“Jungle Fever” was Spike Lee’s sixth feature, first shown in cinemas in 1991. Recently shown at Home Mcr, the film was followed by a panel discussion with Akua Gyamfi (The British Blacklist), where we delved into some of the many layers of the film, such as the glass ceiling in the workplace, black women’s thoughts about black men, and of course how Spike Lee approaches what “jungle fever” actually is.
The movie begins one morning in Harlem, taking a look into the harmonious life of Flipper Purify (Wesley Snipes), a successful architect who is happily married and is a wonderful father. On this particular morning, Flipper’s bosses introduce him to his new temp worker, Angie Tucci (Annabella Sciorra), a young and alluring Italian-American woman from Bensonhurst.
Their first interaction is not pleasant, as Flipper almost immediately strides back to his bosses’ office, angrily protesting he asked for an African-American to be hired, on the basis that he is the only person of colour in the entire office. “This sounds dangerously like reverse discrimination” one of the two bosses points out. The issue Spike Lee is tackling here is that the modern American workplace needs to normalize hiring people from all backgrounds, especially African-Americans.
When talking to his wife Drew (Lonette McKee) about his long overdue promotion to partner of the architectural firm, as much as she agrees he deserves it, she carefully warns him to be prepared. “Prepared for what?” Flipper asks. “In case they say no.” Flipper throws that statement to the wind, to him it’s all very straightforward, “Most of the money they make in the company, it’s because of me”.
This glass ceiling is still hugely present in the workplace today, as many of the people confirmed during the discussion panel – one woman recounted her experience of deciding to leave her job to start her own business due to the very same problem Flipper faced almost 30 years ago.
Angie and Flipper grow increasingly drawn to each-other, creating a routine of working late and eating Chinese takeout together, one night finally giving in to temptation. It is quite obvious that the pair share more of a physical attraction than a romantic one, and the backlash their liaison causes quickly outweighs the fascination they held for one another.
It is this unhealthy sexual attraction that Spike Lee evokes as “jungle fever”, or the fetishization of different skin colours or ethnicities than one’s own. Both ruin the relationships they were in, Angie receives a vicious beating from her father when word gets out she is seeing a black man. Her boyfriend Paulie (John Turturro, also known for the role of Pino in Do the Right Thing) is a “nice guy”, their break-up scene is so well played that it is genuinely upsetting to watch.
Paulie’s friends or closer to what you could call entourage are quite intensely racist and attempt to push him to be angry not so much about the adultery, but more about the fact the man in question is black. Thankfully Paulie does not share this point of view, and quite soon asks a regular client out on a date. Contrasting with Angie and Flipper’s relationship, this was a nice addition to the story as Paulie is infatuated with her not only because he finds her beautiful, but also for her intelligence – He does not have “the fever”.
It is interesting how the pair’s different skin colours are recurrently seen as a larger issue than the adultery itself. Angie’s father is ashamed of her actions, throwing her out of his home because the man she is seeing is not white or Italian. Flipper’s wife Drew has struggled all her life being mixed-race, and for this reason feels all the more hurt upon discovering the other woman is white.
This opens up a discussion she and her friends have that evening. She is now convinced Flipper has always fantasized about white women, wondering aloud if it’s for her light-coloured skin that he married her. They criticise that men’s ideal of beauty is far too often the white woman. Growing up, the black girl is constantly surrounded with media and advertisements that push that stereotype.
Lee and the actresses improvised this whole scene over the course of two days, and is one of the realest scenes of the entire film. It evokes what women of colour felt and experienced then, and as women during the discussion panel confirmed, reflects what women of colour feel and talk about now.
Many of the people at the screening confessed that the film didn’t ring as true as when they first saw it in 1991, but we all agreed that Spike Lee had once again brought together an incredibly talented cast and a realistic grasp of the tensions on the streets of Harlem and Bensonhurst that must be watched, shared and talked about continually.