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Saturday, 5 May 2018

Jungle Fever: Race, Gender and Drug Addiction

One of my favourite movies is Spike Lee's Jungle Fever. I've seen the film maybe four or five times now, and each time I watch it I marvel more and more at what a masterpiece it is. It says so much in just under two hours about race relations, gender, social class, and family. Its so interesting to see a film that explores different people's different views on different racial issues...differently. Will contain spoilers and be very long.

To summarise, 'Jungle Fever' is about a married black man named Flipper who has an affair with his Italian-American secretary, Angie. His wife gets angry and kicks him out of the house, and Flipper and Angie do date for a while, but then Flipper realises he belongs with his wife and daughter, and that Angie was just a fling.

Flipper and Angie.
The main chunk of this movie explores the disgust people feel as Flipper (a black man) had an affair with Angie (a white woman). When Flipper tells his best friend Cyrus that he had an affair, Cyrus barely bats an eyelid, but when he mentions the woman is white, Cyrus freaks out. Drew (Flipper's wife) seems more appalled at the fact that Flipper cheated on her with a white woman. She overlooks the fact that his infidelity would be upsetting whether he cheated on her with a black, Asian or Latina woman. Interestingly, when I first saw this film I didn't realise Drew was black because of her very light brown skin tone - she is evidently mixed raced, although I feel that's only prominent because of her curly hair.

Angie's father is furious because she went with a black man, and there's a nasty scene where he slaps her and beats her with his belt. Her older brothers manage to pull him off her and she leaves and goes to stay with her friends. The attitudes Italian-Americans have towards black people are extremely racist and negative. However, there is racism within the black people as well. In one scene, Flipper and Angie go out to dinner, and the black waitress is very rude to them and makes snarky racist comments. By the way, did I mention this film was made in 1991? Only three decades ago; makes this even more appalling.
Flipper and Drew. 
In another scene, Drew flips out and throws Flipper's things out of the window shortly after finding out about the affair. (I personally think she overreacted; she had every right to be angry and upset, anyone would, but throwing his stuff out the window and causing a scene is just over the top. I think that added to the subtle comedy within this film). After that, Drew is shown sitting with her friends in the living room - all black women - discussing men. There are a couple of women that state what Spike Lee's main message of the film probably is - that it's not about colour, it's about dating a man who is kind to you and treats you well. Some of the other women, including Drew, dislike this and insist that there are 'good black men' out there. Of course they are missing the point - I don't believe dating and relationships, or friendships, should be about ethnic background; they should be about how a person treats you and makes you feel. If anything, racial background should be of little to no importance.

They also touch on the difference between lightskinned and darkskinned women. I have a blog post about that crazy issue actually, and Spike Lee's School Daze explores that. Drew and Vera (Cyrus' wife) are both lightskinned, and the other women are darker. They state how in school they were classed as 'unnattractive' because guys wanted lightskinned women, and that now black men are going after 'the real thing', aka white women. From a socio-historical context I can understand this; during the times of slavery white people were constantly depicted as beautiful and holy and black people were ugly and 'savage.' Thus it would make sense for lighter-skinned black people to be classed as 'more beautiful' because they are closer to white. Of course this is just disgusting racist bullshit, but that's the reason why even today, being lightskinned is considered more attractive within black Western culture. (Why is Beyonce more popular than Jennifer Hudson when Hudson is a better singer?)

There are few characters in this movie who don't seem to care about race and look past colour. One of them is Paulie, Angie's fiancee and in my opinion the best character in the film. Paulie doesn't share the racial hatred of his Italian-American male counterparts. He works in his dad's newsagent, and when the other men come in and slag off black people, Paulie doesn't participate. He even ends up going out with a black woman, Lauren, towards the end of the film; she comes in to the shop every morning to purchase the paper. The other men talk about how they would fuck her but wouldn't be seen dead in public with a black woman. However, Paulie just sees her as a kind person, as colour is not important to him.
Angie is another character who doesn't care about race. Flipper stated towards the end of the movie that he thinks they only got with each other because they were curious about each other racially. Maybe for Flipper that was the case; he stated earlier in the film to Cyrus that he 'had always been curious about Caucasian women.' He can never look past the fact that she's white and he's black and just see the affair for what it is. Angie, by contrast, seems to genuinely care for Flipper, maybe even be in love with him. She mentions the possibility of children, showing that she does want their relationship to go somewhere. Unfortunately, she knows that he is a married man with a child, and so its unlikely he will ever pursue things further with this other lady.

When I was younger I didn't understand why Flipper and Angie couldn't just be together, but now I do. Many married men (unfortunately) have affairs, but that's all they are. They have them then end up going back to their wives because those are the women they truly love. Why Flipper had the affair in the first place is beyond me; he describes Drew as 'great' and their marriage is shown to be very happy. But this isn't a film about a guy who immorally has an affair, its about racial issues.
Angie and Paulie.
Gender roles are also explored in this film. Angie's home life is shown to be not great; her dad and brothers expect her to do all of the cooking because their mother did. (Presumably she is deceased). Angie goes to work hard all day as a secretary and then comes home and has to cook. Her brothers are also immature and over-protective; they try to threaten Paulie on the basis that their sister may not be a virgin. Obviously she isn't; she and Paulie have been together for years and she has sex with Flipper, but her brothers are so ridiculous they go on about how they will beat him up if he gets her pregnant. Angie is evidently used to her brothers being idiots. She is someone who wants to 'escape' from her life; she's been with the same guy (Paulie) for years, her brothers and father have these sexist attitudes towards her, and on the whole she seems to be looking for a way out.

I think Angie saw Flipper as a way for her to enter new possibilities. She fell for Flipper because he was kind to her and they developed a connection; he didn't try to control her or tell her what to do like her family. Flipper may have just wanted a fling, but I think Angie did genuinely want to be with him.
Gator and his junkie girlfriend, Viv, played by Halle Berry.
A major sub-plot of this movie is Flipper's junkie brother Gator, played by the brilliant Samuel L. Jackson. (Lots of great actors in this film, plus I think nearly all of the Italian-American ones are in The Sopranos). Gator has a severe crack addiction, and lies to his mother and brother to get money. Their father is a strict Christian Baptist, who is extremely critical of his son's drug habit, and equally critical when his other son invites his new white girlfriend over for dinner. He isn't a cruel man, but he is very stubborn and recites the Bible constantly.

Another shocking scene is when their father (mainly revered to as 'the good Reverend Doctor) shoots Gator, claiming that he did love his son but he is the devil now and has been poisoned. Although killing your child isn't the best thing to do, Gator would have ended up dead anyway due to his ongoing drug habit. He had no intention of stopping, and I guess in a way his dad thought it was the 'kindest' thing to do. He looked very distraught after, whilst Gator and Flipper's mum cried over Gator's dying body.
Gator dying in his mother's arms.
This is a very long post, but there is so much within this movie its hard not to go on. However, I think I have covered the main chunk of what I wanted to say. Overall, this is an incredible masterpiece that explores racial tensions in America at a time when you would think attitudes had changed severely. I'd like to think that in 2018 today, a black man having an affair with a white woman wouldn't cause outrage; more it's just sad that a man would cheat on his loving wife in the first place. 

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I'm Zarina Macha, an author, blogger, and musician from London. I write about stuff on the internet 'cos having opinions is fun -- if you want to join the games, please note your thoughts below. All thoughts welcome, even if they're mean (just no spam links please -- can't tell you what a liability those are to remove).
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