Spike Lee is a most infuriating filmmaker. He's bold and aggressive, more than a little brash, a stunning stylist, and there are always flashes of brilliance in his movies. But he may never make a brilliant film until he learns to look at his work with a critical eye.
With his latest, "Jungle Fever," which he wrote, directed, produced and in which he plays a minor role, Lee has tackled his largest canvas yet. Though you may have read that this film explores an interracial love affair and its ripple effect on the families and friends of the couple, it's much more than that. The love affair is merely the catalyst that sends everything else reeling.Lee is interested in racism in all its forms and he's not afraid to attack it head-on - or to be angry. That he doesn't always resolve the conflicts he creates or probe deeply the issues he raises doesn't seem to be as important to him as forcing us to think about them.
In that regard, "Jungle Fever" is his most powerful film so far. (Be advised, however, that it also carries a hard R rating, with constant foul language, as well as sex and nudity, violence and heavy drug use.)
The film begins by showing us the life of a successful black architect named Flipper (Wesley Snipes), who lives in Harlem with his wife (Lonette McKee) and young daughter. They are a loving, happy family, though Flipper is frustrated with the white firm he works for, feeling he's not getting his worth.
The trouble starts when he compromises his relationship with his wife by embarking on an affair with a white Italian temp secretary named Angie (Annabella Sciorra), whom he meets at work.
Meanwhile, Angie has her own problems, living with her overbearing father and two brothers, who expect her to act as if she's their maid and cook, and the boyfriend (John Turturro) she's gone out with since high school but doesn't really love.
Other significant players include Flipper's parents, a defrocked Baptist minister (Ossie Davis) and his patient wife (Ruby Dee); his crackhead brother (Samuel L. Jackson), who brings tragedy to their home; his best friend (Spike Lee), who provides some comic relief; and a number of lesser characters, including one played by Anthony Quinn.
And, as always, Lee is an actor's dream director. Everyone looks good here, with special kudos to Jackson and Turturro, who are knockouts.
Though "Jungle Fever" occasionally threatens to suffer from character overload, Lee manages to keep the threads of the story tied together so that the flow never seems overly contrived. There are a lot of characters, but we care about all of them.
The film suffers from a few sloppy elements that are quite surprising, especially choppy editing in two scenes. And Lee continues to distract us with too much music that overwhelms dialogue instead of supporting it.
But his stylized technique seems more in the service of the material here than in any of his other films and there are some powerhouse sequences, most notably the "Dante's Inferno" scene that has Flipper on a journey through a crackhouse to find his brother, and a telling "war council" gathering of Flipper's wife and her friends, which appears to be ad-libbed as they discuss why black men seem to have a yen for light-skinned black women.
There's no question that this is Lee's most ambitious and successful work so far, but it will be nice if, in the future, he has enough confidence in his story to let down even more of his affectations.
And one more thing: Flipper? Why is he named Flipper?