There was a time when I was only familiar with Spike Lee from Kanye’s verse on “Clique”:
Yeah I’m talking business
We talking CIA
I’m talking George Tenet
I seen him the other day
He asked me about my Maybach
Think he had the same
Except mine tinted and his might have been rented
You know white people get money don’t spend it
Or maybe they get money, buy a business
I rather buy 80 gold chains and go ig’nant
I know Spike Lee gon’ kill me but let me finish
He was, essentially, a figure who represented both standing up for African Americans, but also holding to account some of black culture for what he would see (I think) as self-defeating – in Kanye’s case, the idea of spending money on chains rather than a business or savings, a lifestyle celebrated in a lot of mainstream hip-hop.
Then I saw Do The Right Thing and realized that, essentially, that is an accurate impression. Does Mookie, in that movie, do the right thing when he throws the garbage can through the pizzeria’s shop front to start a riot? The police have just killed his friend and driven off with his body. Does that justify violence? Lee poses questions that hold African American men in particular to a very high standard – a standard that, in his eyes (and I think he’s probably correct) is essential given the way society is so much faster to persecute them than anyone else. When was the last time you heard of an unarmed white guy shot by police in the USA?
Some filmmakers get angry when their films are pigeonholed into being “about” a certain issue—just look at all the times Tarantino has flipped out when asked about on-screen violence—but Spike Lee is a director and activist who actively seeks it, and revels in it.
This was the mindset and expectation with which I sat down to watch Jungle Fever, which focuses on an interracial affair and the way two communities, black and white, react to it.
Before talking about those deep and probing questions of race, identity and social expectation, let me heap some praise on Spike Lee’s New York setting. It’s super cool. I read an interview recently with Jeriana San Juan, who designed the costumes for Baz Luhrmann’s Netflix series The Get Down, which focuses on the birth of hip-hop and the African-American culture that gave rise to it. She mentioned kids with white Jordans who would carry toothbrushes to clean them in the street, and many of Lee’s films seem to be set in that same milieu (though Jungle Fever is set is about ten to 15 years later than The Get Down, I think).
Lee does for Bed-Stuy and Harlem what the Red Hot Chili Peppers do for LA, or what Woody Allen does for Manhattan – in his hands, the neighbourhoods of New York City become almost mythical places of boom-boxes and flat-tops, where old men stand on street corners and observe goings-on like a Greek chorus. Lee’s locations are the setting for fables where everyone is a street prophet of some sort (and in fact, his most recent movie Chi-Raq is based on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata). It’s an effect heightened by an excellent soundtrack and, of course, the characters’ whimsical Pynchonesque names (Ming-a-Ling; Flipper; Gator Purify).
In a nutshell, the plot follows a successful black architect called Flipper, played by Wesley Snipes. A young Italian American called Angela (Annabella Sciorra) comes to work as Flipper’s secretary. He’s initially cold, preferring an African American to replace his previous temp. Like Mookie in Do The Right Thing, he’s striving at his job but is continually knocked back by his superiors. Angie is from Bensonhurst, Flipper is from Harlem. He is married with a daughter, and she has a boyfriend, but gradually, as we know they must, they fall for one another.
One of the most notable points early in the movie is that Angie is white, but comes from an Italian-American community; all the stereotypes associated with Italian Americans are explored here in great detail. The men have oiled hair and wear gold chains, crucifixes, and hairnets, and they make the women cook. There is a telling moment where Angie stays at work late with Flipper because she doesn’t want to go home to cook for her father and brothers. Whether this is anything more than pure stereotyping, I wouldn’t want to say, as a white Brit, but as one other writer pointed out, it’s almost as if all his impressions of Italians are based on The Godfather. I’d prefer a comparison to The Sopranos (which Sciorra also appeared in), but there is something to be said for the argument that these characters are at least heightened representations of themselves, if they aren’t outright stereotypical.
Anyway. It’s a believable affair. Both are outsiders in different ways. With Angie, it’s quite clear that Flipper, who is proud and treats her with respect, is a world away from her all-male family and her sweet but slightly under-confident boyfriend, Paulie. Harder to define is what makes Flipper go for her (apart from the fact, of course, that Annabella Sciorra is beautiful); he seems to have a self-destructive streak like many of Spike Lee’s characters. When he hits a barrier to his career, which the film shows us is strongly based on racism, he throws everything away that he has worked for.
His affair is similar to Mookie throwing the garbage can through the window. It goes back to the whole “holding people to a higher standard” idea. Flipper literally flips: he quits the firm. Spike Lee’s character Cyrus (typically philosophical and savvy) is delighted, and tells him to open his own business. Then he hears about the affair, finds out it’s with a white girl, and his first reaction is simply to state “Nuclear holocaust…Both of you got jungle fever.”
And then the outright racism begins, taking over from the veiled racism we’ve seen so far. Flipper and Angie go to a black restaurant where they don’t get served; Angie’s friends tell her it’s disgusting that she had sex with a black man, and warn her not to bring him to the neighbourhood or he will be killed. (Jungle Fever is dedicated to Yusuf K. Hawkins, a man killed in the heavily Italian Bensonhurst neighbourhood by caucasians who mistakenly thought he was dating a white girl.) Angie and Flipper play fight in the street and the NYPD show up and push a gun in his ear.
Naturally, Flipper’s wife Drew finds out and throws him out of the house. What follows is a super-interesting conversation between Flipper’s mixed-race wife Drew and her friends (that Cyrus calls “a war council”) about whether it’s black men’s fault that they cheat on black women. It almost plays out like a focus group, where all possible opinions are expressed, but the ultimate conclusion? It’s the fault of white women because they throw themselves at black men, because they have been chaperoned and kept on a virginal pedestal, under lock and key, for their whole lives until the moment they turn eighteen.
A strong strain of the conversation, though, revolves around how black women don’t value themselves, and buy into the colourist idea that paler women are more attractive. Successful black men like Flipper only want to date white women. Once again, Lee’s stance seems clear by implication: black women need to value themselves, their looks and their culture more. Ultimately, Drew comes to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter what colour the other woman is: her husband is gone. A similar verdict is returned from a more sombre Cyrus when Flipper accuses him of breaking the news to the neighbourhood: Flipper has only himself to blame.
Meanwhile, Angie gives her engagement ring back to Paulie. Her own father beats her and throws her out of the house when he finds out she slept with a black man. Immediately, the Italian-Americans hold a similar court to Drew’s, with the similarly wronged Paulie proving the only voice of reason. New York elected Dinkins over Giuliani? No Italians registered to vote. The Central Park Five? That has nothing to do with the affair. Like Drew, he points out that race is repeatedly used as an excuse for behaviour, but like Drew’s friends, his group maintains that the other race is getting out of line, and things aren’t as good as they used to be.
It’s a strikingly pertinent idea, and, in fact, one that white people seem to be subscribing to more and more recently. I for one dislike the current vogue for relating everything back to a certain property tycoon with a dead-fox toupé and a melted Barbie for a face who may soon be the Leader of the Free World, but watching Jungle Fever in 2016 makes very clear that the mutual suspicion that white people feel about the increasing minority population of America, be it black, Hispanic, Asian, Jewish, Irish or anyone else, is nothing new. People will find any excuse not to take responsibility for their own actions, and instead voice prejudices about those who are different to them. Twenty-five years ago, Spike Lee knew that as well as we know it today.