Jungle Fever (1991): Spike Lee’s Powerful Interracial Drama, Starring Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra

A powerful melodrama,  which below the romantic surface deals with manifestations of explicit and implicit racism, Jungle Fever represents a thematic follow-up to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, a better film made in 1989.

Lee’s fifth feature examines the tragic consequences of an interracial relationship, as a pair of lovers is driven apart by the pressures of race, class, family and neighborhood.

The movie is dedicated (before the opening credits) to Yusuf Hawkins, who was killed on August 23, 1989, in Bensonhurst, New York, by Italian-Americans who believed the he was involved with a white girl, though he was actually in the neighborhood to inquire about a used car for sale.

Wesley Snipes is well cast as Flipper Purify, a successful black architect enmeshed in an extramarital romance with his working-class, Italian-American secretary (played by Annabella Sciorra). When the interracial romance is discovered, their respective families and friends shun the pair, reacting with anger, contempt and disgust.

What begins as a close, critical chronicle of an interracial romance soon turns into a communal event. The central love story gradually gets lost in the maze, indicating that for Lee the scandalous reaction to the affair is more important than the event itself.

Lee has said that the movie is a personal one (his father has been married to a white woman), but in trying to be fair to all parties involved, he loses sight of what attracts the lovers to each other in the first place.

Too bad: What could have been a welcome update of the naïve, preachy, disingenuous treatment of interracial romances in Hollywood films of yesteryear (such as “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”) becomes a platform of ideas rather than an exhibition of feelings and sentiments.

Some of the film’s strongest scenes depict Gator, Flipper’s violent crack-addict, pestering his family members for money. While his preacher father (Ossie Davis) has disowned him, his mother (Ruby Dee) and Flipper, feeling sorry for him, occasionally give him money.  For his realistic and powerful performance, Samuel L. Jackson was honored with the acting kudo at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival. Jackson has said that he was able to effectively play the crack addict Gator because he had just gotten out of rehab for his own crack addiction.

The cast also includes Lonette McKee as Flipper’s loving wife, John Turturro as Angie’s Italian-American lover Paulie, and Anthony Quinn as Torturro’s father.