Jungle Fever revolves around Flipper (Wesley Snipes), a black man from Harlem, and Angie (Annabella Sciorra) an Italian American woman from Brooklyn, showing the impact their mixed race affair has on the people around them. Following the stories of several other people too, including Flipper’s crack addict brother Gator (Samuel L Jackson), Angie’s white ex boyfriend’s pursuit of a black woman, and the lives of their families, this is an in depth look at race relations in 90s New York.
Jungle Fever is Spike Lee’s study of mixed race relationships, a fact which is hammered home in almost every scene. There’s no subtlety here, as every character in the film is utterly obsessed with the colour of people’s skin. I don’t doubt that the racism of virtually every character in this film is an accurate portrayal of certain attitudes, but it would have been possible to show this without having a conversation about race every other scene. It makes this feel less like a film and more like a series of case studies. There are so many conversations about race that it becomes tiresomely repetitive.
One thing that can be said in its favour here is that it’s not accusatory against a particular group. The racism on display in Jungle Fever works both ways, with black characters as racist as the white ones, but this also means that the black characters, along with the white, constantly talk about race.
Luckily there are other things going on here too, like a look at the family and gender roles, and also the part religion plays. Racists on both sides stick firmly to their deeply held religious principles and it’s often the less religious characters who are less conservative and more blind to race. But the focus on race is still by far the most significant thing in this film and somewhat overwhelms its other aspects.
Aside from this complete fixation it’s a good drama, even if its realism is diminished by the characters’ obsession. Wesley Snipes is fantastic in this serious dramatic role, as is Annabella Sciorra. But the most notable performance here is from Samuel L Jackson as crack addict Gator. He manages to be both terrifying and amusing, which is possibly his greatest strength as an actor. Anyone who thinks Samuel L Jackson is the same in everything should watch this (then The Avengers, then Jackie Brown and then Django Unchained).
A good film if not a great film, this is enjoyable and engaging, if heavy handed.