Spike Lee Fever
In sharp contrast to the hyperventilated reception that has greeted Spike Lee’s new movie Jungle Fever in the bien-pensant national press—Newsweek, which devoted a cover story to it, said that Jungle Fever raises “more crucial issues than any American film in a very long time”—the American blacks I have questioned confess privately that they hate it. One admitted to me that he felt obliged to see all Lee’s movies but absolutely loathed this one; on the other hand, he added, he loathes Woody Allen’s movies, too. A number of other blacks who happened to be in the room pointed out that Woody Allen, for all his professed universalism, has never had a single black in his films.
Is Spike Lee the black Woody Allen? Both men are physically small and less than irresistibly handsome. Both act in their own movies—Spike Lee far more adamantly than Woody Allen. Woody Allen is preoccupied with Jewish-Gentile relations; almost invariably in his movies, the character played by Allen has Gentile mistresses. Spike Lee is preoccupied, not to say obsessed, with black-white relations; in his new film, his black protagonist has a white mistress.
But Spike Lee’s ethnic self-presentation differs dramatically from Woody Allen’s. Woody Allen’s approach to the Gentile world is ingratiating self-mockery. Lee’s to the white world is ominous threats and bullying, coupled with an assumption that whites feel a limitless and nearly insurmountable hatred toward blacks.
Allen’s technique for handling Gentiles is subtle and optimistic. It assumes, in fact, that by making Gentiles laugh, Woody Allen can outwit them. Spike Lee’s assumptions are far more hostile, and if he ever calls for laughter it is of an entirely different sort. His goal, also, seems different. Where Woody Allen plainly wants Jews to be accepted without prejudice in the larger community, Spike Lee, throughout his entire career, has been at best ambivalent on this score. At least half the time he seems to be arguing angrily for separatism, as in School Daze, where he ridicules “wannabees,” black college students who act as if they “want to be” white.
Some black friends of mine in Washington, D.C., drove to white, upper-middle-class Bethesda, Maryland, to see Jungle Fever during its opening weekend; they found the house far from full. The same night, I made a point of seeing the movie at Washington’s Union Station, which draws a preponderantly black audience, though, unlike the audiences of New York’s Times Square, one that is clearly middle-class. The early evening show at Union Station was sold out. For the ten o’clock show, which I attended, the house was full again, with only 7 whites and over 350 blacks. The reactions of the black audience were not only different from those of the largely white audience at Bethesda (as I later ascertained from my friends), at several points they did not even match the ones the movie seems to call for.
In the opening scene of Jungle Fever, Flipper Purify (Wesley Snipes), a successful black architect and Harlem resident, is making love to his wife, Drew (Lonette McKee). She accompanies her lovemaking with loud cries and moans which are overheard by their adorable little daughter, and the “noises” made by Mummy subsequently become the subject of adorable breakfast conversation. “Were you hurting Mummy, Daddy?” asks the daughter, and later, when it becomes clear the little tyke knows all about sex, “Were you doing it to make a baby or just for the fun of it?” For what it is worth, the black audience at Union Station, in which women were heavily represented, giggled during the whole opening scene of lovemaking, which was shot quite seriously.
Few lines of dialogue in this film are not concerned with either sex, race, or skin color. The black architect’s skin is dark. His wife, technically “black,” has very fair skin. This comes in for endless discussion. Skin color—not only black and white but different shades of black—is important in Jungle Fever, important to the point of obsession.
The point is brought home as our hero Flipper now goes off to work at an architectural office which is run by whites but where he is the star professional. There he is confronted with a racial problem. At least he considers it a racial problem. His former secretary, now departed, was a “sister,” which is to say black, and the management of the firm has provided him with a temporary replacement who is white. Flipper protests vociferously. Perhaps he is struggling to increase or at least maintain the number of blacks employed by the firm, but if so he never mentions it; what he actually says sounds as if he simply does not like working with white people. But he fully expects to be promoted to the rank of partner by his superiors, and in a later scene he very aggressively demands that promotion. When he is refused, he resigns.
The resignation, which occurs in the first half of the film, is the last the audience hears of architecture or, indeed, of Flipper’s earning a living, a subject which seems to be beyond Spike Lee’s sphere of interest. The promotion-refusal scene is very crudely written, with Flipper proud and defiant and his white employers rigidly hostile; it can only have been introduced to prove that the black man will never get justice from whitey. The black audience at Union Station, accepting the movie’s portrayal of inflexible racial discrimination at least in the context of the movie, cheered Flipper on as if rooting for the home team at a basketball game.
Before his promotion bid and resignation, however, Flipper is faced with a different kind of racial problem. What is a successful, dark-skinned, black professional to do when stuck with a pretty, white, Italian-American “temp” from Bensonhurst, Brooklyn? (The film is dedicated to Yusuf Hawkins, the black teenager shot to death by a gang of white youths in Bensonhurst in 1989.) The answer, plainly, is to have sexual relations with her. And Angie (Annabella Sciorra), although she already has a nice Italian-American boyfriend, is more than willing. Flipper fornicates with her right on his desk. The audience at Union Station, particularly the women, again giggled without interruption during the whole desktop sexual encounter. Somewhat to my surprise, the audience found all the sex scenes funny.
So here is our black architect Flipper involved in an adulterous relationship with his white temp, a liaison viewed with vehement ill will by both of the communities from which they respectively come. When Angie drops her Italian-American boyfriend and her family learns she is consorting with a black, her father, enraged, beats her mercilessly. At Sylvia’s, a famous soul-food restaurant in Harlem, a black waitress with wild improbability refuses to serve Flipper and openly insults him for being with a white woman. Flipper, meanwhile, has confided in his best friend (played by Spike Lee himself), who tells his own wife about the affair. His wife promptly informs Flipper’s wife Drew, who in a paroxysm of rage and grief kicks Flipper out of their home, throwing all his belongings into the street. What wounds her to the heart, she cries tearfully, is that Flipper has betrayed her with a white woman.
Flipper’s father, a retired but very strict minister of the gospel (Ossie Davis), having invited Flipper and his white girlfriend to dinner, also insults them and drives them out of his home, calling his son a “whoremonger.” Flipper’s best friend, the Spike Lee character, shows no special remorse for having provoked all this commotion by violating his friend’s confidence. Flipper, one can only assume, has done the wrong thing.
The high point of the movie, as far as the Union Station audience was concerned, is the “war council” held by Drew and a group of her friends to discuss Flipper’s adultery and the question of sex between the races as well as men generally. This is about the only place in the film where one encounters a variety of opinions. Some of the women, for different reasons, are more tolerant of Flipper’s behavior than others. Well-dressed and economically middle-class, these women talk the way I’m told middle-class black women very seldom talk, like streetwalkers (actually, like Spike Lee). One of the women, fair like Drew, condones interracial dating with Asians and whites, “providing they like me for myself.” Another woman, who produced an absolute roar of approval from the female contingent at Union Station, declares emphatically that in sexual matters, color apart, “All men are dogs!” Another roar was produced by a woman who elaborates cynically on the same thesis: “When a man see pussy starin’ him in the face . . . he gone fuck it.” These roars of agreement from the audience—half-jocular, indulgent—were plainly expressive of an attitude toward men: not whites, not blacks, but men.
Jungle Fever contains a subsidiary boy-girl interracial relationship. Paulie, Angie’s abandoned Bensonhurst boyfriend, to console himself for the departed Angie, develops a romantic interest in a local black woman, Orin. Played by the same John Turturro who works in his father’s pizza parlor in Lee’s Do the Right Thing, Paulie runs a humble little candy store in which uncouth, black-hating Italian American proletarians sit around reading the tabloid New York Post. Orin dresses well, reads the New York Times. Rather like a society lady doing charity work, she encourages Paulie to enroll in college. She seeks to raise him to a higher cultural sphere than the deplorable Italian-American milieu in which he is tragically mired.
The Paulie-Orin relationship is perhaps supposed to prove that Spike Lee is not categorically opposed to sexual encounters between the two races, provided whitey knows his place. But what is whitey’s place? In the two relationships Lee shows us, the black is the clear social and educational superior of the white—a situation, let us say, which is not the universal rule in American life. The white is the humble supplicant, pitiably eager, the black the condescending partner. And even then, after all, it may not work out. We do not see the progress or end of the Paulie-Orin relationship, but we do see Flipper’s adieu to Angie. He tells her rather coldly that he had just wanted to see “what white girls were like.” Flipper, like his best friend, shows virtually no remorse over his unfeeling behavior, having done at last, I suppose, the right thing.
But Spike Lee would not want you to think he is interested only in sex, or even only in race and sex. He is also interested in race and drugs. Flipper’s older brother Gator (in a brilliant performance by Samuel Jackson) is a hopeless cocaine addict who is finally shot dead by his father. The shooting helps the plot limp along because the estranged Drew evidently comes to feel sorry for her errant husband, and in the closing scenes we see a half-reconciled Flipper and Drew at it again, Drew moaning and their adorable daughter laughing at the noises Mummy makes.
But there is still another scene to go before the movie ends. Leaving the house, Flipper encounters a black street prostitute who cries out: “I’ll suck your big black dick for two dollars!” With a cry of anguish at this revelation of the tragedy of the black condition, Flipper clasps her to his bosom. The camera pulls away, still fixed on Flipper on a Harlem street corner, embracing his poor soul sister and shouting “No!” to the heavens. Their dramatic embrace is the last frame of the movie.
Jungle Fever is dross, and turgid dross. The only justification I can think of for writing about it is the enormous social importance that has been attributed to it.
Spike Lee, who owes something of his initial launching to the Best New Director’s Award he won at the Cannes film festival in 1986 with his first movie, She’s Gotta Have It, stormed out of the most recent Cannes festival with charges of racism when Jungle Fever failed to win the Golden Palm. Earlier, he had charged Hollywood’s Motion Picture Academy with racism when Do the Right Thing failed to receive an Academy Award nomination for best picture, and had also charged the Cannes Festival jury with racism when Do the Right Thing failed to win the Golden Palm. After this year’s festival, Lee swore angrily never to return to Cannes.
But Spike Lee’s anger at the white world is ill-founded. He benefited from considerable favoritism in winning his first Cannes prize, and his talent is so negligible that if he were not black I suspect he might never have found the financing to make a single movie in America. Spike Lee, in fact, is a product of Hollywood’s real if unofficial affirmative-action program.
In the early 1970′s, Hollywood made a series of what were at the time called “black-exploitation” movies, the best-remembered of which are Gordon Parks’s Shaft, Gordon Parks, Jr.’s Super Fly, and Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweet-back’s Baadasssss Song. These films, for the first time in movie history, were principally about black people, with black heroes, and found a large commercial audience, mainly black. But once the initial rush of enthusiasm in the black community evaporated, Hollywood concluded that the market was too narrow to sustain black movies and it abandoned them. In these “black-exploitation” movies, white characters, although necessarily in supporting roles and sometimes foolish, were usually well-disposed toward blacks, even sympathetic. There was no black-white antagonism.
Then, in the mid-1980′s, with Spike Lee as standard bearer, a second wave of black movies—this time generally about black grievances or at least black problems—began appearing, and Hollywood will soon have more black movies in release than ever: New Jack City, Boyz N the Hood, Straight Out of Brooklyn, A Rage in Harlem, To Sleep With Anger, Hangin’ With the Homeboys, The Five Heart Beats, True Identity, and Livin’ Large!. In a period when the production cost of the average Hollywood movie is $20 million, these new black films are normally budgeted at half this or less. Many of their directors are very young, twenty-four, nineteen, an age when few white moviemakers get to direct. But it remains to be seen, when the studio accountants have totted up their figures, how much staying power this second wave of black movies will have compared to the first wave two decades ago.
Ideologically these films are a mixed bag, but of all the new black filmmakers it is Spike Lee, the most stridently anti-white, who is beyond question the media’s favorite, the critics’ darling. In addition to the Newsweek cover story, Jungle Fever has earned Spike Lee a four-page “inside cover” in Time (along with other new black directors), a cover story in the Washington Post magazine, a major interview in Playboy, and saturation coverage in both the printed press and broadcast media. Vincent Canby of the New York Times (who, incidentally, had much to do with establishing Woody Allen’s inflated reputation) wrote that Jungle Fever is “visually splendid,” “harrowing and wondrously alive,” and that Spike Lee has “an astonishing command of his craft,” joining the ranks of “our best.” The Wall Street Journal called the film “one of those miracle movies where reality and dreams merge into haunting clarity.” Throughout the country, the film has been praised ardently by critics apparently under the impression they are striking a brave blow against racism. The Boston Herald called the movie a “magnificent achievement.” The Miami Herald called it “uplifting” and “deeply satisfying.” The Detroit News said Spike Lee has “earned his place among the masters.” The white power structure, it would appear, has not done too badly by Spike Lee.
We are confronted with an unattractive situation. Cheered on by film critics and other journalists, Spike Lee in Jungle Fever presents the white and black communities in America as irreconcilably hostile. In this respect it is interesting to compare Jungle Fever with Mario Van Peebles’s New Jack City, which has already outgrossed (in the Hollywood sense of the word) any film ever made by Spike Lee. Do the Right Thing, which to date has been Lee’s triumph, ended up 45th in box-office receipts for the year 1989; the following year his Mo’ Better Blues, finished an ignominious 72nd.
The scene of New Jack City is Harlem. We meet Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes again), a kind of black Al Capone, who in imperial style sets out to capture the New York drug cartel from the Mafia. In this movie, almost all the police officers are black, the state prosecutors are black, and most of the criminals and drug addicts we see are black. The outraged and victimized citizenry is also black. On the way out of the courthouse, where he has received an incredibly light sentence after being brought to trial (interestingly, his defense attorney is the whitest white man in New York), Nino Brown is shot dead by an outraged black citizen in what is plainly intended to be seen as justifiable homicide.
In other words, New Jack City is deep in Clint-Eastwood-Dirty-Harry country, with an added dimension: it is a cry from the black community for harsher punishment for the black criminals who are corroding black society. The outraged black citizen who guns down Nino Brown cries out: “You’re committing genocide on your own people!” As for black-white relations within the New York police force, two officers, one black, one white, start out disliking each other but end up saving each other’s lives, solid buddies. Crack, one says to the other, “isn’t a black thing, and it isn’t a white thing. It’s a death thing.”
New Jack City is not a very good movie, but that is probably not the reason it failed to awaken much enthusiasm among white film critics.
Spike Lee claims he has “deep respect” for Martin Luther King, Jr., but confesses he cannot “get with” King’s policy of nonviolence and has always been “drawn more” to the doctrines of black nationalist Malcolm X. Lee is given to wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with an “X” and, indeed, his next film is scheduled to be about Malcolm X, whose doctrine for blacks, says Lee, amounts to “protecting the self.” Presumably the rioting black mob in Do the Right Thing that burns down the pizza parlor of a quite innocent white man is “protecting the self.” As for blacks who dissent from his position, Spike Lee recommends that Michael L. Williams, for instance, an Assistant Secretary of Education in the Bush administration whom he regards as an “Uncle Tom handkerchief-head Negro,” should be “beat with a Louisville Slugger in an alley.”
At the time of Do the Right Thing I wrote that although at the end of that film Spike Lee pretended to present as equally valid the precepts of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, the movie and Spike Lee himself were quite evidently leaning toward Malcolm X. Very few people and no film critics I know of saw it that way. Now Spike Lee is shouting it from the rooftops.