My top pick of the week is Spike Lee's 1991 film "Jungle Fever". If you're not aware of the term, it refers to an interracial relationship. Such a relationship takes center stage in this film, as a black man falls in love with a white Italian woman. Their love seems destined to defy the odds. Yeah right, who are we kidding? This is a Spike Lee joint.
As you probably know, Spike Lee is not a coy director. He has a penchant for making his thematic intentions clear with overtly socially conscious films. Naturally, he's not exactly someone you'd describe as "subtle". Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. That's exactly the case here, as "Jungle Fever" is a film with great elements mixed in with some unfortunate flaws.
The plot is framed around a successful black architect named Flipper (Wesley Snipes) and his Italian secretary Angie (Annabella Sciorra). After spending long hours working together, they fall in love (or lust?). They become intimate and proceed to the infatuation phase. The problem is, he's married. To compound this further, they both come from intolerant families who are averse to the idea of dating someone from another race. With the ever increasing societal pressure, the pair must examine their relationship to figure out if it's all worth the struggle.
In typical Spike Lee fashion, he uses this situation as a platform to discuss important issues of social stigma. In doing so, he's particularly effective in showing the disturbing ignorance from both sides of the fence. For the black characters, Flipper and Angie's relationship is indicative of black men's desire for light-skinned woman, the ultimate ideal of beauty. For the Italians, it brings up underlying resentment for the infiltration of seemingly inferior black culture into their pure Christian (Catholic, to be specific) society. For them, Angie is effectively behaving like a common whore.
Lee handles the proceeding fallout well, slipping in some preachy, but meaningful dialogue to get his point across. At the same time however, it makes our lead characters feel badly written. In particular, Flipper's approach to this forbidden relationship seems downright foolish considering the circumstances. For someone who makes a concerted effort to point out his own brilliance, he behaves curiously unaware of the risks involved for a married black man cheating with a white woman. As a result, many of the scenes end up feeling contrived in an effort to serve Lee's vision.
This is never more apparent than in the ending, when the plot seems to fall apart altogether. It becomes obvious that Lee is more concerned with protesting social injustice than following through on the film's basic premise. He can't seem to decide whether the film is about love, racism, urban decay or just general misanthropy.
Still, there's no denying the great elements. In terms of stylistic aspects, Lee's direction is in top form. From the opening credits to the end, he always manages to make the images pop with life and colour. However, he's nowhere near the MVP. Enter Samuel L. Jackson and Halle Berry. As Flipper's junkie brother and his equally coked up girlfriend, they absolutely steal the show. They provide the comic relief, giving an excellent showcase of "character acting". If you're anything like me, you'll end up wishing you were watching a movie focused on their characters.
Overall, "Jungle Fever" is an engaging film that examines race in America from a uniquely romantic perspective. It may be plagued by the director's own worst tendencies, but his game cast picks up the slack. It's unlikely to have you smitten like its characters, but there's enough to make it an enjoyable experience.
This film is part of my Black Cinema marathon.