’s “Jungle Fever” Essay, Research Paper
A Sociological Critique of Spike Lee’s
Liana R. Prieto (April 1998)
Spike Lee?s Jungle Fever is not a unique cultural production, but a reflection of splintered aspects of real life. It depicts relationships between African-Americans and Italian-Americans centering on one interracial relationship. The film is as much a critique of urban life in New York City as an examination of interracial relationships. It presents a bleak picture of city life full of stereotypes where no racial group can, or ever will, be able to accept interracial relationships in a rational, peaceful way. This is a perspective viewers might not expect from a minority director, but it goes to show that Hollywood film, regardless of the ethnic or racial group of the creator, is not a progressive social force. However, Spike Lee does raise various relevant sociological issues: discrimination, adultery, social mobility, and the successful black man?s perceived preference for white women, Lee fails to explain, or even connect, them in a meaningful way.
Lee makes his view of interracial relationships quite clear in Jungle Fever. He made the very deliberate choice of making the relationship not only interracial, but adulterous and, therefore, doomed to failure. As Cyrus, Flipper?s best friend, Lee equates a relationship between an African-American and an Italian-American to the nuclear destruction of the world. When Flipper is ending his affair he tells his lover he has come to the conclusion that interracial relationships are based solely on curiosity and never on love. Lee condemns interracial affairs and dismisses the concept of a happy interracial relationship as an impossibility that could only occur in cartoons. Lee effectively demonstrates his view of interracial ?love?, but in doing so raises many other valid issues that he does not address.
Spike Lee leaves his viewers, who do not have personal knowledge of New York, wondering what social and economic forces and trends have led to the circumstances faced by his characters. A discussion of reality in New York City would lead us to see how many groups are not represented in this film. Brooklyn, a relatively small space, has one of the most diverse ethnic and racial compositions found anywhere in the United States. Despite this fact, there is not one character that is not Italian-American or African-American. Hispanics, Jews, Asians, Irish, and countless other racial and ethnic groups are not represented anywhere in the film. The fact that Jungle Fever is about only two groups and ignores their inevitable daily interaction with other groups is another demonstration of his cultural pluralist view. I find this narrow view to be a severe handicap on his story-telling capacities because a multitude of meaningful experiences is excluded leading to a presentation of oversimplified “realities”.
Within the two groups that Lee does attempt to depict in detail, stereotypes dominate. Angie?s family is presented as a group of semi-Neanderthal men who expect her to wait on them and beat her when she is disobedient. The neighborhood men, with the exception of Pauly, are all unemployed racists incapable of uttering a sentence that does not include an expletive, a racial slur, or some combination of the two. Drew and her friends are shown as bitter, oppressed African-American women who feel they are superior to African-American men. The conversation revolves around the idea that the few ?good? African-American men are tempted away from them by ?easy? white women. Though that discussion does bring up true points about the number of African-American men in jail and their unwillingness to settle down (due to perhaps the unequal sex ratio in which women outnumber men), it perpetuates many more myths than truths.
The economic patterns presented in the film also leave many questions unanswered. Three caricatures of socioeconomic groups appear in Jungle Fever: upwardly mobile African-Americans, crack-smoking African-Americans, and working-class Italian-Americans. Flipper, his wife Drew and their friends are economically well-off. Gator, Flipper?s brother, leads the movie into the crack underworld. One unavoidable question is why high middle class African-Americans are living only a few blocks from decrepit crack houses? Is it due to discrimination in obtaining housing in suburbia? Is it because they want to stay in Harlem where their race is the majority? Angie, Flipper?s white lover, and the people in her neighborhood are ?typical? lower middle class whites in the inner city. They are unemployed, lazy, uneducated and bigoted. Is their biased based on the changing racial composition of their neighborhood as characterized by Lauren Good? Are they simply perpetuating the cycle of discrimination they were subject to by WASPs at the beginning of this century? Do they feel affirmative action and such programs have been designed to promote other racial and ethnic groups to a social status better than their own? Without firsthand knowledge of the socioeconomic situation in New York, these questions will not be answered.
The many references to real events in New York City do not have Lee?s intended impact on a viewer if the viewer is not familiar with his references. The first of these references is the dedication of the movie to Yusuf Hawkins. It is not common knowledge that this African-American youth was murdered by a group of white hoodlums when he went to a party in Bensonhurst. When Angie is telling her friends about her affair with Flipper the incident arises again. One of her friends advises her not to bring Flipper anywhere near the neighborhood because the last time an African-American male came to the neighborhood with a white female there was ?trouble?.
A later scene shows Flipper up against the wall with a white New York Police Department officer holding a gun to his head. If the viewer was not aware of the long record of police brutality against minorities, he/she could write this scene off as a rare event. One of the discussions of the Italian-Americans in Pauly?s candy store also turns to real-life events. What begins as a discussion about David Dinkins, New York City?s first African-American mayor, and his faults ends as an indictment of all blacks due to the actions of Marion Barry and the Central Park jogger rapists. All of these ideas are powerful, but they lose the impact of their meaning if not in the context of the real world from which Spike Lee snatched them, piecing them back together in a seemingly random way.
The technique of using a warped reality to make a point is not new to Hollywood. Jungle Fever sends the message to viewers that cities are places were all kinds of people live in close proximity but are unable to interact without conflict about cultural differences. Minority groups do not have much choice in how they are portrayed, even when the filmmaker is a minority, due to the preconceived biases of American society. Constant racial and ethnic conflict and the prevalence of negative stereotypes should actually be expected in film being that Hollywood is the product, not the cause, of racist American society. Biases against minority groups are displayed in but they are not conceived by filmmakers. We as a nation have created Hollywood, biases and all. Racism, discrimination and ignorance have been part of the United States? history long before film. I doubt that if only films showing harmonious relationships among racial and ethnic groups were produced, the world would be transformed into a conflict-free utopia. The reinforcement of these ideas in movies, however, does undoubtedly have some negative influence on attitudes towards minorities.
Spike Lee?s objective is to provide a cultural pluralist view. He recognizes the difference between racial and ethnic groups and their right to maintain their cultural uniqueness. He supports the existence of these differences to the point that the mixing of cultures seems to be an abandonment of identity that should never occur. Lee believes relations between different ethnic and racial groups can be harmonious so long as they do not involve romance, and eventually, ?half-breed? children. This idea is not his own, but one shared by the much of the American public. Though Spike Lee, as an African-American director, might be expected to demonstrate views differing from the rest of Hollywood, he supports racial separatism when it comes to love.