapers and coffee. Naturally, the store’s Neanderthal clientele jeer him, and his father, like Angie’s, disowns him. But he feels how he feels, and Lee positions this relationship as an inverse to Flipper and Angie’s, one that is pure of heart and thus might last.
The casting of the Bensonhurst sections is impeccable as well; much has been made of the number of “Goodfellas” actors who wound up on “The Sopranos,” but “Jungle Fever” is something of a midpoint to that nexus, featuring not only shared cast members Vincent and Michael Imperioli but “Sopranos” recurring actor Sciorra and “Goodfellas”-only actors Debi Mazar, Gina Mastrogiacomo, Ileana Douglas (whose “Fever” scene was ultimately deleted), and Samuel L. Jackson.
Jackson is the focus of the subplot that is, paradoxically, the best thing in “Jungle Fever” and the least connected to its primary narrative. One of the most frequent (and insulting) criticisms of “Do the Right Thing” was that it failed to address the drug problems of the Black community, particularly the crack epidemic of its late-‘80s release; seemingly in response, Lee tackles it here, while also carefully noting that it’s not just a problem of that particular community (“Hey, Tony ain’t no crackhead, he’s on methadone!” “Your brother’s a fuckin’ thief, he stole a radio out of my car!”).
And so Jackson (in a performance so electrifying that the Cannes Film Festival gave it a rare Best Supporting Actor award) co-stars as Flipper’s brother Gator, who periodically turns up at the apartment of their Evangelical parents (Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee) to beg for money. Lee’s wise script – and Jackson’s performance, which he’s said was informed by his own nearly-lethal habit – understand the words and music of a long-held addiction, the patterns, and history embedded in every interaction: the lies he tells his mother (“I got this great new job, but there’s one catch: the application costs a hundred dollars”), the social-liberal guilt he lays on his “buppie” brother (“Would you rather I go out and rob some elderly person? Steal? Either way, I’m gonna get high!”), the self-loathing rage at the heart of it all (“Just tell mama her oldest son is a crackhead!”).
That subplot results in the picture’s most stunning narrative detour, in which their mother sends Flipper to find Gator, who has stolen the family’s television – and so, over nine tense minutes, he journeys into the scariest corners of the city, specifically into a mass blaze-up squat for crackheads known as “The Taj Mahal” (“it’s like the Trump Towers for crackheads around here”). It’s shot, cut, acted, and scored like a descent into hell, accompanied, as the rest of the film is, by the music of Stevie Wonder, whose “Livin’ in the City” is an R&B classic that suddenly sounds like it was written expressly for this sequence.
Many critics singled out the Taj Mahal sequence for special praise while also asking what the hell it had to do with the rest of the movie. I’d argue that it is the movie – every piece fits because “Jungle Fever” is a jigsaw puzzle of lives, races, and boroughs that are both inextricably linked and inarguably fraught. In the most literal sense, it is a New York movie, where wildly divergent stories rub up against each other every day because, in that packed space, it’s unavoidable.
Some of “Jungle Fever” doesn’t work; a couple of scenes are logically inexplicable, and Lee’s insistence that the central relationship is only about racial curiosity doesn’t jibe with Sciorra’s heartrending work. (It’s similar to the director’s disagreements with Danny Aiello about Sal’s nature in “Do the Right Thing,” though to his credit, in both cases, he didn’t ask the actors to recalibrate their takes, willing instead to let the movie live in the tension.) And he takes a big swing of an ending that doesn’t land at all – his closing moments are almost always big hits or big misses, and this one feels like he hit his target page count and just needed to wrap it up.
Nevertheless, this is a staggering piece of work, in which Lee works in a variety of tones and moods and rustles them all into a satisfying whole. Its scope and ambition were big, and in retrospect, that’s what he needed to do at that moment; the next year, he’d make “Malcolm X,” his most expensive and ambitious picture to date, so it’s kind of easy to overlook the movie that got him there. But that’s our loss.