Spike Lee's 'Jungle Fever' seethes with realities of interracial relationships

June 07, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

'Jungle Fever'

Starring Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra.

Directed by Spike Lee.

Released by Universal.

Rated R.

*** 1/2

2 Give this to Spike Lee: He sees everything.

In his private life he may be a strident polemicist, a hustling millionaire gym shoe salesman and a loudmouthed whiner who blames everything on "the problem" -- racism -- but behind the camera he's an artist, with an artist's vision and compassion.

In his new "Jungle Fever," he sees the pain and hope of interracial love, the despair of drugs, the stifling crunch of orthodoxy, the tragedy of broken communications. He even finds grace and humanity just where you'd think he couldn't: in Bensonhurst.

The story (primarily) of an interracial extramarital affair, it broadens to encompass a larger tapestry of dilemmas facing blacks (and whites) in America, and yet it almost effortlessly never loses contact with its central thrust. Lee's audacity is almost as dazzling as his talent.

Lee's view of America is not optimistic: Everybody in "Jungle Fever" -- blacks, of course, but also and especially whites -- is enmeshed in a system of oppression. Everybody's a victim and the movie is an account of how these desperately crippled, crimped people reach out to one another, sometimes successfully, sometimes tragically. It has no answers; but it has millions of questions.

Flipper Purify (Wesley Snipes) is a successful architect who works in Manhattan and lives on a pleasant middle-class street in Harlem. Happily married to Drew (Lonette McKee) and the father of a precocious and darling daughter, he's talented but lives in a cocoon of rage, seeing racism everywhere, even in his new replacement secretary, Angie, who happens to be white.

Angie (Annabella Sciorra) is also young, vulnerable and very Italian and herself hungry for liberation, since she lives nearly as a house slave to her father and two brothers who routinely brutalize her even as they love her so passionately it's suffocating. All she wants is somebody to listen to her and when Flipper listens . . .

"You got the jungle fever," says Flipper's pal Cyrus (Lee himself), when he hears what has happened one night when the two were working alone late.

Flipper and Angie's tryst soon becomes public knowledge in the tightknit communities from which each springs: The results are the predictable festivals of bad behavior. Angie's father beats the hell out of her; Flipper's enraged wife kicks him (and his clothes) out the window. More like survivors displaced by a nuclear blast than lovers, Angie and Flipper set up housekeeping in the more tolerant precincts of Greenwich Village, there to discover that they really don't love each other.

I think Lee shortchanges Angie; Sciorra looks the part and brings aching vulnerability to the role, but we never learn much about her, except that her life stinks.

No where else does Lee stint. Her boyfriend Paulie, played beautifully by John Turturro, is an amiable but secretly self-loathing loser, put upon by her brothers and his own father (Anthony Quinn). Ditched by her, he sets out haltingly to get another life, and finds that he must fight for it -- and that he can. Turturro, attracted to a black woman (played by Halle Berry) represents the positive aspects of interracial love, the hopeful aspects, in contrast to the many bitter tears unleashed by Angie and Flipper.

Flipper's betrayed wife is a tower of rage; her eruption is astonishing, leading to the film's comic highlight, when she and her several friends sit there and dish on men, both white and black: It's a concussive, abusive and brilliant scene.

The movie insists on edging very close to things that are almost never talked about: black men's supposed preference for lighter skinned black women, which, according to McKee, reaches its inevitable crescendo in race-crossing sex. But Lee also looks at the dysfunction in the black family and again refuses to accept the conventional wisdom on this depressing phenomenon: Flipper is the good son of the crushingly orthodox and stubborn Rev. Purify (Ossie Davis) and his ditheringly do-gooder wife Lucinda (Ruby Dee); the bad son is Gator, brilliantly played by Samuel L. Jackson.

Gator is a provocative character.

"Jungle Fever" is so many graceful things, so many angry things, so many truly moving things that its occasional faults are the faults of excess passion, not failure of imagination. Most importantly, it seethes with life, unlike nearly every other movie out of Hollywood these days.

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