No one uses the phrase "jungle fever" anymore, so it’s no surprise that after 25 years, the Spike Lee joint Jungle Fever has not aged well. It's a comical "issue" film that Lee has made many times over; it's not essential viewing, especially when you consider his filmography or even the wider canon of great black films. Yet despite the fact that it virtually crumbles under the weight of its own embarrassing datedness, some of the themes still resonate. The taboo of the interracial love affair between Flipper Purify (Wesley Snipes) and Angie Tucci (Annabella Sciorra) might seem overblown in 2016 — above the Mason-Dixon Line, anyway — but it was Seneca levels of Roman tragedy in the late '80s to early '90s.
Jungle Fever was released in 1991, just two years after Yusef Hawkins, who was black, was murdered by a mob of white teens because they believed he was dating a white girl in their Bensonhurst neighborhood. The movie also came two years after Denzel Washington reportedly had scenes removed from The Mighty Quinn during which he was having sex with Mimi Rogers, due to alleged protests from black women. (Julia Roberts alleged that Denzel had done the same with their scenes in 1993's The Pelican Brief.) There are multiple scenes in Jungle Fever that address the fear from black women that black men will abandon them for lighter-skinned black woman before ultimately abandoning them for white women altogether, and, conversely, there are scenes from the Italian-American characters where both the n-word and the word moolie (a ridiculous slur that I find hilarious in the Year of Our Lord 2016) are tossed around laissez-faire.
The conceit of this film is such that two people are caught in the overreactions of their environments. Flipper and Angie are thrown together because Angie's father beats her like Spike Lee has only ever seen in The Godfather, and Flipper's wife throws his clothing out of the window in the middle of Harlem. Lee’s characters are forced together. We’re meant to feel that, hey, it’s not their fault! They’re victims of their circumstances: She was beaten, he was thrown out — it’s the people around them who have pushed them into each other’s arms. Lee is basically asking us: Can you blame them? And sure, there are some decent attempts at real conversations about colorism and interracial dating among black women and Italian men, but it all feels sort of like sifting through Twitter arguments. Lee's main problem, as with Chi-Raq, is that the subtext rapidly becomes the text. Everything in the film is spelled out for you, but no point is ever reached. Does Spike Lee think interracial romance is wrong? Does he think we should just ignore it? Who knows? Not even Spike Lee, it seems.
Part of the problem is that the central relationship of Jungle Fever is completely devoid of any real emotion. After the paint-by-numbers plotting, there’s no room left to explore an actual interracial romance. By making the relationship one of convenience, we get the feeling that Angie is totally sexually uninterested in Flipper. Jungle Fever comes across like a halfhearted Romeo and Juliet; if this star-crossed relationship is doomed, shouldn’t Flipper and Angie behave like two young lovers who can’t keep their hands off each other?
The film is all "issue" and no story. Lines like "Most [black men] are homos, drug addicts, or in jail" are so jaw-droppingly hilarious you can't believe these are real characters. The lazily shoehorned story line about drug addiction — starring Samuel L. Jackson (with a guest appearance by Halle Berry, in her first film role, as a junkie who wants to suck Flipper's dick for two dollars) — makes absolutely no sense. Jackson performs beautifully, along with stellar performances from Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis as his parents, but the outlandishness of the plot feels divorced from reality and the film. Jackson proudly proclaims he's a drug addict like a court jester dancing before the throne. If the intention is to show all facets of black life, Lee falls prey to all the stereotypes his characters claim they aren't. In 1991, Lee seemed convinced that this was the correct move: "This was the film to deal with drugs in. In Do the Right Thing it would've been a bogus subplot. And in Mo' Better Blues it would've been a movie we've seen before — the genius musician ruined by drugs. This time it could be organic to the story." But there's nothing truly organic about it.
Would Flipper and Angie have even met in 2016? These are two people who end up fucking and dating because of an affair at the office, which is a tale as old as time. Flipper wasn't out chasing a white woman, and Angie wasn't looking for some Mandingo to fulfill her Moor of Venice fantasies. And honestly, that's what makes the movie feel dated and ridiculous. From the title, you'd think it's a film about a man who actively desires a white woman to fulfill a "jungle fever" fantasy, or vice versa, but this is actually not the case. If Flipper and Angie had met today, it probably would have been on OKCupid. I have more than a few friends who've experienced racism while using dating apps like Tinder and Grindr, which seems like the Darwinian progression of the ignorance that ultimately fuels and then tears Jungle Fever’s Flip and Angie apart.
On dating apps, you can set up preferences based on age, sexual position, and, most importantly, race. While some black men feel the need to defend their choice to date white women despite the fact that literally no one gives a fuck, we're now at least able to have open conversations about interracial dating. Having sexual preferences is certainly fine — it’s great, we’re all snowflakes, etc. — but it’s when you start to generalize all black women as anti-white, or when colorism affects your preference for lighter-skinned women over darker-skinned ones, that interracial dating becomes harder to navigate. It's why specifically stating that you don't date black people is also racist. But with apps, it's much easier to be casually racist or fall prey to colorism. No one sees who you do or don't swipe on your phone.
At the very least, the Jungle Fever of today would be forced to address the ways that forbidden sexual relationships due to racial prejudices have villainously crept into our society. The issues at the heart of the film aren't talked about openly anymore. When you're able to insidiously categorize love interests by race, you can avoid having to address any of the societal reasons that force you to do so. If Jungle Fever succeeds at anything, it's bringing those issues to the forefront and creating a conversation. Unfortunately, because there’s never any kind of conclusion, the conversation feels more like eavesdropping.