Tonight at BAM, the Brooklyn Historical Society presents a 20th anniversary screening of Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever, followed by a panel discussion on racial and gender identity.
With Jungle Fever, Spike Lee reused the dialectical scaffold that made him famous in Do the Right Thing, but for a totally different purpose. Filmed two years after Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever uses miscegenation as its jumping-off point, showing the impossibility of ever completely rejecting inherited prejudices. While Do the Right Thing posits that there’s no clean way to stem inter-racial conflict, Jungle Fever insists that overt conflict, as vital as it may be, can’t really solve anything.
Wesley Snipes stars as Flipper Purify, an aspirant architect who cheats on his wife with Angie Tucci (Annabella Sciorra). He’s from Harlem and is black; she’s from Bensonhurst and is white, Italian-American even. Sparks fly; conflicts ensue.
Jungle Fever is as rich as it is because it sees the protective value of traditional fears and misconceptions (Flipper’s wife, for instance, talks with a war council of her girlfriends about the real reason why Flipper, a black man, cheated on his wife with a white woman). Lee also acknowledges the danger of breaking away from the cozy—but potentially suffocating—familiarity of home. It takes a village to understand the implications of Flipper and Angie’s relationship. It’s a product of the Flipper’s intolerant religious demagogue father (Ossie Davis), which Flipper violently rejects; of Angie’s need to get out and as far away as possible from her two goombah brothers and belt-wielding father; of Flipper’s fears that his daughter will grow up to be a hustling crackhead like his brother (a volcanic Samuel L. Jackson); and of Angie’s deceptively casual disinterest in Paulie (Jon Turturro), a diligent but nebbish Eye-talian who has his own problems looking after his widowed father (Anthony Quinn!).
Dickensian strife runs rampant in Lee’s streets, making Angie and Flipper’s inevitably doomed relationship a symptom of moral panic and pent-up frustrations absorbed via osmosis. When Paulie tells his father, “I don’t hate you. I’d like to kill you but I don’t hate you,” it’s like the best kind of gut punch. Tyler Perry wishes he could make a modern family melodrama as potent and satisfying as Jungle Fever.