Tuesday, September 8, 2020

On Japanese Sexploitation and Woman as the Great Satan: Crazed Fruit (Kurutta kajitsu) (1981)


directed by Kichitaro Negishi
starring Yûji Honma, Yuki Ninagawa,
Eiko Nagashima, Nobutaka Masutomi, Eiji Okada


What's a man to tell this Chika, this slant-eyed Salome, this lonely little high-society Tokyo girl with the rich industrialist stepfather she's been banging under Mommy's nose since probably training-bra days (despite her claim that it's only been for a couple of years)? She's a vindictive child, this ripe twenty year-old (though her assured manner told you she was older) — given to white dresses and bicycle riding as she slums it for kicks in dingy yakuza bars and incites trouble because it gets her moist to see violence erupt. She wears a shiner or a bloody nose the way Kubrick's Lolita sported shades and toenail polish. She's raped in an alley in the rain, as if it were some Boston Strangler parody of women's erotic fantasies, then she giggles at her befuddled attacker while confessing that she started to like it midway through. She then haunts her attacker's life like the bad luck he can't shake, imploring him to make her his and undressing him as green neon Vertigo light invades their hotel room and colors their sudden tenderness like a warning sent back in time from the broken obsessive he'll wind up by film's end.


Sometimes you want to hurt those you love, she'll tell you — a half-dare/half-revelation from across the unbridgeable widescreen void of one of noir's most desolate snapshots: broken souls suspended in the low-lit murk of God's sadism against anyone human enough to have ever heeded an impulse. And when you bloody her nose in affirmation, then proceed to give her more of what she craves on a cold and dirty backroom floor, it isn't that she crashed your place of business — the one job she's yet to cost you — with her gang of drunken silver-spoon hooligans, nearly getting you killed while causing a pregnant woman's miscarriage, to boot. No, it's that she has the gall to utter the word "love" after everything she's put you through and you're tired of her lies that sound like truth, truth that she tosses out as unwanted pieces of the little girl her stepdaddy corrupted — pathological self-abortions in repudiation of womanly vulnerability. You're tired of the emotional cock-tease of possibilities she'll only kill in the womb as blithely as she'll likely kill the seed from Daddy that she hints was already growing inside her when you first locked eyes: you, trapped in your wage-slave emasculation as Shell station attendant, so unnerved by the instant pull she exerted that you dumped cigarette butts in her lap when reaching over her to empty the car ashtray. You're tired of futures written on the wisp of her exhaled cigarette smoke in the kind of car you could never afford. Tired of her dirty little panties smelling of more past adventures than your fevered imagination could ever keep track of: the way her steely cool is directly proportional to your scrambling about; the way she pauses over you for a gulp of your booze before morphing hotel sex into motherly sustenance; the way she penetrates the tough-guy rapist to suckle his inner loner who anxiously practices martial arts moves when no one's around.


If you're Tetsuo, the virginally tentative working-class mama's boy with the misfortune to have caught Chika's passing fancy, you're not telling her much, but rather you're asking her in your panicked floundering for whatever scraps of clarity or reassurance she sees fit to toss down to you. "Am I that weird?" he sputters as Chika giggles, post-rape, at his half-heartedness with the savagery demanded of him by femme-brats acting out for a reinstatement of the natural order. So you've been using me? he's inquiring through clipped pique on the beach at sunset, in director Kichitaro Negishi's witty curdling of the silver screen's most cliché romantic backdrop, as Chika taunts him that he's merely the ideal actor for the role of fiance she's devised in order to back her stepfather off. "Why?! Why did you do this to me?" he'll gasp at her finally as if beseeching the heavens; as if prefiguring, in his uniquely Japanese simmering-introvert-boiling-over-into-Issei-Sagawa lyricism, the whimpered pleas giving way to shredded-sanity shrieks of Prince's stark electro reckoning with female indifference in 1982's "Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)." Tetsuo's wilting here less from the beating he's just suffered than from the crippling mental exhaustion in which Chika the post-punk femme fatale sees her own permanent estrangement reflected — not Chika the Lene Lovich who castrates her "New Toy" in public by leaving him money on the table to pay a restaurant bill before stalking off, but Chika the confrontation-artist Lydia Lunch who mutters nightmares of Daddy's unwanted visitations in her sleep to Tetsuo's impotent passing notice.


Adapted from the same novel by future Governor of Tokyo and prominent Japanese conservative Shintarō Ishihara that gave us eventual pinky violence-helmer Kô Nakahira's 1956 rich-kid-love-triangle noir of the same name, this Crazed Fruit is no remake apparently but a reboot akin to John Carpenter's The Thing bypassing Howard Hawks in order to draw a purer distillation of the unfathomable from its source. Where Nakahira focused on wounded male emotion as nitroglycerin jostled by the instability of feminine caprice, Negishi sees the core of that caprice as women so emotionally uncalibrated by sexual predation, they need ravishment and teasing at the mouth of chaos just to feel alive, no matter the damage to their own fragile psyches — less "Cars Hiss by My Window" by The Doors ("A cold girl'll kill you/In a darkened room") than the complete mental disintegration of Joy Division's "She's Lost Control." Crazed Fruit opens up the Weegee monochrome of fedora-sporting postwar American noir cynicism turned existential philosophy into alienation-highlighting 'Scope ratio and the vice-hawking colors of Asia's red-light districts — it's got the morally shaky yet hapless protagonist, the absence of redemption, the sex that only spells doom, the lurid neon-lit nighttime world marked by varying degrees of scumbag where moral verities take another sip of whiskey then get handjobbed by easy dames.

What it adds to the formula is uniquely Japanese, per the exploitation dictates of Japan's "pink film" (or pinku eiga) market, which the Nikkatsu studio had come to dominate by the mid-Seventies with its "Roman porno" offerings: softcore bondage and torture (among other delicacies) walked right up to the line of hardcore and protracted into disquieting sociocultural exposures. Crazed Fruit's Japan is unfaithful wives pimped out by hair-trigger husbands. It's fathers who fuck daughters and mothers unfit to sustain life. Most notably, it's rape — rape always and forever — as the still-beating samurai heart of old Nippon tamped down and muffled under the surface composure of born warriors atom-bombed and post-Nanking/post-Unit 731-shamed into self-neutering until it spurts forth in sideways fits of inhuman psychosexual conquest. (A quick flip through 1998's Japanese Cinema Encyclopedia: The Sex Films by Thomas Weisser and Yuko Mihara Weisser yields no less than sixty separate pinkus with some form of the r-word in the title.)


Tetsuo carries this genetic rocket in his pocket like a load of dynamite ready to explode at the slightest bump — he enforces his loner's code, suppressing his violence beneath beta-male dithering, as a means of sealing himself off from the human contact that can only spark fireballs. He jogs throughout; he's like a man already running from something under the opening credits — from the loneliness of his cramped single-guy abode with its soup for one and its phone calls to Mom for company, from his own handiness with extorting businessmen who balk at the inflated tabs presented to them by the owner of the hooker bar where he works at night. As it turns out, he's been running toward the sweet release of inevitability all along: as the cops close in on him, he'll limp straight into their clutches, relieved that the struggle is over at least. He'll make the same ritualistic gesture of blessing over a live fish he slices open as he makes to celebrate his boss' unborn-and-soon-to-be-pulverized-in-a-bar-fight baby. So if bringer of death is his destiny — the film even pauses before he turns avenging angel to hold on the cemetery he lives next to — he'll wrap it in the self-righteousness of giving assholes what they deserve: attempting to extort Chika's stepfather with his knowledge of their affair, then sucker-punching him and grinding his eyeglasses into the carpet; leading his boss to Chika's buddies after they've wrecked his bar and booted his wife in the stomach.


Tetsuo's environment mocks his resistance to rot: his boss at the bar — the man Tetsuo addresses as "Brother" in a nod to his probable yakuza affiliation — is so at home with sin, he's the most jocular scam artist you've ever seen: doing a teasing little dance before roughing up a customer in the back room as a way of settling the bill; offering Tetsuo his pick of the stolen trinkets he keeps in his closet like a treasure chest. Even the boss' childlike wife — foisted onto the bar's horny clientele with the rest of his stable — needles Tetsuo with a titty flash as her husband grins. Their relationship parallels the incestuous filth of Chika's life with Brother's paternal scolding of her later threatening irate-father wrath as she pleads with him not to gamble their money away, or with her excited gallop up to Tetsuo and her singing a children's song before taking him home for some don't-tell-Dad naughtiness. They're swingers or at least exhibitionists: Tetsuo is prevailed upon to join them for song and sake to celebrate the baby and the wife is soon telling Tetsuo how cute he is while pawing his crotch. Soon enough, Brother's undressing her and such is Tetsuo's commitment to Japanese politeness even under discomfort that he sits there, trying not to watch as the couple goes at it in one of those extended Nikkatsu roman poruno fuck sequences with Eiko Nagashima's mocha brown stiffies on an emaciated frame calling glimpses of Laura Gemser to your erection's mind, while Brother tries to impart his jaded satyr's wisdom to Tetsuo about men's need for release. It's not far off from Peter Boyle as the crusty Wizard in Taxi Driver, boiling the cure for Travis Bickle's pent-up rage down to "go out and get laid" but such is the Yeatsian sea of well-meaning indifference in which Tetsuo's ceremony of innocence finds itself a bit waterlogged.


Brother's played by the bulldog-faced Nobutaka Masutomi, a Nikkatsu supporting regular perhaps best utilized as the Monarch sex-slave trainer slap-boxing a tied-up Ran Masaki's pensile squeeze-bags in Masahito Segawa's 1985 BDSM textbook, Beautiful Teacher in Torture Hell. Here, just one glimpse of his affably seedy look sketches in miniature the kind of guy who plucks a mark's cash and wristwatch, only to see the guy off as if walking a party guest to the door — corruption is just the way of the world, my man, nothing personal. Little amuses him more than Tetsuo's clinging to loyalty and a peculiar sense of chivalry in a "Second Coming" hell where the worst are full of that passionate intensity while the best had all conviction drained out of them by soul-sucking whores. Brother calls Tetsuo "idiot" the way you'd call a buddy "dumb-ass," save during the aftermath of the climactic, borderline-guro brawl finish, when Tetsuo and his trusty carving knife have made a speared carp out of Chika's friend — fittingly, the one who's spent the film taunting him as "Potato Boy" and doubting the flame inside him. That's what loyalty gets you in a Raymond Chandler world full of Nip slit for the taking: a murder rap and a final mutual gaze of emotionally battered anti-catharsis with the girl who pushed you to the edge before she wanders the back alleys in a hand-held camera's woozy approximation of her stagger into the abyss. And only God's holy fools — the kind of idiot Brother told Tetsuo not to be — expect otherwise.


Negishi understands the vampiric femme fatale in accord with the Devil of legend: she only offers a man of free will that which he already craves and, to enter one's life, she must first be invited in. Thus, the Great Satan is a choice, a tool of man's own self-destruction, a conduit for the release through anarchy one already seeks. It's Tetsuo's defiant invitation of Chika and her pals to his bar that brings about the fateful dustup; when they arrive in an already rowdy state, primed by Chika's plot for petty vengeance after driving Tetsuo away, he agitates them with an inflated tab and, in fact, throws the first punch. Tetsuo pulls over Chika's (daddy's) car in the rain and the two sit there — Chika yawning between Lauren Bacall cigarette puffs; Tetsuo leaning forward, arms folded over the steering wheel, then peering up at whatever's outside, as if the wall of a random building next to them were some ancient monolith deserving of a scholar's scrutiny. The film is honest enough in its depiction of male anxiety against the impatient brattiness of woman as willing vessel for whatever a man's desires to let the uncertainty of it all play out as it eats away at his frustrated drive to action. All it adds up to is another mini-emasculation: Tetsuo had started to play with himself while Brother and his missus padded out the film's running time but the unbridled joy she broadcast — which he'd apparently never elicited from a woman himself — killed his enjoyment. When he jogged off to the nearest parking garage to finish said wank, Chika and her stepfather happened to be watching from his car; she'd then teased Tetsuo about having watched him and it offended him that Chika didn't impute the same shame to voyeurism that he did, that she'd already seen beyond his mannered-cog front without his permission.

So pent up, then, is Tetsuo that he vaults past simple seduction and explodes instantly inside of her. Only a Japanese film could credibly posit alley rape as first-date sex ruined by first-time-together jitters and make you feel for the pretend-alpha who winds up a veritable Candide: stranded in the rain with Chika's post-rape confession of enjoyment and her chirping of see-ya-later doing somersaults in his confused brain and beginning to cure him of whatever optimism he harbors regarding the fairer sex as strangers to depravity. Negishi's camera even makes its own wry commentary: it pulls back from their deflated, rain-soaked forms in a pitch-perfect transmission of animal passion soured by premature ejaculation then frozen under a pall of shared confusion and embarrassment — the silent participants pulling up their clothes in a hasty re-assumption of that pretense to social respectability in one of the funniest (and truest) portrayals of sexual disappointment that the cinema's ever given us.


Negishi plays nifty tricks with our sense of perspective: having Chika beam her cultivated insouciance into the camera at us, only to reveal that it's Tetsuo's gaze she's meeting; staging her pre-rape silence with Tetsuo as the flip side to her earlier scene in the car with her stepfather, who, like Tetsuo, had positioned himself in the driver's seat. There, her own drawn-out speechlessness and little-girl pout thwarted her pretense to femme fatale cool in breaking up with Daddy, just as they'll give the lie to her emotionlessness in her final moment with Tetsuo. Is Chika the vixen merely an ace mimic of her stepfather's eerie puppetmaster calm? He'd served Tetsuo paella as a guest in his home, then slipped off to fondle Chika and declare Tetsuo a "lowlife" — is this, too, her masquerade? Is the Chika who cheerily announces Tetsuo as a rapist before asking him for seconds merely acting out the Stockholm Syndrome of Daddy having trained her to revel in her own abuse? Or is her lingering in heat as her "Potato Boy" pummels a bar customer but a marker on the journey into the netherworld of female nature itself? Tetsuo embraces the big house like an already-hardened con who can't function in the outside world. What place for a young man, after all, is this dysgenic neo-noir Japan in which the vagaries of pussy leave hopeful souls with no receptacles for all the tenderness backed up inside of them but the ones from which they sprang: doting mothers who'll exact no greater toll than a phone call or the summer bonus it takes to buy them an air conditioner?


Every girl gets what she wants and it's always more than she bargained for. Tetsuo matures into the will to power Chika's been chasing — Chinatown-slapping her before tearing her dress off and machine-gunning his rage inside of her. But this time it's real; there's no dawdling in his approach, no uncertainty to cushion his thrusts, no apprehension at the full flowering of his hatred to grant her the mercy of a quick finish. It's rape as rape reveals itself to callow strumpets who tease at the mouth of chaos: animal grunts over pathetic whimpering for the small eternity of an unbroken take, then the horror of disposability at his cold retreat as she's left limp and heaving in her own discharge — betrayed by cruel biology, her conquered flesh garnished with the shards of a rich-bitch cocoon now irreparably shattered. Yuki Ninagawa as Chika operates on a level here that transcends genre and ascends to the jumbled impulses and rebirth through trauma of Susan George's ravishment in Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs. One feels he could reach through film grain to dab the gore from her chin; indeed, the actress seems at moments, within Chika's futile clinging to the purest passion she's ever experienced, to transcend even acting itself. What she's conjuring is the jungle hypnosis of raw sexual violence as female deliverance; something visceral and turbulent enough for the applause of any feminist who isn't full of shit when she brays about the complexity of the female psyche.


Chika comes apart then wobbles on the precipice of reassembling herself in real time, as Negishi's unblinking and lightly unsteady hand-held stays fixed on her topless frame with nipples as swollen and as ruddy as tumors against the gutter poetry of a lone tear that streaks sideways across the bridge of her nose and over the closed lid of her opposite eye. She draws at last a final, relieved breath in relinquishment of her past self. Essentially, it's psychosexual snuff footage attesting to child sacrifice by crucial primitive rite as woman proper — humbled by weakness, accepting of total submission, respectful of the abyss — stalks the horizon.

©2020 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Jungle Fever (1991)

The Tragic Mulatto as Spike Lee Joint

written and directed by Spike Lee
starring Wesley Snipes, Annabella Sciorra, Samuel L. Jackson,
Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, John Turturro, Anthony Quinn


Critical consensus has it that Jungle Fever's central, irredeemable flaw is the splitting of its focus between the interracial snuggle-fest promised on the film's poster and the tragedy of an unrepentant crackhead's descent into bug-eyed Soul Train dancing before meeting a demise worthy of Marvin Gaye. Though it's true that Fever frustrates with threads of potential plot thickening and character intrigue it never ties together, I've never found it all that muddled. The film's divided soul, right up to its seeming non-sequitur of an ending, is a function of the very parallel Spike Lee intended. Indeed, it's the point to the story — his sly, thesis-bolstering joke on the folly of pairing incompatible elements: flip sides, to Lee, of the same deceptively shiny cultural-dilution coin.


Lee was moved to write Jungle Fever by accusations that he'd glossed over the issue of drugs with Do the Right Thing's depiction of lower-income blacks, and by headlines about the fatal 1989 shooting of Yusuf Hawkins in the working-class Italian-American section of Brooklyn known as Bensonhurst. The media distillation was that Hawkins, a young black man, was killed by racist guidos who suspected him of slipping blacksnake to one of the neighborhood Ginas. Accordingly, Lee's double-sided portrait of addiction to the White Girl — cocaine being the "white girl" in street-speak — takes to hardline message-picture finger-wagging about the dangers of straying from the path of the true and righteous. It insists that the upwardly mobile black man's obsession with the white arm candy his nouveau economic status affords him is every bit the threat to black family stability — the sickness robbing the black community of its husbands and fathers — that rampant drug abuse is. (Particularly, the crack cocaine epidemic that rocked the inner city in the Eighties and Nineties. See N.W.A's "Dope Man" for era-specific reference; see also: the Hughes Brothers' magnetic 1993 debut Menace II Society, with its twitchy "basehead" who offers a hair-trigger dealer a most ill-advised form of compensation.)

But Lee, as certain cultural arbiters were quick to inform him, was woefully out of step. The dawn of the Nineties — as decreed by the pom-pom-shakers of our post-Michael-Jackson-and-Prince-on-the-bedroom-walls-of-suburbia, Cosby-Show-every-Thursday-night-watching, debut-of-Michael-Jackson's-"Black-or-White"-video-analyzing, Eddie Murphy-and-Lethal-Weapon-enjoying, Magic-Johnson-and-Michael-Jordan-idolizing, blacks-as-totems-of-all-knowing-"cool"-embracing, hands-across-America zeitgeist — was no time for cross-armed Negro separatism and concern over how best to nurture a self-contained, independently aspirational African-American cultural identity.

This was the age of Time Magazine openly anticipating, in its April 9, 1990 feature article, "America's Changing Colors," the day when white Americans would no longer be a demographic majority. This was the age of Newsweek brazenly honky-baiting — dropping a divide-and-conquer psy-ops wedge between the paleface men and their thoroughly propagandized women — with its March '93 piece on what it called "White Male Paranoia," trumpeted on the cover of that issue with a scary-guy close-up of (what do you know?) Jewish actor Michael Douglas as the Everyman Who's Had Enough in Joel Schumacher's Falling Down. The Village Voice — with its Wonder Bread-festooned May '93 The White Issue: White Like Who? (Essays include: "White Fright," "Memoirs of a Xenophobic Boyhood," "Jews Are Not White," "Whiteness — A Glossary") — abstracted modern white existence into something "empty of content" yet fat from "the past 500 years of European ... exploitation of the rest of the world," and asked: "How can one be a white, heterosexual male, and still retain a clear conscience?" (Its forerunner, the Voice's September '91 Black Like Who? issue, saw writer Greg Tate assess the "illin' white boy" as "a natural disaster, a catastrophe ... whose destructive effects can be over­come and reversed.") Meanwhile, corporation-funded outrage-seeker Madonna, having already earned her cool-kid blasphemy badge by sexing up a Nubian Jesus in her 1989 "Like a Prayer" video/Pepsi ad/coordinated media blitzkrieg, now put out her 1992 nudie book Sex, in which she made a salami sandwich of herself between the black rye of rapper Big Daddy Kane and model Naomi Campbell. True Colors, TV's first-ever sitcom revolving around an interracial family, debuted on Fox. MTV, with its hit Real World series depicting a United Colors of Benetton cast of twentysomethings under the same roof, with its sober PSAs on the evils of white supremacists, and its daily broadcasts of writhing, sweaty, multiculti youth symbiosis on dance shows like The Grind, ratified the black-white-gay-brown mash-up for kids as the new rock 'n' roll; while Jungle Fever was hailed as the talk of Summer '91 with a Newsweek cover piece reducing it to its ideological usefulness in a larger — and clearly more important — discussion of "Tackling a Taboo." 

Hallelujah! shouted those making their fortunes from selling a brave new world in which they themselves scarcely partook, M.C. Hammer's Number One on the pop charts! Little white kids are quoting Homey the Clown! Blacks and whites have united as never before over the injustice of the Rodney King beating! The Bad Old Days™ are getting further and further behind us! Pop open an ice-cold Pepsi just like Cindy Crawford® and grab yourself another Quarter Pounder®, America: it's time to celebrate! And here Spike Lee was: at long last! the first black artist granted mainstream exposure as a maker of Important Motion Pictures; at last! an in-your-face black-culture dynamo with credibility as both unique film stylist and iconoclast on the level of any of his white contemporaries; at last! the hearty slap to its own back Hollywood had been poised to deliver since the breaking of color barriers in everything from baseball to dog catchers had become the new American pastime (if not obsession). Clearly, the powers that were had an agenda to push and minorities were expected to be good little instruments of it — to repay them for the previous thirty-odd years of social progress and media ennoblement forged in the quenchless bonfire of programmed white guilt. And how did this brash Brooklynite, this decently middle-class son of a schoolteacher and jazz bassist-composer Bill Lee, choose to spout the party line? How did he thank these infinite powers for his place in the film-industry Human Centipede chain?


He thanked them by making films that resisted — hell, laughed at — easy Oscar-bait platitudes about race and sex. He thanked them by sniping at black celebrities whose commitment to unvarnished Kneegrow Expression and whose connection to the folks in Watts and Bed-Stuy and Atlanta he found wanting. He thanked them by attacking Hollywood's cavalcade of bucks, slaves, coons 'n' mammies and by refusing to let virtue-signaling plaudits from limousine socialists and access to the bigwigs at Universal buy his silence. He thanked them by referencing a history of Jewish string-pullers exploiting black artists via the shyster club owners in 1990's Mo' Better Blues, which earned him a scorn from the Knesset of our critical establishment — a generally agreed-upon "Spike Lee hasn't made a good movie since Do the Right Thing" verdict, an overall withholding of awards-time consideration and acknowledgment of his place in the history books — that wouldn't abate until he hitched his wagon to the "woke" train and started pretending to hate Donald Trump with 2018's industry-fellated BlacKkKlansman. He thanked them by donning the public personae of Malcolm X-admiring baby militant and moviegoer-alienating Professional Curmudgeon, by being all too willing to play the role of Shit-Stirring Bigmouth in his apparent belief that the media-stoked controversies he attached his name to would lead to recognition as a tell-it-like-it-is, finger-on-the-pulse-of-the-culture soothsayer.


Most disastrously for those wishing to anoint prominent black artists as mascots for the new-America hype machine, Lee was quoted, in Esquire's hand-wringing 1992 character-assassination-by-guilty-white-liberal piece "Spike Lee Hates Your Cracker Ass," as declaring that he hated his father Bill Lee's Jewish second wife, that black self-reliance was stronger under segregation, that aggrieved blacks might just have to take up arms against Whitey, that white women who fuck blacks "have nothin' going for them," and that he regularly shot dirty looks at mixed couples. Contemporary media golem and future BlacKkKlansman villain David Duke could have taken notes from the guy. Black artists, as payment for their people's "liberation," are always expected to be the most vocal mouthpieces of some progressive vanguard but it never fails to amuse that those who take it upon themselves to conscript blacks into their war on white cultural hegemony and nudge them to the front lines are invariably oblivious as to how conservative core black culture actually is. Thus, Lee was hardly an anomaly — the Nineties' first half in particular saw no shortage of black artists and commentators touting their reluctance to hop aboard the assimilationist bandwagon.

There was, for example, the Big Applause Moment in John Singleton's stop-the-violence sermon of a debut, 1991's Boyz N the Hood, wherein his upright father character-cum-voice of black consciousness Furious Styles (a proud graduate of the Spike Lee School of Ridiculous Character Names) inveighed against the gentrification of the 'hood, blamed South Central's daily body count on the U.S. government, and exhorted the brothas to stay black by keeping their purchasing power in-house. Menace II Society featured an ex-gangbanger-turned-Nation of Islam zealot who railed against praying to white porcelain gods and bristled at the suggestion of him cohabiting with white "devils" — both a sly joke on Boyz N the Hood's virtue-will-save-thee preachiness, in that he's mocked and ignored by the other characters before meeting the same bullet-riddled fate as nearly everyone else, and a nod to sentiments so commonplace in post-Malcolm X/post-Farrakhan Black America that they were just there, more or less: chatter among chatter, just another bit of aural backdrop to black folks' daily lives. Lee himself spearheaded the new-age commercialization of Malcolm X and the "no sellout" distillation of his life's work on everything from "X" baseball caps to "X" T-shirts — a black community-aimed marketing onslaught-turned-multiculti badge of hipness that primed the masses for Lee's 1992 biopic on the slain civil rights icon. (It prompted a response offered by mail-order companies in the backs of some of the day's rock magazines: T-shirts boasting the "X" of the Confederate flag and bearing the slogan, "You Wear Your 'X' and I'll Wear Mine!")

Lee would also executive-produce 1994's forced-reclamation-of-black-identity melodrama, D.R.O.P. Squad, in which a callow buppie ad exec is kidnapped and "deprogrammed" by a paramilitary organization devoted to purging the black man of his traitorous crossover aspirations. Its premise aroused scarcely a murmur from either critics or audiences since its huffing and puffing about the self-hatred of the unholy sellout was already an accepted premise of modern black thought: Keenen Ivory Wayans and his brother Damon, on their smash Fox TV sketch series In Living Color, reimagined Uncle Tom as a goody-goody pair of folk-singing, racism-justifying, Afrocentrism-shunning Smothers Brothers knockoffs; black comedians echoed the ridicule of the brotha in the barbershop by making high sport of Michael Jackson's increasingly lightened skin tone and surgeon-sculpted little-white-girl nose. Even gods felt the anti-Oreo backlash rising up from the street: Jackson and Prince hopped down from their Eighties pop-avatar perches by grafting clunky rap verses onto drum-machine clatter and deemphasizing their polyglot synthesis of musical flavors in favor of a self-consciously "streetwise" R&B flava — trend-chasing self-reduction in order to fit in the slots between Color Me Badd and Jodeci on urban radio playlists.

Not to be outdone, the era's rappers — anchormen, after all, for what Public Enemy mouthpiece Chuck D termed "black America's CNN" — took all this furrowed-brow editorializing and comedy-club satirizing, honed it into diamond-sharp bullets of manufactured outrage, loaded those bullets into a gat, and then shoved that gat straight up the ass of polite coffee-table discourse. This stuff ran the gamut. You had basic purity-of-rap-culture safeguarding, such as 2Pac titling an album of his Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. or New York emcees Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith of EPMD lambasting the notion of striving for audiences beyond the ghetto with their 1992 song "Crossover" ("The rap era's outta control/Brothas sellin' their soul/To go gold/Going! Going! Gone! Another rapper sold!"). In "True to the Game," Ice Cube — the soon-to-be star of cult 'hood comedy Friday and eventual family-flick franchise headliner — famously assured diamond-certified, Grammy-winning pop-rap emblem M.C. Hammer that the biz would "have a new nigga next year" and assailed as "house nigga scum" any blacks who aspired to life in the upper tax brackets. You even had the kosher-as-a-Brooklyn-deli "white"-rap prototypes of 3rd Bass (sort of the Model A to the Beastie Boys' Model T), who'd already savaged Hammer by name and knocked over a giant foam hammer bearing his trademark Cazals eyewear in the video for their 1989 single "The Gas Face." In case their Honorary Homeboy bona fides were still in doubt, their '91 hit "Pop Goes the Weasel" stuck a shiv between the ribs of white record-company hype and sixteen-weeks-at-Number-One best-seller Vanilla Ice in order to close the door behind them, to say, in effect: No more white boys like y'all— err, I mean us, coming in here and watering down hip-hop with their insufficiently impoverished upbringings and culture-burglar machinations and wack rhymes dumbing down black street poetry for the shopping malls of America.


What it all added up to was little more than black-nationalist play-acting: a rejected schoolgirl's ploy for attention plus the usual turned-tables hectoring of post-Sixties whites cult-Marxed and reverse Toby-whipped into scrubbing away in perpetuity at the ineradicable spiritual stain of their original sin. Ice Cube; Public Enemy, whose "Fight the Power" theme for Do the Right Thing broke the shackles of slavemaster orthodoxy by "motherfuck"-ing alleged honky heroes Elvis and John Wayne, and by damning U.S. history as "Nuthin' but rednecks for four hundred years": these were no Huey Newtons gunning down cops and teenage hookers in the streets of Oakland, these were the children of forced-busing access to nice suburban schools and the salt-and-pepper buddy flick as lingua franca, too fat off a proximity to whiteness that their parents never got to take for granted to do much more than shout "Look at me!" while Halloween-costumed in the Black Panther berets and raised fists of an earlier generation. And they did it — Lee chief among them — for little more than a self-flattering pinch of communion-with-the-elders pseudo-gravitas and, of course, no small amount of schadenfreude derived from the bruised feelings of the whites whose melting-pot homilies they were ostensibly rejecting.

Scan that Esquire piece — if you can stomach it — and you'll deem Lee the Thomas Edison of today's internet "trolling." Lee yawns at interviewer Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, he spins plain bullshit that dares her to call it out, he bully-pulpits her with every well-worn page in the black college Marxist's playbook — Cleopatra din' look like no Liz Taylor, Black Jesus, "We've been robbed of our names and robbed of our culture" — and Harrison tapdances like a fine white wench led out before smirking black academics at the after-party to some symposium on reparations. "Am I a racist?" she wonders before likening Lee to "a prophet, a savior, a leader," and finally dangling at him the white flag of her once-upon-a-time passion for an unnamed black jazz musician whom she claims was an acquaintance of Lee's own father. It's as if she honestly expected the writer-director of a film devoted to the superficiality of black male/white female sexual congress to reel back, awestruck, at the pureheartedness of her passing fascination with the gutter and anoint her a manna-bosomed lady Christ self-martyred for black men's benefit, second only to Klan-and-FBI-murdered white housewife-turned-civil rights marcher Viola Liuzzo.


Show me a black man who casts off the yoke of "Eurocentrism" by taking a one-way to Liberia, though, and I'll show you a pretty bitch who marries a broke guy for the quality of his character. No matter how brash the pocket-change payback of blacks playing George Jefferson to the perceived Archie Bunker of America's (then-much larger) white majority, no matter how relentlessly said payback is hyped by "fellow whites" committed to selling the "Your Turn at the Back of the Bus Now, Whitey" Newsweek narrative, no one's ever seriously expected blacks to push for any kind of permanent, abiding break from their "oppressors." Access to whiteness is, of course, the fundamental human right of our post-integration social experiment: access to prosperous, well-ordered and largely crime-free white neighborhoods; access to white schools and upper-tier, predominantly white workplaces; access to that great, inexhaustible well of white tax dollars; access to the white "racism" that may occasionally erupt (as in Do the Right Thing's climax) under the constant stress of forced diversity and, thus, serves as the ever-handy, ever-looming bogeyman responsible for all black failures, all black discontent. Naturally, blacks raised on the Martin Luther King-assured moral correctness of this access take it as nothing less than their due — but the conversation, such as it's been, has gone far past equal opportunity for blacks (which was codified into law generations ago), far past the desire for whites to embrace blacks as social equals and as Jungian spirit animals defining everything from white taste in music to white self-expression, far past even blacks feeling entitled to the six-figure income and free pass with law enforcement that every white person is assumed to have been gifted on a golden, swastika-emblazoned platter at birth.

What the "conversation" has mutated into is race relations as a kind of sociopolitical S&M, as simple mass delusion: black self-worth wobbling in its entirety atop the house of cards that is white atonement for the sins of the father, and any failure of acquiescence to this on the part of white Americans — to continued belief in the idea that whites "owe" blacks a piece of anything they've worked for; to emotional bully tactics meant to ensure that little Whitey, the outnumbered pipsqueak in the "post-racial" schoolyard, keeps giving up that milk money — has become a crime greater than slavery itself. The "conversation" has mutated into what it's been about all along, tucked away beneath the baby-step appeals to egalitarianism: black access to white arm candy as personal status symbols. It's the will to biological domination as salve for black racial envy and self-loathing: what then-Black Panther — and future Republican(!) — Eldridge Cleaver wrote about in his 1968 manifesto Soul on Ice, in which he confessed that his (presumably) former pastime of raping white women "delighted" him as he "was defying and trampling upon the white man's law, upon his system of values," and "defiling [the white man's] women."


Of course, one expects that the need for yesterday's "insurrectionary act," as Cleaver called it, has today been largely erased by part of the new-and-improved generation of white females: generally middle-class girls-next-door who've gone from being the sole property of the Chads and Steves to reading the new social cues and morphing into full-time racism-is-like-totes-lame platitude-spouters, wielding LaDarius and D'Shawntray as brickbats against their fathers' perceived hypocrisy while using the nigh comic incongruity of their paired elements to garner more instant attention — across social media and in their day-to-day lives — than a thousand selfies could accomplish. In the process, the very bloodlines of said fathers stand to be altered for the next several generations, if not permanently.

"I felt I was getting revenge," Cleaver wrote.

❑  ❑  ❑

Racial pride prevents our man Spike from raising this to a level above subtext — did I just mention Spike Lee and "subtext" in the same sentence? — but under and around all the first-act taboo-teasing of Jungle Fever's stillborn fling, he's lamenting the fact that, yes, there is "white supremacy" still lurking about as the unspeakable goliath-turned-all-American religion we're assured of, and it's blacks and other minorities who act as its most ardent practitioners.

"I've always been curious about Caucasian women," Wesley Snipes' Harlem architect Flipper Purify confesses to main man and fellow buppie Cyrus (played by Lee) after spilling the beans about his first-ever marital transgression: he's just cheated on his Ebony-cover dream of a middle-class black wife — a mulatta so beige she's half a shade from Mediterranean as it is — with Angie Tucci (Annabella Sciorra), the new white temp secretary at his firm. Angie's a downmarket yet appealing, somewhat self-effacing Italian girl from the side of the tracks where no unlaced Jordans had better tread, and Cyrus likens the coming repercussions of Flipper's carelessness to a "nuclear holocaust." Cyrus is still up on his Soul on Ice, it seems — Cleaver wrote that his predatory hunger for white meat sent "consternation spread[ing] outwardly in concentric circles" and that's precisely the pattern of fallout from Flipper's perfidy the film spends its narrative capital on: Cleaver-esque "waves" of hurt and outrage that ripple across Harlem and Bensonhurst, cleaving two families in half, breaking up Flipper's marriage in the process and potentially committing his own daughter to the swollen ranks of broken black girls who prowl the streets of his graffitied uptown in a crack-hungry rage, "Yo, daddy"-ing two-dollar blowjobs at men old enough to be the daddies who abandoned them.


A nanosecond after telling Cyrus about Angie, Flipper's black-righteousness mind conditioning kicks in and he's qualifying his sexual sellout with "I'm still very pro-black" and "My shit is correct — very correct"; he'll later coat his time spent with Angie in the same sugar-slick deflection that Eldridge Cleaver draped over his sexual assaults: it was due to white culture propagating the notion of white female beauty as supreme law and programming it into the minds of black men. That's what the titular "fever" represents, according to Lee: hollow lust between black and white based on media myths about the other race's allure. It's so contagious, says the film, that even the best and blackest better beware. (And Snipes has to qualify as quite possibly — literally — the blackest male lead a movie studio has ever brightened cineplexes with.)

Lee goes out of his way to establish the correctness of Flipper's "shit" before the fall: Flipper throws a hissy fit over Angie's hiring with his unctuous yuppie bosses (Tim Robbins and Brad Dourif scaled down to fit in shoes any also-ran from the Smarmy White Guy Casting Co. could have worn) because he'd specifically requested that they supply him with only black temps. "You tell her you didn't like her performance because she's white" and "This sounds dangerously like reverse discrimination" are their paint-by-numbers Illin' White Boy™ responses — anonymous "quotes" some "intrepid journalist" writing a Time "exposé" on Racism in the Workplace would have cooked up — and Flipper shifts the goalposts by veering off into a tirade about his being the only face "of color" at the company. "I'm just a natural black man tryin' to survive in a cruel and harsh white corporate America" is Lee the screenwriter's idea of catching-up talk between Flipper and Cyrus, and when Flipper storms out after his demand for promotion to partnership is rebuffed — we read his place on the totem pole when we saw him at a cubicle identical to everyone else's — the film seems to take his claims of indispensability as self-evident.

And then comes the left hook. Lee has great fun calling out the wounded-minority jive black men use to scam pussy off of white girls weighed down with liberal Village Voice guilt: Flipper's idea of a come-on to Angie is a self-aggrandizing soliloquy about the childhood racial barbs he endured, mysticizing his inky complexion as her ticket to places she's too provincial to have learned about — "my experiences, my... my people..." — and when he sees that penitent mist of post-Yusuf Hawkins empathy cloud her starry-eyed return gaze, he knows he's got her.


Flipper questions Angie as to why she's expected to cook dinner for her father and brothers every night, positioning himself as her liberator, prodding and poking away at the stale gender norms he knows she wants to see prodded and poked at while, in his own life, he's hardly a mandingo Germaine Greer — his wife Drew is as glued to the kitchen in their upscale brownstone on Striver's Row as Angie is to the stove her deceased mother once tended. Angie offers to make Flipper lasagna, inviting Flipper to let her earth-mother him as she earth-mothers the men in her family, and his antenna pricks up — he's as defined as any maternally molded black man by mama worship as a way of life. He's already noted to his daughter how tired he's grown of Drew's bland breakfasts, and here's this lonely temp who's ripe for an emotional getaway: his potential first hit of the forbidden enticing him with the spice of her foreign cuisine. Lee uses this connection to Flipper through food to chart the progression of the seduction: talk of lasagna leads to Chinese takeout and Angie's "I do admit I was looking at your skin" after she's bashfully savored the proxy black cock of an egg roll turned dark from soy sauce — her first, it would seem. "You like it?" he inquires before insisting that he's not a fan of the soy sauce himself. (Naturally, or we wouldn't have a movie.)


"It's as if Lee himself, as a screenwriter, could see these characters only as stereotypes," asserted Roger Ebert in his Chicago Sun-Times review of the film. "[Lee] could not, or would not, get inside of them." Ebert's muted puzzlement at the film's refusal to meet expectations typified the reactions Jungle Fever garnered during the summer of its release, at the height of what was then being hyped as the New Black Cinema. Audiences primed by both the come-on of the film's premise and by Lee's media anointment as the ne plus ultra of pop revolutionaries went to theaters anticipating raucous tweaks of a hot-button topic du jour, steamy taboo-busting, the queasy charge of watching (off-)white womanhood melt under a thrashing black-satin wall of Bantu sexual prowess. Barbara Grizzuti Harrisons with an investment in Lee as the four-eyed firebrand who dropped truth bombs about white racism and the need for unrepresented voices to crash the private party known as Hollywood were no better off. Clearly, they'd gone to Jungle Fever salivating for the true follow-up to Do the Right Thing's near-perfect thematic cohesion, powder-keg pacing, and brash comic panorama of society's ignored: a defiantly-hurled Lee trash can through the pizzeria window of mean old America's hang-ups about miscegenation.

What both sides got appeared neither fish nor fowl, the unwieldy spawn of a late-night hookup between West Side Story and Mario Van Peebles' New Jack City (while the passing-complexion melodrama Imitation of Life watched, masturbating, from the corner); a cinematic mixed nut not unlike the identity-starved half-breeds Flipper sneers at as he gives voice to Lee's sincere contention that he has no business and no future with Angie, that their hastily-conceived union is a tree which can — indeed, must — bear no fruit.

Do the Right Thing was all bound up in what-ifs, in the confusion of the multiple "right things" that any character could have done at any given moment, it left you with more ideas in your head than you knew what to do with; Jungle Fever closes the book on its two halves of the Afflicted Modern Black Man with the finality of a cell door clanging shut. Its visual design is so yoked to the downbeat meditation on confused identities Lee set out to write that one could click through a series of still frames in lieu of watching the movie: Flipper and Angie facing opposite directions from opposite sides of their bed with Flipper's dusky profile — his standing as a black man, as a black father — cast into the shadow of uncertainty; Flipper seeking refuge in his childhood bedroom, mocked by the signposts — a "Black Power" button, the famously anti-race-mixing Muhammad Ali — of a pride he's long since betrayed; the opening credits as a series of stylized traffic signs enforcing the law of racial boundaries that all must obey for their own safety and for the safety of others. (Cheeky stuff: Harlem as "A GUINEA FREE ZONE," "PARKING FOR ITALIANS ONLY." The funniest of the signs resurrects Radio Raheem and his boombox next to a white girl inside a red prohibition circle with a line through it.)


WRONG WAY declares the traffic sign bearing the film's title after a silent dedication to Yusuf Hawkins and, if that doesn't tip you off to Lee's stance, Flipper and Angie's sole sex scene is notably bloodless in comparison to his and Drew's soft-porn battle of the tongues with the added pervert charge of Lee's camera peeping in through the window. Where Flipper and Angie go at it during a late night at the office — sexual gymnastics copped from porn in cramped surroundings under the wan lighting of a desk lamp — Flipper's marital sex is nothing less than blessed by the gods of Black Love, who consecrate it with cinematographer Ernest Dickerson's impossibly golden morning sunlight pouring down onto their bed of holy matrimony in a beatific haze over Terence Blanchard's orchestrated crescendo of bittersweet. So radiant is Flipper's morning communion with his wife, it ripples out in waves of joy, enriching even their future kinkstress of a daughter down the hall, who sits giggling from behind a conspicuously cracked bedroom door, delighted at her mother's groans.

Lee goes to such broad lengths to bias us against Flipper and Angie, he makes a family sitcom out of Flipper's nostalgia-hued home life with its dad-and-daughter walks to school as the score goes all whimsical doot-dee-doo, with Flipper's precocious scamp playing innocent and luring Mommy into a breakfast-table explanation of the sounds emanating from their bedroom every morning. It's like an early Cosby Show bit with little Rudy befuddling Cliff Huxtable — Snipes as the comically harried dad evading the tyke's questions about whether she's getting a baby brother; a reveal of her adorable trickery that begs for laugh-track titters 'n' "awwws" — and it's as squarely aimed at the stalwart defenders of family values out in the flyovers as is the opening shot's trotting out of a paperboy on his morning route. Both moves are addressed as readily identifiable cultural signifiers to his new white audience in the wake of Do the Right Thing media hubbub and they're consciously intended as see!-look-how-middle-class-Harlem-actually-is! correctives to the Radio Raheems and piped-up Samuel L. Jacksons Lee imagines dancing their malignant shuck-and-jives through suburbia's nightmares. What they actually represent is the middle-class defense of status quo that Lee felt to the bone but projected onto Whitey for the sake of his public face: militant midget Michael from the ghetto-set TV dramedy Good Times, all grown up into the immortal image of Malcolm X peering vigilantly out of the window, but with a camera in place of a rifle.


Let the punishment of the universe rain down upon Flipper! cried Lee the megaphone moralist — more so for the race betrayal than for the infidelity, to be sure — and rain down it does. Not a single person in Lee's 1991 New York, save an intrigued guidette buddy of Angie's, can do anything but bare fangs the moment they even hear of our salt-and-pepper lustbirds. Lee gives us a scene in a soul-food restaurant with cartoonishly outsized pique at the sight of the couple — from the pre-celebrity endorsements Queen Latifah as a surly waitress who excoriates Flipper ("I can't even believe you brought huh' stringy-haired ass up here to eat!") to a pair of looky-loos who cap the scene with a proto-Bamboozled minstrel-show bit couched in Nineties Jenny Jones-audience indignation ("She's white!" "Mmmmm-hmm!") — while later he'll rather sadistically, near fetishistically, expand the sequence in Goodfellas of a young Henry Hill taking a whipping from his irate father to show us how Angie's father feels about the mere rumors of her dishonor that have drifted back to him.

Lee's eagerness to stack the deck corrodes even his fealty to suspension of disbelief: he stages a play fight between the lovers, carried out on the sidewalk in full view of any number of spectators, in which the normally streetwise Flipper — he'll later press street dealers for his brother's whereabouts and he's "down" enough to be on first-name terms with every last one of them — suddenly has no idea how alarming it looks for a man of any color to mime slamming a woman's head into the hood of a car then mock-strangle her while shouting at top volume that he's going to "kill" her.

When the inevitable squad car comes tearing forth and the beat cops from Do the Right Thing jump out with guns drawn, shoving Flipper against a wall, we know Lee the Public Image is feigning that it illustrates the certainty of their relationship's doom as designed by a System of Intolerance™. It's meant to impress us as the old saw about simple bigotry versus De White Man's Racism, which Lee gave voice to in countless interviews: sure, he'd allowed, blacks can be narrow-minded and set in their ways, like Flipper's Scripture-wielding old coot of a father, but only white narrow-mindedness has the power to suppress. Flipper yells at Angie to stop telling the cops they're lovers for fear it's going to get him killed, then the Boys Choir of Harlem intones their wordless dirge a cappella on the soundtrack as Angie goes all wet-eyed activist over the "police brutality" she's just witnessed — and this, despite one of the cops apologizing and giving the wholly reasonable explanation that they'd gotten a call about someone witnessing what would have looked to any halfway sentient passerby like an Eldridge Cleaver Special in progress. So traumatizing is this contretemps with the po-po, it kills the last of their dying liaison; they sulk afterward in their barren loft, in front of the brick wall as emotional rock bottom that forces Flipper into white-pussy detox and the anguished wail of awakening at film's end.


Heads were scratched at the abrupt whatsit of an ending but conceptually it ties together the film's dual tragedies in a direct reversal of Do the Right Thing's opening pull-out from Samuel Jackson as a radio deejay exhorting his listeners to wake up. The didactic Our Town finish to Lee's School Daze had Larry Fishburne look directly into the camera to make the same plea of us; Jungle Fever shows at last a member of that community — wayward shepherd though he is — heeding the call. It's no Scorsese-esque redemption — Lee's too wrapped up in righteous indignation for that — but Snipes' eruptive (and oft-mocked) cry of negation is the moment of clarity that addicts in recovery will often refer to. It's the frenzied thrashing against damage done that never comes for Flipper's older brother, the crack-addicted and perpetually at-death's-door bullshit artist Gator, endowed by a fresh-out-of-rehab Jackson with the sweat of his own drug struggles. Jackson's work here exceeds even his peppery thugs in Quentin Tarantino's films for quintessential Dave Chappelle-parodied Sam Jackson-ness — Gator's like the vengeful spirit of the ghetto underclass as malevolent cockroach, wielding his squalor in the cracks and crevices as a gleeful thorn in the side of a black middle class he could never have joined, scurrying into view like a reminder of gutter origins just when his family wants to see him least. (Lee would revive the character with Bamboozled's Big Blak Afrika, the moronic "revolution"-rapper hounding his mortified TV-exec sis for a shot at the big time.)


Flipper and Gator's folks — mother Lucinda (Ruby Dee) and the sketch-show spoof of preacherly rigidity in their father, referred to by all and sundry as the Good Reverend Doctor (Ossie Davis) — are no less set in their moldy-wallpapered, shrinkwrapped-in-history ways than any of the film's Italians. Lucinda's as stifled in her home life as Angie is in hers; her only escape comes not in the form of a new romance but in covert visits from Gator. The old man banished Gator from their home long ago but Gator shows up nonetheless, greeted by Lucinda in hushed tones and ushered into the kitchen for lectures about his eating habits. Gator inveigles her with pimp patter about a new job while hitting her up for money he even coon-shuffles for; his epileptic improvised dance routines look exactly like what you'd expect a crackhead dancing for his next fix to look like.

Obviously, with Lee at the pen, there can be no surer sign of a black man's residence in the gutter than his willingness to shuck and jive. Flipper had walked his daughter to school in a daze while a junkie slumbered on a discarded couch nearby — the junkie was, as always, invisible to Flipper from his safe remove. Yet, when Flipper shucks and jives for his drug — his bite of Angie's lasagna is placed right after Gator's seduction of their mother — the stakes are much higher, the fall is greater. Cyrus even diagnoses Flipper as having caught "da fever" at precisely the moment that Gator crashes the scene, flaunting his newest crack ho (Halle Berry, hilarious in her first major role) before perverting a horrifying confession of determination — he hates knocking old folks in the head for their money but he'll do what it takes to score that next hit — into another of his malefic jigs, this time with mock turntable-scratching and a pseudo-rap declaration of basehead endurance. It's as if the demonic Judge Holden in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian had hopped in a time machine to take the stage at the Apollo and dance his final, horrible dance of immortality surrounded by cracked-out B-girls.


Lee's bracing lack of evenhandedness here — his unsentimental reckoning with Gators as the poltergeists in America's haunted racial attic; niggers par excellence — reads to some as Exhibit A in the prosecution of Lee as bourgeois poseur trafficking in what Ty E over at Soiled Sinema refers to as Lee's "demented Der Stürmer-tier racial caricatures." I'd argue that part of the immediacy of Lee's aesthetic — whatever its success — is precisely this tendency to mix his satirical and dramatic impulses: he did it with the club owners as greedy kikes in Mo' Better Blues; he does it in the way he introduces Flipper and Gator's parents to us over the crackle of Mahalia Jackson records, with the Good Reverend Doctor reeling off a biblical edict on fornication and the old woman at some length across from him, slightly stupefied and knitting; he certainly does it with Jungle Fever's goombahs as the local tracksuit brigade.

Certainly, it must be acknowledged, even by those with low sensitivity to such things, that Jungle Fever flirts with Grand Guignol over the candy-store layabouts in its Bensonhurst: whatever analogue to blackface there is as far as guinea burlesque goes, this is it. (One of the guys even sports a T-shirt extolling Joseph Fama, the kid convicted of firing bullets into Yusuf Hawkins.) The clear blueprint here is Eddie Murphy's 1987 stand-up feature Raw: as Murphy famously said of his overly cocky Carmines pumped up by Sylvester Stallone movies, Lee's goombahs act more "like niggas" than "niggas" do, what with their gold Mars Blackmon nameplates and their Public Enemy blasting from cars at top volume, with their talk of keeping bitches in line and their priapic "yo momma"-jokes swagger. Good thing, then, that these caricatures are as fucking funny as they are, especially if you're up for time-capsule riffs on Paula Abdul or crackhead ex-D.C. mayor Marion Barry — recall that even Bamboozled was honest enough to show us a radical unable to stifle a laugh at the minstrel show to which he winds up murderously opposed. Honesty should also dispel any pretense that Lee's guinea cartoons are even a hair removed from, say, arch guidos like Paulie Walnuts and Silvio in the first two seasons of The Sopranos, or that Lee's any more reliant on the notion of Italians as "white nigger" hotheads than the German-Jewish James Caan was when he affected his photographer-jostling, brother-in-law-ambushing, knuckle-biting, "bada-bing!"-ing ways as Sonny in The Godfather. (Caan often trots out the story of how he's twice been awarded honors as "Italian of the Year.")


One of Lee's swarthies is pressed on his swearing by the nymphomaniac durability of the colored gals; another of the boys chimes in that he must have asked his own mother, and they nearly come to blows over fervent protests that, hey, even the darkest of the Boot's children qualify for membership in the exclusive club known as Whiteness. Lee fuses Murphy's riffs with the "breakin' balls" guys' ritual as constant test of manhood in Mean Streets and in Goodfellas; he's expanding upon the Jigaboos vs. Wannabes color war in his School Daze to peel back the scabs of an intra-Italian caste system based on complexion that Jungle Fever is virtually alone in acknowledging. (Elsewhere, I've only seen it in the subtext of Eriprando Visconti's La orca and openly touched upon in Season Five of The Sopranos with a recalled remark about how "dark" Tony's daughter Meadow was at birth.)

The thesis Lee's working from also gave us the "Sicilians were spawned by niggers" speech in Quentin Tarantino's script for True Romance, and it makes nifty shorthand for those who find inconvenient a look at the larger issues — notably, black crime and simple economic competition — surrounding historical tensions between blacks and white ethnic communities. Italian immigrants, Lee's thesis reminds us, particularly those from southern Italy, were traditionally considered by the WASP majority as "less than" white — vis-à-vis comparatively coarsened hair textures, swarthier features, and an extroverted out-in-the-streets-at-2-a.m. emotionalism; vis-à-vis their association with a cultural dedication to organized crime; vis-à-vis a perceived quickness to violent outbursts and their clinging to an outmoded old-world belief system. Italian-Americans' acceptance into the nebulous pan-white identity they've enjoyed since is maintained, this thesis holds, not only by obsessively mimicking the Negrophobia of the larger culture, but by exceeding it: by having taken their turn, à la Private Joker in Full Metal Jacket, at flinging that loaded sock down onto the hated mulignan's stomach as other whites looked on in approval, but having done so faster and more mercilessly than any other group, replacing that sock with a brick on the next go-round, then a baseball bat, then tire irons, and eventually (as Yusuf Hawkins learned) brandishing a handgun, as if that ceaseless escalation of reaffirmation were their pledge in perpetuity for the panacea of sweet white privilege.


Those who deemed Lee the Angry Black Man unfit to make cultural indictments they'd have been fine with had they come from an Italian-American made it a point not to notice that it's also Lee's lead Italians — Sciorra's Angie and John Turturro's Paulie here, Danny Aiello's Sal in Do the Right Thing — who stand, far and away, as the most relatable characters he'd given us up to that point.

Drew, when explaining to Flipper why she feels so rejected by his choice of a white woman, launches into a self-pitying Tragic Mulatto monologue that could have had its own chapter in black film historian Donald Bogle's long-heralded analysis of cinematic black archetypes, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: her tirade echoes the self-aggrandizement of Flipper's own parading of racial scars as shameless manipulation. She'd always suspected Flipper would leave her for the "real McCoy," as a friend of hers put it; she spears Flipper with the olive branch of his offered-up remorse and Lonette McKee's head jerks from side to side as Drew rattles off a preposterously theatrical litany of pre-emancipation slurs she claims to have been haunted by since childhood. (She's so operatic in conceit, Lee even had her paraphrase the title of a Gershwin aria from Porgy and Bess.) It hasn't half the weight of Angie's more realistically played grappling with rejection, and Lee reaches back into Hollywood melodrama to properly send Drew off. She rebuffs Flipper after a post-split bout of lovemaking and Lee's camera, through a Douglas Sirk/Elia Kazan gauze of pathos, enshrines Drew in her dolor as a Pinky Johnson for the ages: McKee's all trembling Nina Mae McKinney eyelashes and luminous high-yella tragedy (reminiscent of her turn as the doomed object of slick-cat seduction in 1976's Sparkle) as she holds herself tight, telling the man she'll love forever to get out of her life for good.


If Lee's allowing at least the possibility of some workable union of ebony and ivory, it's in the signposts of compatibility between white men and black women sprinkled throughout: Flipper passes two such couples on his way to deliver roses and penitence to Drew and the film suggests genuine communication between Angie's shattered longtime beau Paulie and Orin (Boyz N the Hood's Tyra Ferrell), the chatty black woman who regularly stops by the candy store-cum-newsstand he runs for his father. Lee flatters himself and the black male egos in the audience by having Orin insist to Paulie that she's never seen him in a sexual light — she comes off rather like a social worker trying to help the downtrodden when bringing him a community-college application — but Lee also highlights an easygoing candor between them that he'd confirm as potential for something more when defending his take on mixed relationships to the press.

There's a tradition of fictional works trumpeting some of their creators' most salient and heartfelt points through characters whom the audience is otherwise disinclined to take seriously, and Lee honors that here as Gator voices Lee's contention that the quality of black women pulled by white men tends to dwarf the comparatively meager sexual market value of the white women who wind up checked boxes on black men's sexual to-do lists: such white women are usually "outhouse pets" as opposed to "Penthouse Pets" in Gator/Lee's (mostly correct, even for 2020) estimation. It's the instinct toward dependability that pushes upwardly mobile black women into higher-caliber rapport with beta white males, Lee's theorizing in light of Flipper the Ideal Black Husband morphing into the soulless buppie of an Ice Cube lyric, and though Lee the film-biz understudy to Al Sharpton is as personally averse as your average white man is to seeing his community littered with racially rootless "mixed nuts" — yes, I'm including grandstanding white leftists in this — he's flexible enough to spare from fire and brimstone anything built from a starting point of sincerity.


Not that Lee got much credit for it from establishment thought's official Tarring and Feathering Division. Such is the elephant's memory of Jewish spite: a decade plus after Mo' Better Blues' Moe and Josh Flatbush, you still had media profiles such as New York Magazine's 2006 piece, "The Angriest Auteur," in which one Ariel Levy made sure to dredge up model — and Lee ex — Veronica Webb's accusation of Lee having "sexual[ly] pressure[d]" her when she played his wife in Jungle Fever, and this is after Levy's opined out of nowhere that "[Lee] cares about people, but it's unclear how much he likes them." You also had Down and Dirty Pictures, Jewish critic and ex-Premiere Magazine editor Peter Biskind's 2004 book on Harvey Weinstein and the Nineties indie explosion, which treated Lee — an unquestionable linchpin of the American indie scene of the preceding decade; the "Spike" in Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes, indie historian John Pierson's 1995 precursor to the Biskind book, no less — as little more than a footnote. Down and Dirty Pictures scarcely mentions even Do the Right Thing beyond calling it a film about "angry blacks"; Biskind, ever the enlightened champion of Warren Beatty's 1981 commie epic Reds among other passions (such as completely ignoring what was already a Tinseltown open secret about Weinstein's sexual predatism), quotes the very wealthy, high-black-society Lee in several places throughout and never once does he fail to make him sound like the Kingfish character from Amos 'n' Andy.

So one can imagine how, shall we say, oven-hot the grudge was just a year on from Mo' Better Blues, with Jungle Fever highlighting the complicity of Jewish women in something Lee clearly regarded as cultural subversion in its most pernicious form — Gator, having met Angie, assumes she's of the Tribe; there's also a knucklehead's riotous stab at consoling Paulie over Angie's betrayal, tendered with the purest compassion he can muster: "Jew girls. Jew girls do that all the time. But I would've thought better of Angela. I mean, she went to Catholic school for eight years."

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There's a fascinating moment of clarity in the Esquire piece when its author offers the following pensée: "I sometimes wonder if the anger Spike directs in his movies toward Italians ... is not displaced anger — anger that he feels toward Jews, whom he once knew largely as abstractions... until his stepmother entered the picture." (Italians in Tony Soprano's famous assessment? "Jews with better food.") 


Bill Lee's estrangement from Spike after scoring all of his son's films up to Mo' Better Blues was blamed by mainstream press on the old man's bust for possession of heroin before the release of Malcolm X. Black outlets, of course, had a spicier take, as typified by Jet Magazine in its May 16, 1994 issue: "Spike Lee Falls Out With Jazzman Dad Bill Lee Over Mixed Marriage." Go back to Spike's quite uncharacteristic spilling of guts to Barbara Grizzuti Harrison regarding his stepmother ("I hate the woman. She's not a nice person. She's a bad person."), go back to the scorn he'd heaped there on real-world Flippers-with-Angies ("Sick."), then consider the charge made by Bill Lee in Jet that Jungle Fever was Spike's revenge against him for having remarried shortly after the death of Spike's mother Jacquelyn in 1976: "[The film is] directly talking about me and my [second] wife in a negative way." Tellingly, Jungle Fever was the only Lee film up to that point not to have a diary/making-of companion book released; in its stead, Lee put out a compilation of critical essays for which he wrote the foreword. (The elder Lee wrote a chapter for the companion to Mo' Better Blues and inserted a glowing mention of Spike's half-brother — "[He] doesn't feel like my blood brother," Spike told Harrison — and of Spike's stepmother. One chuckles at the thought of Spike's gritted teeth upon seeing it.)


Lee sounded as if he'd been boning up on his Mein Kampf when recounting to Harrison the wiliness with which his bête juive — the "descendant of rabbis" who wore dreadlocks and "consider[ed] herself 'spiritually black,'" as Harrison described her — insinuated herself into his family and proceeded to undo it from within: "Very systematically we all got thrown out of the house. She was behind it. She caught my father at a very vulnerable time in his life. His wife of twenty-seven years had just died of cancer.... None of us sees him anymore." Spike furthered the public airing of grievances in By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of Malcolm X, written with Ralph Wiley, in which Lee went from pontificating about his artistic integrity to dropping poor-sucker anecdotes about his father's lifelong lack of business smarts, obviously implying that his father never achieved the level of success that Lee himself had attained because of it. Later in the book, Lee discusses the drug habit that led to his father's arrest and details what he describes as the old man's attempt to get off by dropping his famous son's name. The heartbreak-turned-righteous disgust in this passage rivals that of Lee's Malcolm coming to terms with betrayal at the hands of the Nation of Islam: "So my father sacrificed me to try and save his own ass. He told me later he hadn't wanted to spend the night in jail.... He gave me up not even thinking about the consequences to me or the film."


Lee was doubtless aware of the long, curious history of Jewish women drawn moth-like to the star wattage of prominent black artists: Charlie Parker and his common-law wife Chan, portrayed by Diane Venora in Bird, Clint Eastwood's 1988 Parker biopic; Richard Pryor and second wife Shelley Bonus, mother of his daughter Rain; mogul Quincy Jones and Mod Squad star Peggy Lipton, mother of his daughters Kidada and Rashida (of TV's Parks and Recreation); Sidney Poitier and actress wife Joanna Shimkus, whose daughter Sydney Tamiia Poitier would see her leg sheared off in the high point of Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino's 2007 B-movie circle jerk for one. Bill Lee was introduced to the future Susan Kaplan Lee by famed arts patron-cum-groupie Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, immortalized in jazz circles as "Baroness Nica" for her financial backing of the music, for having hosted bebop jam sessions in her apartment, and for what was (probably) euphemistically referred to as her close personal friendships with Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. Interestingly, the British-born Baroness, whose legend is that she served as a Resistance fighter for de Gaulle's Free French Forces in World War II before settling in New York, bore the name Kathleen Annie Pannonica Rothschild on her birth certificate. That's Rothschild, as in the mega-wealthy Jewish banking family whose global dynasty dates back to the eighteenth century. That's Rothschild, as in the Eyes Wide Shut-caliber photos that have circulated the internet of occult-themed masked balls and family matriarchs sporting Baphomet-head necklaces to social gatherings. That's Rothschild, as in "father of international finance" Mayer Amschel Rothschild and his oft-attributed "Give me control of a nation's money and I care not who makes the laws."


Though, by all accounts, there was never an actual romance between the Baroness and Monk, people wondered — she'd left behind five children and life as a diplomat's wife to play den mother to the pianist and his fellow functioning-addict man-children on New York's thriving post-bop scene. (Perhaps there's some dormant strain of the ol' jungle fever in the bloodline: some sixty years later, British tabloids would have a field day reporting on Kate Emma Rothschild, Nica's cousin however many times removed, breaking up her marriage to financier Benjamin Goldsmith for a fling with fifth-string rapper and Jay-Z protégé Jay Electronica.) Nica saw to Monk's affairs to such a degree — furnishing him with money for overdue rent and paying his hospital bills, providing him with room and board and transportation to gigs, nursing him through bouts of incapacity brought on by encroaching mental illness, even taking a drug rap for him — that those given to suspicion may well wonder if she didn't function as more of a kind of handler. Calling all conspiracy buffs: both of the Baroness' dearest jazz friends happened to breathe their last breaths in one of her residences. Parker would expire in her posh Fifth Ave. hotel suite after coughing up blood and being advised to rest there by the house physician; Monk would die in 1982 as a permanent houseguest at her Weehawken, New Jersey estate after having withdrawn from live performance.

Whispers abounded: it's said Nica kept a lid on Parker's death for a couple of days, refusing to report it to police or to any of his friends until she could get a hold of his wife. Questions abounded. To what extent, people wondered, did these women who'd planted themselves so firmly, so authoritatively, in the lives of these men wind up enablers for self-destructive artists and their dionysian attachment to the sacred high as a necessary component of the creative process? To what extent, Lee almost certainly wondered, did his dreaded stepmother enable his father's on-again-off-again heroin abuse as she'd already been such a driving factor in the diminishing of Lee's presence in the old man's life?


The hatred toward the Great Interloper that Lee vented almost certainly explains why race-mixing and drug abuse are so intertwined in his film but that hatred is what makes his narrative so enduringly vital despite its issue-of-the-day shout-outs and touches that were dated even for 1991. Ernest Dickerson filters nearly every scene through an old-timey haze that, combined with the buttery golden/brown/beige color palette, must have made this film look antiquated even upon release. It's a curlicue from Vilmos Zsigmond's techniques used to distance us from the Western frontier of Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and it conveys to us an airless world born of the slavery-era thinking from which Flipper, Drew and the Good Reverend Doctor pull their ravings about "octaroons," "quadroons" and "mulattoes"; it's a world devoid of "diverse" colors and, thus, freshness.

Hatred, that pulpy old beating-heart behemoth, is a life-giving force: it stimulates, it rouses, it's the very enemy of inaction and blandness. It is, as Fear's Lee Ving once reminded us, purity: love or contentment have never fueled a sixteenth as much great art as hatred and anger have, and the less artists bother to hide that, the more bracingly honest a statement they make to us. One can at least respect hatred in that sense — and Lee's at his funniest when he's most riled up (again, see: Bamboozled).

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Sciorra famously battled Lee during the shoot to inject humanity into what he'd conceived as Angie the cave-bitch thrill-seeker. The result graces the Lee oeuvre with its most poignant snapshot of a pair of ovaries aside from Crooklyn: Angie with Paulie, the guy she cares about too much to bullshit, breaking it to him that she needs to get the hell out of Bensonhurst and, no, she can't accept the ring he's given her; Angie, as Flipper announces he's off to see his daughter, with Lee's camera holding a beat on all the foreboding of a woman on the outside of her lover's life, wanting in while knowing there's no place for her there, and there never was.


It's Angie who, despite deserving all the scorn heaped upon her as the low-rent disgraziata who knowingly fucks a married man, remains the true naif of Lee's rigid schema, its core of unresolved heartsickness evoking every dumb girl cast adrift by her own emotional recklessness and left bobbling on the waters of her peak romantic years without so much as a port of call. Drew spins herself dizzy on hysterical-halfie hyperventilating for half the film but, by Lee's own racial design, you never doubt that she'll bounce back; Angie gets a question mark of a kiss-off, with Flipper coldly dismissing all the misguided emotion she's built up as mere symptoms of "the fever." He summons the flicker of compassion to ask if she'll be alright, but that shiner she sported has him well apprised of the imminent cloud of cage-match-with-The-Road-Warriors beatdown he's returning her to. Angie's walk of shame back into her father's graces is the film's truest moment of defeat, yet such is the bind that Lee's script places her in that it took Flipper the asshole to summon the humanity to cut her loose. She'd have otherwise soldiered on, no matter the passionlessness and emotional abandonment that awaited because, well, what other path for her out of the chokehold of home and hearth does Lee show us?


Flipper and Angie's conversations — or attempted conversations — are, by Lee's clear intent, the film's worst and most devoid of anything approaching believable discourse: they're filled with dead ends, dropped tangents and non-sequiturs as if the two could barely hear each other from their respective sides of the cultural, socioeconomic and intellectual chasm that yawns between them. Her only use to him once the novelty of taboo has waned is as a fuck-you to his father when Flipper improbably drops a reversed-scenario Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? in his parents' lap. And even then, he hangs her out to dry as she's blindsided by the Good Reverend Doctor's sermonizing about the Devil's handiwork and by Lucinda going all crestfallen and excusing herself after Angie's confirmed that, yes, she's aware of Flipper's loving wife and daughter. The Good Reverend Doctor spins the fervid Mandingo fantasy that every slaveowner eschewed his white wife and used his plantation as a mulatto-breeding party, lecturing Angie as to how her pairing with Flipper is but the latest iteration of that scorned white wife seeking redress — that Angie's heritage indicates a presence on American soil stretching back no further than Ellis Island matters not to him. "And that's how our blood got diluted," he informs her before declaring her a product of the "white man's cesspool" and his own son a "whoremonger." (Flipper gets off easy. Gator bum-rushes his way in while the Good Reverend Doctor is out and proceeds to menace his mother, only for the former head of his own congregation to return and plug a slug in his son's gut. His final judgment? Gator was "better off dead.")


The old man's dinner evangel reinforces the curious black-culture purity ritual by which self-conscious half-bloods like Drew subsume the full spectrum of their identities in strident blacker-than-black posturing, groveling for the phony embrace of ink spots bitterly envious of their café au lait complexions and manageable hair textures and (of course) greater proximity to whiteness. In effect, they crank up the blackety-black to walking-parody volume: past the public I-am-a-BLACK-woman rejections of physiognomically billboarded European ancestry made by McKee and fellow Lee actresses Halle Berry and Cynda Williams (that's about a three); past Barry Hussein Obama with his "you didn't build that" sneering at heritage America and his singularly graceless slandering of the white grandparents who'd raised him in the face of his Kenyan daddy having pulled a feets-don't-fail-me-now back to the mud huts (that's an eight); right up to middle-class suburban boy Colin Kaepernick and his fuck-the-flag grandstanding (ten), right up to blue-eyed Grey's Anatomy star Jesse Williams and his stirringly scripted equal-rights-or-else blackface to a Broadway ovation at the BET Awards (ten), right up to any number of inveterate white hipster-dating Flat Screens Matter agitators against "white privilege" (you are now in Spinal Tap territory).

Flipper then recoils from the "cesspool" by insisting that he wants no part in making any future Obamas with Angie; she pokes a chink in his armor by pointing out the white blood in his own wife and daughter — how, she's wondering, can one craft an identity based on rejecting a part of oneself? She realizes: Flipper, with his suddenly compensatory rejection of mixing, is the carbon copy of her own father; blacks, with their costume-nationalist dissections of just who and what is truly black, are as pathologically insecure as guidos nearly coming to blows over where the line of whiteness can be drawn. She'd latched onto Flipper as her ticket out of Bensonhurst; sometimes, home is closer than you think.


Lee's most direct calling out of the reproductive white supremacists among blacks comes via the film's improvised "war council" scene between Drew and her consolatory hens' circle. Lee turned the sequence over to his actresses; as always, he was working overtime to correct his supposedly imbalanced portrayals of black women. Balance-wise, the film appears at first to plop an '86 Oprah down on their end of the see-saw — McKee and the others downright sanctify their Sapphires as any Essence Magazine-subscribing, Terry MacMillan-reading, black-romance-book-of-the-month club would flatter itself between sympathetic headshakes and swigs of moscato: perpetually done wrong, classy and strong, heads held high while their good-for-nothin' men run around forsaking even light skin now for the forbidden nectar of them home-wreckin' white hoes.

That the trend of miscegenation tends, more often than not, to leave black women on the sidelines, though, is the true complaint at the heart of this round table. And it's here that Lee, à la his Nola Darling, showcases his black women having lynched themselves with the rope of their own government-granted "independence." Drew and her gurrrl-friends stab the beast in the heart and don't even notice that they've drawn blood: one of them skewers the brothas for being put off by the feminist house of cards in which their women have more education and more job opportunities; Drew herself acknowledges that women won't even consider men below a certain income. What neither the characters nor the actresses playing them bother (or possess the faculties) to consider is what a historically unprecedented and mutually unfulfilling reversal of the male-female dynamic this is. What they don't realize is that this ongoing cultural emasculation — which only lurks at the root of their entire existential we're-losing-our-men malaise, which they nonetheless eagerly support as long as it keeps their finger snaps a-poppin' and their "mm-mm-mmms" good and brassy — was but a long-planned phase in the complete breakdown of the family as societal building block.

It's said that blacks are the guinea pigs for whatever the elites have in store for the white majority. That's fairly hard to gainsay when one examines the tsuris that kosher feminism has since inflicted on male-female relations among whites — white women as overpaid, over-entitled, wine-and-depression-meds-fueled gimme-bots without a shred of femininity or any other qualities suitable for long-term commitment and child-rearing, leaving those of their men who wish to plant seeds despite the legislatively anti-white Harrison Bergeron dystopia we're fast approaching to Ferdinand Magellan the largesse of Europe's genetic code right into the comparatively welcoming ports of Asia, Latin America and, yes, Spike Lee's own Motherland. (I swear, if I discover just one more prominent nationalist with a non-white significant other, it might be the killing joke that does me in.)


Lee gets that last part right: it's Angie's fascination with the gutter that nudges beta boy Paulie and his retired mailman's sense of style toward the brown sugar himself. Paulie's tied to his own deceased mother's stove; he plays wife for his housebound hump of a father, for whom he runs the newsstand where his unemployed buddies hold court and regard him as a vaguely threatening oddball for his habit of reading books. Lee's Italians live with the walking dead. Paulie's father (Anthony Quinn, a roast ham here, headbutting walls and bellowing arias of disownment from open windows) forces him to pay his respects to his mother's shrine each day, so it's no wonder Paulie and surrogate mommy Angie effectively nurture a black hole of chemistry between them. When Angie prods Paulie not to take the constant knife-edge joshing from her goon brothers, who grill him as to whether he's besmirching Angie's virginal purity then threaten to stomp him into their front porch, she sounds for all the world like a schoolteacher giving a pep talk to a bullied fat kid she pities. ("He's a nice guy," she'll tell Flipper about him.)

What Angie needs is what the old blues guys would refer to as a maaane — spell it: M-A-N, chile' — but what's a man as defined in her world? Therein lies her dilemma: functionally retarded local Mean Streets would-bes like her brothers and castrated schlubs repel her in equal measure. Flipper, then, becomes mesmerizing to her by sheer dint of how dissimilar he is — both socioeconomically and visually — to any other man in her orbit. She sees in him all the respectably-contained exoticism she's projected onto him — it certainly isn't from anything he's shown her. He condescends to her when he bothers to notice her; in the lead-up to their after-hours office coupling — the film watches on under ominous strings as Flipper and Angie sneak glances at one another — he imputes guinea barbarism to her via jabs about her part of town. The way Lee's diagrammed it, Flipper has a point. Flipper and his friends have nouveau cover-of-Black-Enterprise occupations: his architectural work, Drew as a buyer for Bloomingdale's, Cyrus as a schoolteacher, Cyrus' ridiculously out-of-his-league wife in A&R, while Cyrus and his missus' townhouse boasts touch-of-a-woman wall coloring that practically menstruates; it befits their talk of having a child. By contrast, Angie's temp work is as prestigious as anyone in Lee's barren, motherless Bensonhurst gets: Angie arrives home to surrogate-mommy her father and two grown brothers, and we know from the set design alone — olive-oil wallpaper with antique Catholic cross, a sofa that's been encased in the same plastic covering since about the mid-Sixties — that Angie's suffocating in this house-as-outdated mindset with its thoughtless insults and dinner-table threats of near-murder.


Hilariously cruel (or cruelly hilarious) irony awaits our down-low Jewess — and we've already heard Stevie Wonder imploring us to cherish our loved ones as her father stomped a mudhole in her ass. She later reaches out to Paulie but Paulie's moved on; in his gently heroic triumph of refusing to be the fallback guy after Angie's sexual safari earned her a nasty bite, he's finally grown the balls she always wanted him to grow. The end of Flipper's arc heralds at least the possibility of the Great Black Father's return, and Paulie's rebirth likewise signals Lee's fantasy of the new racially benign white man: his antenna receptive enough to have picked up Mister Señor Love Daddy's fateful transmission as a call to white genetic self-negation toiling the fields for the coming beige utopia — the ultimate in reparations. Jungle Fever's poster presents black and white fingers intertwined but distinct; Lee's prescription for the sons of Europe cranes forward to the true racial fusion envisioned by mensch Mati Klarwein on the back of Miles Davis' Bitches Brew: the two races — opposing energies — merged into a lighter shade of Negro, spattered with the blood shed by its forging. Lee might have been his stepmother's son after all.

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Jungle Fever's most celebrated set piece from a technical standpoint is Flipper's journey into hell while searching for Gator: he burrows his way into the bombed-out ruins of a corner crackhouse (known with bitter irony as the "Taj Mahal") with the entirety of Wonder's 1973 "Living for the City" underneath. It's the Copacabana shot from Goodfellas, played out as a Dantean descent into black America's dark night of the soul with punctuative bursts of silhouetted pipe zombies gliding in and out of frame like the ghosts they're soon to become. "Living for the City" and the we've-forsaken-God lament of Wonder's closing-credits "Feeding Off the Love of the Land" are where the film's heart is but Lee unspools the underlying melancholy with so much surface verve that none of his typical quirks can sink your high — not his strapping of Yusuf Hawkins' corpse to the opening to give his yarn a dramatic weight it hasn't yet earned, not even his habit of ladling Wonder's songs over dialogue that echoes exactly what he's singing about. (It's as if the soundtrack CD were blaring from a boombox someone's holding just off camera.) The arc between musical bookends mimics the film's tonal trajectory — "Feeding Off the Love of the Land" is Wonder having finally "seen" the finished product — and his best pieces here resurrect the sustained mournful air of his 1974 Fulfillingness' First Finale.

The title theme tickles, though: it's a lite-funk trifle with the cadences of a schoolyard sing-along — if there'd been a full-on commercial for the new-America juggernaut, this would've been its jingle — and it seems hilariously misinformed as to what the film it was accompanying was actually about. By any objective measure, it's the Nineties sequel to Wonder's "Ebony and Ivory" with Paul McCartney but I've a real soft spot for its former meme status as easy punching bag for those cynical about all the corporate Neapolitan ice-cream fantasies being peddled. Wonder's joined on the track by then-R&B sensations Boyz II Men, by famed Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji, and by no less than a small army of jubilant backup singers and walloping percussionists: half the Negroes in recorded music, it appears, gathered in a joyous Saturday night Mass for the new-normal Sacrament of precious white pussy. Doubters of Lee the satirist's impish sense of humor are directed here with the declaration of a resounding checkmate.

©2020 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

 
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Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License .