Time for some controversy!
Flipper Purify (Wesley Snipes) is a happily married architect, trying to move up the corporate chain in New York City. One day, he is given a new, white temp secretary, Angie (Annabella Sciorra) despite his wish for an African-American secretary. The two of them begin to talk and actually get along quite well. They get along so well, in fact, that one night they have bit of a fling.
Feeling guilty, Flipper confesses the encounter to his best friend Cyrus (Spike Lee) who, of course, blabs to his wife who tells Flipper's wife Drew (Lonette McKee). This does not go over well. When Angie tells her friends, word travels around the neighborhood and the news gets back to her father. This does not go over well. They are both shunned by their families and loved ones.
Also hurt is Angie's platonic boyfriend Paulie (John Turturro) who is under his father's thumb while he works at the family store. His heart is broken by the news when it gets back to him.
Despite what you might assume about the premise, this isn't especially centered on a sustained relationship between Flipper and Angie. It is more about how each person's peers/family/community reacts to and largely rejects an interracial relationship. The consequences of being impulsive for all the wrong reasons (curiosity, in this case), no matter who is hurt, is also an important focus.
The tone of the film certainly isn’t romantic. In fact, there is relatively little chemistry/spark/time spent between the leads. Instead, what is interesting is that their action sets into motion stories for them both that are nearly parallel. This might be a way to highlight how we as humans are really the same, superficial cultural differences aside. We also get a glimpse of the glass ceiling for many minorities in corporate America as well as older generations’ older ideas of propriety holding back their children. Let’s not forget the prevalence of drugs in urban environments and how loving families can act as enablers. Also important is the conflict that many people who have interracial parents face. There are a lot of themes and messages floating around in here, perhaps too many, actually.
Aside from the stars, there are some real MVPs in this film: the obvious one is Samuel L Jackson (in an important, early role for his career) as Flipper's crackhead brother. It is a startling performance and a good indication of the intensity he would bring to later roles. Secondly, Ruby Dee as Flipper's mother, torn between her love for her sons who have put themselves in some bad situations and the fear she has for her husband/their father The Good Reverend Doctor Purify (Ossie Davis) who quotes Bible verses nonstop and doesn't suffer sinners kindly. Lastly, Turturro's character has the weight of a father who lives in the past and demands too much of him, while running a business and not having a life of his own. To add to the all of that, he has to put up with a neighborhood crew that constantly busts his chops about his situation with Angie. More than that, he is lonely and the most sympathetic character in the film.
If you like memorable endings, you'll get it here. Wowzer. Unfortunately, the very last scene is a bit of a head-scratcher, but it does little to diminish what came directly before it.
Special features include: none.
‘Jungle Fever’ is among the best of Lee’s less-discussed films. It is both extremely ambitious, yet with a relatively straightforward (if split) story.
In the long run, it probably also helped to give the world a whole lot more Samuel L. Jackson. For that, we can all be thankful.
Add an extra half star to this rating.
Rated R 91 minutes 1991