Published on October 28th, 2019 | by Curtis Mayfield
Jungle Fever – DVD Review
Summary: It showcases ugly conversations about race behind closed doors and is buoyed by some career-defining performances.
Okay its confession time. It took a viewing of Mo Better Blues (1991) to appreciate Wesley Snipes’ acting abilities. To this novice moviegoer Snipes was known only for the Blade vampire series and a handful of action flicks in the 1990s, before his sad turn as a real-life prison inmate for tax invasion. Little did I know that his collaborations with Spike Lee include some of the actor’s best work. This brings us to Lee’s fifth film, Jungle Fever (1991). It is about a tense interracial relationship between Snipes’ family man and architect character, Flipper Purify, and Annabella Sciorra’s Italian-American assistant, Angie Tucci. Lee, who also wrote the script, has hidden a crack epidemic story inside a forbidden love story like a Trojan horse.
On the surface, Jungle Fever is comparable to Romeo and Juliet. However, as fast as the extramarital affair starts it quickly ends within minutes. Instead, Lee’s camera focuses on Flipper’s crack addicted brother, Gator (a fantastic pre-Pulp Fiction performance from Samuel L. Jackson). The movie is regarded as a classic in Lee’s filmography but to me it was less than stellar. Sciorra’s performance as a downtrodden unmarried family member in a house full of ungrateful men does not compare with Snipes’ scene-stealing performance.
Angie is an interesting character as she navigates her overbearing brothers (Michael Imperioli and David Dundara) who know her every move, especially when it comes to her dating her long-term sweetheart, Paulie (a fantastic performance from John Turturro). He is too innocent for the harshness he experiences from the other characters. One scene has Paulie catching a beating from his neighbourhood racist pals for dating an African American woman.
Much like Do The Right Thing (1989), this movie is fuelled by anger that unfortunately exists amongst mixed-raced communities, even ones as big as New York City. Images of NYC maps are used to establish the differences with how the contrasting characters live. Flipper, his wife, and daughter reside in Harlem, while Angie comes home late to make dinner for her father (Frank Vincent) and brothers in Besonhurst. Consequently, the movie dips its toes into the forbidden romance pool and to Lee’s credit it follows an unpredictable path.
Unfortunately, the romance between Angie and Flipper is not electrifying and lacks sparks. Samuel L. Jackson’s performance as a crack addict keeps the movie interesting. The scenes of his character visiting his over-accommodating mum Lucinda, a heart-breaking performance from veteran actor Ruby Dee, are particularly strong. While mum is trying to help Gator with money, his priest father, The Good Reverend Doctor Purify (that’s actually the IMDB character name as played by Ossie Davis) offers less compassion for his junkie son.
Like other Spike Lee movies, the supporting cast includes present day and future stars. Tim Robbins as Flipper’s unsympathetic boss is a nice touch for the megastar. A fresh-faced Halle Berry also appears as Gator’s cracked out girlfriend Vivian; it is a unflattering but impactful role for the future movie star. Also keep an eye out for Charlie Murphy, Theresa Randle, and Miguel Sandoval. Some of the more affecting scenes feature Flipper’s wife, Drew (Lonette McKee), talking heartbreak with her African American girlfriends as they discuss the awkward politics of interracial relationships.
When Drew and Flipper’s friends discover his cheating ways, both sets of friends are more concerned with his mistress’s colour as opposed to the adultery. Much like Lee’s previous and future films, Jungle Fever is an angry, well-constructed film. It showcases ugly conversations about race behind closed doors and is buoyed by some career-defining performances.
Genre – Drama/Romance
Label – Universal Pictures
Subtitles – None
Rating – M
Year of Release – 1991
Primary Format –DVD
Special features: N/A