Rumble in thejungle
Spike Lee‘s latest movie Jungle Fever is an unsurprisingly contentious look at inter—racial relationships. and is released in tandem with Five For Five. a book surveying Lee‘s films to date. Trevor Johnston assesses both.
Whatever else he might be. Spike Lee is certainly an ace self-publicist. Each of his movies so far has come accompanied with its own book-length diary. courtesy of the filmmaker. adding yet more opinion and information to the endless wave of hype. The influence of his most political film Do The Right Thing on the New York mayoral election in 1989 was crucial in transforming Lee into a television spokesperson for his generation. while its screening at Cannes elevated his status in critical circles. With the landmark of his fifth
feature. Jungle Fever. the writer actor/director has
clearly been prompted into taking stock of the story so far. Hence Five 0/: Five. a promotional offering as
much as a work ofcritical assessment. in which Lee
has invited leading figures ofthe African-American cultural scene to write about his films. the remaining pages packed out with brother David Lee's increasingly impressive location photos. Reading the book. it soon becomes clear that the writers are operating around a rather different interpretative agenda than your common-or-garden white liberal film critic. From the cheerleading introduction by 1970s black cinema pioneer Melvin Van Peebles onwards. the emphasis is on lauding the keenly observed images of the African-American community that Lee gets on screen with a vibrancy and forcefulness that white mainstream Hollywood has never been able or willing to offer.
Being ethnically and geographically outside that dialogue. it‘s hard not to feel slightly ill at ease. I might find novelist Terry McMillan‘s piece on She's Gotta Have It breathlessly over-eulogistic. I might reckon Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr's review ofJungle Fever hopelessly inadequate. since it neglects the drug-related issues that are of major importance in the film. but I'm not part of that cultural equation. so who am I to argue. right? The tricky thing about passing
judgement on Lee‘s films and their assessors is that
one‘s negative conclusions somehow find a way of associating themselves with that historical baggage of racial cultural oppression. It has after all taken
ON FOLLOWING PAGES: TRUST O TRUE IDENTITY 0 ONLY THE LONELY
i: : l
until 1991 for an African-American filmmaker to reach a tally of five features: consider that little statistic. if you will.
Indeed. the same process is at work when one assesses Lee‘s new movie Jungle Fever. in which black yuppie Flipper Purify (even the names are loaded). played by Wesley Snipes. launches into a ill-fated affair with his Italian-American secretary Angie 'l‘ucci (Annabella Sciorra). while Lee himself as Flipper‘s best buddy and John Turturro as her former beau paint in the wider social connotations of the dirty deed. Certainly. Lee explores the tension between the natural curiosity involved in inter-racial rumpy-pumpy and the sort of attittide—conditioning that both feeds prejudice and heightens the allure ofthe forbidden.
Trouble is. the characterisation is so weighted in Flipper‘s favour (light-skinned black wife and loveable tot to go back to) that you feel that right. from the start Lee is militating against the success of the whole venture. In the end. his take on inter-racial relationships seems to run along the lines of ‘it's OK for a holiday but you wouldn‘t
Annabella Sciorra and Wesley Snipes in Spike Lee's Jungle Fever want to live 1here'. which is not so easy for the fun-loving. Benetton-wearing white liberal critic at large to swallow.
Add to this a major subplot about Flipper’s no-good crack addict brother (iator (Sam Jackson). which has ‘Spikc Lee's Big Statement On Drugs” signposted all over it. but still seems to have wandered in from another film. and an over-insistent. over—used Stevie Wonder score. and you have something of the proverbial curate‘s egg. By trying to take on too many issues at once. Lee seems to have delivered a dramatically awkward and unsatisfying piece ofcinema. but take those satne issues away and (as the commentators in Five ()n Five make clear) you remove the whole context for his work in the first place.
Did someone mention "Things That Make You (io"llmm" ".’
Jungle Fever (/8) opens at the ( 'umeo, Edinburgh on Fri 20. Five For Five is published by Stewart, Tuboriund ( hung. priced £14. 9‘) (paperback).
The List 13— 26 September 1991 13