Jungle Fever was a Spike Lee joint, coming out the year before Malcolm X. It was a bit of a comeback after Mo’ Better Blues, which was not very well received. The film has a big ensemble cast that gives it a bit of a Robert Altman vibe.
Wesley Snipes leads as Flipper Purify, a successful Harlem architect who’s having an affair with his Italian-American secretary, Angie, played by Annabella Sciorria—but that storyline is probably the least interesting part of the movie. What’s great is all the characters who come in and out of the film. That’s not to discredit Snipes and Sciorria, who are great.
This is the first film where people really took notice of Samuel L. Jackson. It wasn’t Jackson’s first movie with Spike Lee (he was in Do the Right Thing, among others), but here you get to see that he has some real chops in his role as Flipper’s older, crack-addicted brother. It didn’t hurt that just a week before filming Jackson had gotten out of rehab for crack addiction, he really knew that role inside and out. Jackson manages to go from absolutely hilarious to scary to heartbreaking, really showing his range and reality of addiction. Halle Barry also debuts here as his equally addicted girlfriend. Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee play the Purify brothers’ parents.
There’s a scene in Jungle Fever that prefigures Malcolm X where Lee finally gets to show that he can shoot an epic, where they go to this insanely huge crack den known as the “Taj Mahal.” The sequence was shot by Ernest Dickerson, who has shot most of Lee’s early films, and the result is an amazing scene that is what people usually remember from the film. It’s one of the defining sequences of Spike’s career.
Jungle Fever has understandably been somewhat forgotten thanks to being sandwiched between Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, Lee’s two best films. But it’s a good drama that’s very much in Lee’s ballpark, but it’s all about the little sub-plots. The main story is about a taboo relationship—there’s always been a complicated relationship between Blacks and Italians in New York—but the couple’s issues aren’t just because of race but also because Flipper is Angie’s boss. It deals with heavy subjects and deconstructs the myths around interracial relationships in an impressive way. One of things I really like about Lee is that he always shows all sides of the story, it’s never as simple as people like to think it is. Unfortunately, the ending doesn’t quite work (that’s an issue with a few of his films), in fact it’s so ridiculous that it almost ruins the movie.
Maybe one of the other failures of the movie is that Lee does let it go off in so many directions: it could have benefited from a bit more focus. You end up wishing the film was about Jackson, because he’s such a force of nature in it. There are also great bit parts from Tim Robbins, John Turturro and Brad Dourif, and Anthony Quinn has a horrific scene where he plays the father of Angie’s fiancée. It’s a little messy, but all in all, a good movie that provides a snapshot of a time not long ago when interracial relationships were a really big issue.
Regarding the extras, there’s an audio commentary with filmmaker and film historian Jim Hemphill, a BFI interview with Spike Lee from 2009 with British politician David Lammy asking the questions, an eight-minute archival featurette, a 1962 British short about interracial relationships, trailer, image gallery and booklet. The booklet includes an archival essay by critic Armond White, everyone’s least favourite trollish film critic who these days writes for the National Review (which says everything you need to know about him), plus two new essays from Kaleem Aftab and Kambole Campbell.