Op-Ed: What 20 Years of Spike Lee’s ‘Jungle Fever’ Teaches Us About Harlem’s Identity Crisis

| November 14, 2011 6:00 PM video
Where: BAMcinématek
When: Nov. 15, 2011 at 7:00 p.m.
Price: $12 for adults, $7 for members

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever.” While some consider the film a minor title in the director’s career, it reveals something important about race relations in New York at the time of its release in 1991 and also sheds light on the present moment, particularly in Harlem.

“Jungle Fever” tells the story of the ill-fated relationship between a married African-American architect named Flipper Styles (Wesley Snipes) and his young Italian-American secretary, Angie Tucci (Annabelle Sciorra). The relationship is doomed for many reasons, not the least of which is that the attraction between the two characters is based on race and class differences rather than physical or emotional chemistry.

The film reminds us of real-life race-related violence in its opening frame, a photo of and dedication to Yusef Hawkins, an African-American teenager who was shot and killed in Bensonhurst in 1989, just two years before the film’s release. A mob of mostly Italian-American male youths attacked Hawkins after hearing a rumor that a white girl from their neighborhood was dating an African-American man.

While miscegenation is the core focus of “Jungle Fever,” I find its treatment of urban space, especially Harlem, to be a much more compelling aspect of the film.

    American film director Spike Lee poses for photographers at the Cannes Film Festival in 1991. AP/Jose Goitia

    Like the film’s exploration of interracial relationships, the film’s Harlem setting has historical as well as contemporary resonance. (One must not forget that Spike Lee, even now, is primarily known as a Brooklyn filmmaker. “Jungle Fever” is the director’s first film set in Harlem.)

    Wesley Snipes’ character Flipper lives on the real-life Strivers’ Row, a cluster of townhouses between West 138th and West 139th Streets that is one of Harlem’s  most storied blocks.

    Construction on Strivers’ Row began in the early 1890s and the houses were originally intended for middle-class white families.

    By the 1920s, Strivers’ Row became the residence for Harlem’s best and brightest — hardworking professionals and other “strivers” committed to increasing their wealth and social status. But the neighborhood had fallen into hard times during the Depression, and by the 1940s many of its buildings, designed by famous architecture firm McKim, Mead and White, were broken up into single-room occupancy apartments.

      During the late 1980s, Harlem underwent a minor resurgence as black middle class families moved back into the neighborhood and began to restore its historic buildings. Flipper and his family represent this new professional class. Their presence in the neighborhood, particularly on Strivers’ Row, not only reminds viewers of Harlem’s role in African-American achievement but also asserts the continuation of this legacy.

      Flipper Styles, played by Wesley Snipes, and his young Italian-American secretary and lover, Angie Tucci, played by Annabelle Sciorra. While the politics of interracial relationships are at the core of the film, its treatment of NYC's urban space is also compelling. Photo courtesy of BAMcinématek/Photofest.

      Despite the film’s many golden-hued long shots of Strivers’ Row, Lee refrains from creating nostalgia by situating his Strivers’ Row on the verge of another Harlem, one that had been decimated by the crack epidemic of the previous decade.

      The film acknowledges such contemporary realities in both subtle and more obvious ways.

      The subtleties are seen in the background as Flipper travels around the neighborhood, paticularly while he walks his daughter to school. In these scenes, the setting changes from stately and well-maintained Strivers’ Row to boarded up buildings and garbage-strewn sidewalks, a reminder of the neighborhood’s most recent past. The message is clear: the neighborhood’s gentrification is spotty, and even African-American residents can be blind to their surroundings.

      WATCH VIDEO:

      A video trailer for Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever.” Although critics favored the film at the Cannes Film Festival in 1991, it did not win the coveted Palm d’Or prize.

      The more obvious way in which the film acknowledges contemporary realities is how Flipper is forced to engage with his environment.

      On more than one occasion, for example, women on the street offer him sexual favors in exchange for drug money. These encounters rupture Flipper’s middle-class myopia. His first reaction is rejection and then later compassion, thus suggesting his gradual political enlightenment throughout the course of the film.

      Additionally, while the story of Flipper’s crack-addicted brother Gator (Samuel L. Jackson)  appears to be a subplot to the film’s main focus on miscegenation, it actually addresses the devastation of the crack epidemic on African-American communities more directly than most other films from the time.

      WATCH VIDEO:

      A scene from “Jungle Fever” when Gator (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vivian (Halle Berry) ask Flipper (Wesley Snipes) for money to buy drugs. (Please note this clip contains strong language and adult situations.)

      Gator steals from the family, including Flipper’s parents, in order to buy drugs at the local crack house, the “Taj Mahal.” The film ends with Gator’s death at the hands of his father. Gator’s fate suggests that drug addition and crime are more damaging to the family, and African-American families more generally, than sexual misdeeds.

      That is not to suggest that the fraught legacy of miscegenation and racial violence hasn’t been an important, and destructive, component of our national culture. Rather, “Jungle Fever” provides an insightful rendering of Harlem at a time when the neighborhood was experiencing high rates of crack addiction and crime, another form of racial violence.

      Filmed on the cusp of an urban development push that would eventually bring Starbucks, Citarella, Old Navy and a slew of luxury condominiums to the area — and push out many of the neighborhood’s African-American businesses and residents — “Jungle Fever” recalls the promise and pitfalls of Harlem’s storied streets and the sometimes conflicted politics of its strivers. It also recalls the Harlem that existed before it became what it is, a neighborhood in the midst of an identity crisis.

      Paula J. Massood is the editor of “The Spike Lee Reader” and author of “Black City Cinema: African- American Urban Experiences in Film.” She is a Professor of Film Studies at Brooklyn College, CUNY.

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