It's not the most lauded joint in Spike Lee's oeuvre. Impossible to stream, critically poopooed on the 25th anniversary of its release, all but suppressed by posterity, Jungle Fever (1991) is nevertheless a gem. Its race politics may feel dated and Stevie Wonder's title song may deserve its ridicule, but it still has things to say.
It's remarkable what a difference a quarter century makes. Upon its release, critics across the board admired Jungle Fever for its daring frankness on issues ranging from domestic violence to the crack epidemic, but when it turned 25 in 2016 it was derided as "the equivalent of a 1950s message picture" and a "comical 'issue' film." MTV News' Ira Madison III was the most withering, writing that "it virtually crumbles under the weight of its own embarrassing datedness." Whence the hostility? While Drew (Lonette McKee), her husband Flipper (Wesley Snipes), his bestie Cyrus (Spike Lee), and Drew's girlfriends sometimes discuss the vices and virtues of blacks and caucasians in aloof tones that give these exchanges a preachy quality, this shouldn't be mistaken for the tone of the film itself. Lee is parodying the self-conscious rhetoric of a certain class of highly educated professional blacks: Flipper, a successful architect, exclaims, "Just because a brother is with a white girl doesn't mean he's less down, I mean less progressive. I'm still pro-black" (to which Cyrus quips, "You are black"). Flipper and his preacher father (Ossie Davis) may still throw around antiquated miscegenation-related terms like "octoroon," but that's more a comment on the scope of their elevated historical awareness than it is on prevailing attitudes about people of mixed heritage.
Snipes, Annabella Sciorra (as Flipper's Italian-American lover, Angie), and Samuel L. Jackson (as Flipper's crack-addict brother) may receive top billing, but the real star is New York City. The Harlem/Bensonhurst divide is a big theme, the atmospheres of these two neighborhoods rendered in thick impasto. You can smell the Olde English on Halle Berry's breath, the collard greens at Sylvia's, the steaming manicotti in the Sciorra household, the Fox's U-bet at Carbone's luncheonette. In a climactic sequence accompanied by Stevie Wonder's hard-up-in-NYC anthem "Living for the City," Flipper traverses rubble-strewn vacant lots to reach "the Trump Tower of crack dens," the Taj Mahal at 145th and Convent. Back in Bensonhurst, at Carbone's coffee shop, bickering about local concerns like the Dinkins vs. Giuliani mayoral race of 1989 is a constant pastime. Paulie (John Turturro) runs the establishment for his dad (Anthony Quinn), and his imprisonment in this suffocatingly provincial environment with racist meatheads is literally tear-jerking, an unexpectedly moving performance that alone makes Jungle Fever worth the price of admission.