Jungle Fever

A surprisingly awful movie from a generally superb filmmaker. Here, Spike Lee matches black architect Wesley Snipes with white Italian secretary Annabella Sciorra, stands back, and … lets the sparks fly? Well, no. Rather than creating any transcendent attraction between these two, Lee has made a two-hour-and-twelve-minute film about a white girl who buys into the myth about big black dicks and a black guy who buys into the myth of white women as status symbols. The problem is, it’s hard to care about grown people who believe this shit. We have to watch them wise up — the entire didactic movie revolves around that — and it’s a drag.

Critics charged Lee with attacking interracial love, which wasn’t accurate: He does sketch in a flirtation between John Turturro and Tyra Ferrell that might develop into something terrific. (In fact, they’re the most likable people in this shrieky movie; they’re calm and low-key, and we look forward to seeing more of them. Why wasn’t this film about them?) But the fact remains that Lee completely fucks up with his lead characters. If Lee wanted to debunk racial myths, he should have focused on an interracial couple who persevere in the face of universal hostility, and for whom racial myths were never an issue. Such couples aren’t uncommon.

The most compelling scenes have to do with Gator (Samuel L. Jackson in a breakout performance), Snipes’ crackhead brother; unfortunately, these scenes also have nothing to do with the rest of the movie. It’s as if Lee had said to the detractors of Do the Right Thing, “You want me to deal with the subject of drugs? Okay, motherfuckers, I’ll give you a drug subplot,” and then shoved it into a movie that has no space or need for it. Lee also gets ultra-pretentious in the crack-house scene (it looks like one of those abstract anti-drug TV spots) and in a few bewildering sequences in which characters are filmed from the waist up and appear to be gliding down the street (a mannerism he would return to, sadly). Perhaps sensing that the movie is talktalktalk, Lee lets his camera prowl without restraint, at one point circling restlessly around a simple dialogue scene — the kind of shot that film nerds applaud but audiences laugh at. The worst roles go to Ossie Davis, Frank Vincent, and Lonette McKee, all of whom scream and look very foolish. With songs by Stevie Wonder, often set way too loud on the soundtrack.

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