Jungle Fever takes place in New York in the nineties. Flipper, a black architect who is married and has a young daughter, has a brief affair with Angie, his white secretary. When the relationship is discovered their friends and families are outraged. The consequences are devastating for both of them.
But this is not your typical Hollywood drama. Writer/director Spike Lee doesn’t make simple movies with tidy resolutions. His characters are not isolated individuals living in a Hollywood fantasy. They are flesh and blood people who live in real places, and their lives are inextricably linked to the world that’s spinning around them. Even though the lovers meet in an office in Manhattan, the film really revolves around the communities they live in. Flipper’s home is in a middle-class neighborhood in Harlem, where he enjoys a happy, stable life with his wife and daughter. Angie lives in Bensonhurst, a working class Italian-American community. On top of her job as a temp, she also cooks and cleans for her father and brothers.
In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the message is that an interracial relationship can work, that love conquers all. Not in Jungle Fever. However much Flipper and Angie may care about each other, they can’t escape the worlds they live in. For Flipper’s wife Drew, it’s not just that he cheated on her with any woman. Being biracial herself, the fact that he slept with a white woman awakens a deep, complicated anger that Drew has held inside her for years. Flipper is also the target of withering scorn from his father, a fundamentalist preacher. On Angie’s side, she ends up suffering terribly for awakening the violent hatred toward blacks that is deeply ingrained in her working class neighborhood.
For most filmmakers, all this would be enough. But Lee steps back from the love story to give us the bigger picture. We get a good, long look at Flipper’s family. His brother, Gator, is a crack addict. Gator shows up at his parents’ house looking for cash. The mother doesn’t have the strength to deal with her wayward son. The father is only interested in passing judgment. Flipper would like to just forget about Gator, but later in the film the mother insists that her successful son go find his addict brother. This forces Flipper to leave the comfortable world of Manhattan professionals, and to face a side of the city that frightens him. Some people may feel that all this is an unnecessary distraction. In fact, I think this context is crucial. The film isn’t just about Flipper and Angie. It’s also about the world they inhabit.
The offices in Manhattan, the crash pad for crack addicts, Harlem, Bensonhurst, Soho. These are all part of Spike Lee’s New York. Though some of the scenes he shows us are brutal to watch, Lee’s love for the city he lives in illuminates the film. Working with cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, he frames and lights the various neighborhoods to capture the character of each. And you can tell how deeply he loves his city by the fact that he’s willing to embrace both the beauty and the horror. If at times his images are bathed in a sentimental glow, there are other times where he brings us face to face with the city’s darker side, and his gaze is unflinching.
In the end, Flipper and Angie decide they have no choice but to return to their neighborhoods, return to their homes, and try to rebuild their lives. This is not a fairy tale. They can’t escape the world they live in.