Jungle Fever is an American drama film directed by Spike Lee starring Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra. It was Lee’s fifth feature-length film, and mainly explores interracial relationships against the urban backdrop of the streets of New York City in the early 1990s. The film focuses on Snipes character, who is a married African American named Flipper who works as an architect in an architectural firm in New York, and Sciorra’s character, a single Italian women named Angie who is hired as his secretary. The two fall into an adulterous relationship, causing Flipper’s wife to throw him out of the house, and Angie to be ostracized from her family. The film follows their struggle, which eventually leads to both Angie and Flipper returning to their family.
The film, on the surface, appears to be a simple narrative of a star-crossed interracial lovers trying to stay together in a cruel and unforgiving world, but the depths that Lee dives into the social issues surrounding the romance is deeper than what is perceived in this two-hour film.
Diluted down to its four major components the thematic layers of Jungle Fever as a follows:
Motives behind Interracial Relationships
Drugs and the Black family
Treatment of Women
Each of these issues compliment the other, the first and most obvious being the interracial relationship between Flipper and Angie, then branching off into two major themes from their own races (drugs for Black communities, and Racism for white) which finally lead to the deepest layer which is the treatment of women in both communities.
I. The Motives, Pros and Cons of Interracial Relationships
As the title of the film suggest, the love affair that blossoms between Flipper and Angie is major conflict throughout the movie. From the beginning scenes of the film, audiences are introduced to Flipper as he ravishes his wife, played by Lonette McKee, showing that the two of a healthy marriage. He then wakes up his daughter Ming, played by Veronica Timbers, and walks her to her school in their neighborhood in Harlem. The scene shows Flipper as a successful family man, with a sexually healthy relationship with his wife, showing that whatever angst that plagues him does not come from his home, but somewhere else.
At work, Flipper is shown working hard, as his white partners joke and pal around his cubical. They bring in Angie, who they introduce as Snipe’s new temporary secretary, who is a white Italian woman even though Flipper had requested they hired an African American. Here is where the stress is Flipper’s life lies. Though not happy with Angie’s hiring, Flipper sucks it up after confronting his bosses who claim that his claim is “reverse discrimination.”
It is noteworthy to point out that out of Flipper’s two partners (Jerry and Leslie), Jerry shows far more distaste for Flipper, than Leslie. He is the one who quickly shoots down Flipper’s request for a new secretary, as well as his promotion later on in the film. He is a character who is quick to call Flipper out on his promotion, claiming that it’s his ego and that Flipper feels entitled to things due to the color of his skin.
This shows the active racism that whites express, while on the other hand Leslie shows his racism in a far more subtle way. He attempts to be more diplomatic than Jerry and is the one who claims that they hired Angie because she is the “best human being for the job” and well as advises Flipper to be “patient” when he denied his promotion. By their names and features alone, it is assumable that both men are from Jewish decent, and therefore can lead to the assumption that Lee is playing on the racial tensions between Jewish Americans and African Americans.
With this tension holding him back, Flipper is left in his situation, working in his tiny cubicle hoping for the promotion that, unknowingly, will never come. Though his wife tries to warn him of getting his hopes up, Flipper is confident that his hard work and effort will pay off, which it does, but not by landing him the promotion he so desperately desires.
Angie and Flipper work a late shift, Angie avoiding the dysfunctional home of her dependent Italian brothers and father, and Flipper to somehow prove to Jerry and Leslie the work ethnic they refuse to acknowledge. Both avoiding their stresses, they come together after only one late night together in the office.
How quickly Flipper and Angie fall into their adulterous relationship is an intriguing issue, as the two only spend one night together in the office before beginning their affair. Beforehand, they hardly exchange words. Lee had already established Flipper as a character who was in a sexually healthy relationship, so the motives for lust alone probably wouldn’t be enough to propel him to do something so against his established character. Even before he jumps into the pool of adultery, he tells Angie that he “never ever thought of cheating before” and knew it was a terrible thing to do. Yet, he does it anyway, though the next day he pretends that nothing has happened.
How Flipper and Angie take the late-night rendezvous is another interesting aspect to their relationship. Flipper doesn’t think of them as a couple, but tells his friend and confidant Cyrus (played by Spike Lee) that he cheated on his wife for “the first time.” The way Flipper phrases his confession to his friend is strange, as if he was talking about trying a new meal for the first time, or going to see a Broadway play for the first time. Using the phrase “for the first time” means that times following are expected, whether it be with Angie or someone else.
After his confession of his white-lover, Flipper’s reasons behind it are, “I was curious – so I jumped on it.” He then tries to explain that he’s still “down” to which Cyrus dismisses and explains why Flipper and Angie hooked-up so quickly. “The both of you got the fever,” he explains. “The both of you got jungle fever.”
On Angie’s side, as she tells her girlfriends about her affair with Flipper, they are much more against it than Cyrus. Unlike Cyrus who was more passive, and outwardly saying it was wrong morally and pointing out the “jungle fever” aspect, Angie’s friends are more disgusted. One of her friends saying it was “gross” and that she would never get with a black man, the other trying to be more tolerant, and instead bringing up that Angie’s father would be furious. Much like the Italian family in Do the Right Thing, there is a tension between the two ethnicities. The attitudes towards blacks that are shown with Angie friends mirror very much the attitudes of Jerry and Leslie, Flipper’s bosses.
After the two are discovered, and both Flip and Angie are kicked out of their respective homes, their relationships is cemented. However, the dynamic of their romance does not do anything to push Flipper off the social ladder, and in effect make him more “white” but integrate Angie into the black community and make her more “black.”
Moving with Flipper to an apartment in Harlem, visiting his family, show Angie comforting into Flipper’s culture, lessening her social status. Flipper does not gain anything form his relationship with a white woman, other than the white woman. He doesn’t want anymore children (as he tells Angie towards the end of the movie), he doesn’t want marriage, and after not getting a promotion and quitting his job, he no longer can use her as a leg-up in a corporate world. He also doesn’t love Angie, as he makes clear to not only his wife, but to Angie herself. Meaning that unlike theories explored by Rajen Persaud, which predominately claims that black men love white woman as a means to become less white, Flipper’s attractions were solely from curiosity, and desire to nibble the forbidden fruit of the white woman.
It is Angie, on the other hand, who sees Flipper as a way out. Living with him saves him from her unappreciative brothers and rage-fueled (to the point of abusive) father. At the core of this interracial romance is not love, or Flipper trying to escape being a black man (as he returns to his home and roots after leaving Angie) but Angie luring in Flipper, hoping for a way out.
II. Drugs and the Black Family
Below the layer of interracial romance, was a message about how drugs have destroyed the black
family. Set in the 1990s, the height of the Crack Epidemic that was sweeping New York, drugs motivated some of the most powerful scenes in the film.
Flipper’s older brother, Gator (played by Samuel L. Jackson) is a reoccurring character of the film. A crack addict, he is often asking Flipper or their mother for money to feed his habit, while trying to avoid their father the Good Reverend Doctor (played by Ossie Davis). Gator represents the drug culture that is currently tearing the black community apart. In the scene where Flipper ventures into crack-infused areas that his brother lurks in hopes of returning their mother’s colored television.
Here, viewers see the life that Flipper had rejected, unlike his older bother, to focus on his career, marry and raise a family. He sees familiar faces, most likely friends who had fallen into the same crowd as his brother, who greet him and tell him where his brother hides. This leads Flipper to a Crack house, called the Taj Mahal, filled with junkies (predominately black) and showing Flipper in his own personal hell, very reminiscent to Dante’s Inferno.
Drugs weigh heavily on Flipper, as scene in a scene where he walks his daughter to school and a girl offers his sexual services for drug money, he quickly leaves the woman and angrily demands that Ming never, ever get into drugs. The ending scene of the film reflect this, as a young girl who looks like Ming turns the corner and offers him a similar service, causing Flipper to break emotionally and scream into the camera.
In the white communities, drugs are an issue, as during a standoff in the candy store a fight erupts as one character calls out another for having a brother who is a heroin addict. Interestingly enough, Lee has the white people on heroin and the blacks on crack, showing that even in drug cultures the two are segregated.
III. Treatment of Women
Lee has often by accused of not having strong female characters in his films, a compliant that he has admitted to have needing to improve. Regardless of that, there are three main female character in Jungle Fever, who are mistreated by the men in their families.
First there’s Angie, who from the get-go is under-appreciated by her brother and father. Keeping the house clean, cooking, and spending her time making sure they’re all right is all Angie does before working as a secretary. She is wasting away in Bensonhurst, and as discussed earlier, quickly clings to Flipper as means to escape her life and be independent. After her romance is found out, Angie is beaten by her father, her brothers simply standing by cowardly instead of helping their sister, who had done so much for them already. Angie is taken out of her house by her girlfriends, who lead her to their house down the block, saving her from their abuse.
In a similar scene, after Flipper’s wife Dew learns of his affair, she kicks him out of the house by means of throwing his belongings out of their bedroom window, demanding that the locals take his things. After the scene, she sits with her girlfriends and they debate why black men love white women and the issue of what is considered attractive. Again, like Angie, it is not a man who has Dew’s back, as she cannot trust them because they’re “all dogs”, but women.
The last major female character is Flipper and Gator’s mother, Lucinda, who is constantly trying to evangelize her crack-addict older son, and find the silver lining of her of younger son’s failed marriage. Completely at the beck-and-call of not just her sons, but her husband the Good Reverend Doctor, as well. During the final scene, when her husband shoots Gator to death in the groin, Lucinda is helplessly sobbing over her deceased son’s figure. Unlike Angie or Dew who had other females to pull her from her prison, all Lucinda has are her sons and spouse. Spending her entire life to take care of the men in her family, Lucinda was who Angie was in danger of becoming if she did not leave Bensonhurst.
However, during the final scenes of the movie Angie returns to her home, her father allowing her into the house. The same for Dew, who allows Flipper back into her life, sobbing as he makes love to her. This illustrates the vicious cycle of these women, who save each other, only to allow the men in their lives to take control and break them down again.
Jungle Fever is a multilayered film that spends its two-hours trying to address many issues that plague not just African American life, but American life as a whole. Though it may spread itself out too far, spending more times on some things than others, its a multifaceted story with layers of content that are waiting, and willing, to be pulled back.