"Jungle Fever" DVD cover courtesy of Universal Pictures.
CELLULOID ISSUES/THE POPCORN REEL
BY OMAR P.L. MOORE
OCTOBER 3, 2007
Spike Lee cultivated the much-discussed "Jungle Fever" in 1991 and his film explores the blistering and oft-times painful experiences of hostile public reaction to intimate relationships between black men and white women in the United States in particular, and the more general aspects of intimate partnerships between white men and black women in the U.S. Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra starred in Mr. Lee's film as the couple who fight the wars of resentment, racism and retaliation to their presence as lovers by trying to put out the fires from both Harlem and Bensonhurst in contemporary New York City. "Jungle Fever" was less about interracial liaisons than viewers are initially led to believe. Mr. Lee's film was highly shrewd as well as thought-provoking, and its after-effects were stunning. Samuel L. Jackson won a unique, specially-made acting award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1991 for his role as Mr. Snipes' drug-addled brother, and "Fever" featured the feature film debuts of both Halle Berry and Queen Latifah, actors who are very much a part of Hollywood films today.
"Jungle Fever" ignited a lot of passion and fervor and is 180° to the political right, if you will, of "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner", the 1967 film from Stanley Kramer, which featured Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. The film featured Katharine Houghton as Joanna, a white woman from a liberal, upper class San Francisco family who falls in love with Mr. Poitier's medical doctor Dr. Prentice character. The couple wants to get married and Dr. Prentice is brought home to Joanna's parents (Mr. Tracy and Ms. Hepburn) who disapprove, as does the family's black cook (Isabel Sanford), among others.
In the same year of "Dinner"'s release in the U.S., came the United States Supreme Court decision overturning Virginia's anti-miscegenation statute, which criminalized the act of members of different races marrying each other. In 1958, two residents of the state of Virginia, Richard Loving, a white man, and Mildred Jeter, a black woman, got married in the District of Columbia. Upon return to Virginia, their marriage was not recognized by the state, which declared that the union had violated Virginia's statute. After almost ten years of journeying through the American legal system, the Lovings' marriage was upheld by the top court in the land. Until June 12, 1967, when the U.S. Supreme Court decision (Loving v. Virginia) legalizing interracial marriages across the country was rendered -- barely 40 years ago -- marriages between persons of different races were still illegal in 17 U.S. states.
Exactly six months after the June 1967 landmark court decision, "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" opened in the U.S. The film won two Academy Awards, Katharine Hepburn for Best Actress, and William Rose for Best Screenplay. Isabel Sanford was also nominated but didn't end up in the winner's circle. Mr. Poitier, who acquitted himself well in a good performance, had won a Best Actor Oscar several years earlier for "Lilies Of The Field", the 1963 film that at the time was the only film which an Academy accolade for a lead performance was awarded to a black man since the Oscars began in the late 1920's. The next Best Actor Academy Award to be won by a black actor would be presented almost 40 years later to Denzel Washington in 2002 for "Training Day", and as Oscar approaches its 80th birthday next February, Jamie Foxx (winning for "Ray" in 2005) and Forest Whitaker (winning for "The Last King Of Scotland" in 2007) have been added to the Academy's lead actor winners list of black performers.
"Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" came amidst a swirl of turbulence in 1960's America. There was violence -- the murders and lynching of blacks in numerous areas of America, and most especially in the South were proliferating, exemplified most disturbingly in the bombings of a Birmingham, Alabama church on September 15, 1963, where four girls were killed. Two months later John F. Kennedy would be assassinated. Medgar Evers was also assassinated during that same year. The Civil Rights Act would be passed by the U.S. Congress during the Lyndon B. Johnson presidential administration, and in June1964, violence during the voter registration drives in the South, including Mississippi, claimed the lives of murders of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner, who were murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan. The three had journeyed to the state to get people to vote. Eight months later in February 1965, Malcolm X would be assassinated. Dr. Martin Luther King would be assassinated on April 4, 1968, and in the film a line about Dr. King was removed from all theatrical prints of "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" shortly after the news of his untimely death. (The line is now intact in the film's home video and DVD releases.) Robert Kennedy would also be fatally felled by assassins bullets just two months after Dr. King.
The poster for the 1967 film. (Courtesy: Columbia Pictures)
Similarly, "Jungle Fever" arrived during a volatile period in New York City
history. Less than two years before its release, on a warm August evening
in 1989, Yusuf K. Hawkins was with two friends in Bensonhurst, a
then-predominantly white, Italian neighborhood, responding to a newspaper ad for
the sale of a used car. At least thirty white male youths surrounded the
three black men, and killed Mr. Hawkins, with the gunman shooting the
16-year-old at in the heart at point-blank range. The five or six white
youths on trial in court later said that they responded to a threat from a
part-Italian, part-Puerto Rican woman named Gina Feliciano who lived in
Bensonhurst, who said that she had a black boyfriend that she was bringing to
the neighborhood who was coming to beat up the white men who had reportedly
harassed her and teased her about her relationship. Only one of the white
youths on trial for Mr. Hawkins' murder was convicted, the gunman, Joey Fama.
Mr. Lee dedicated "Jungle Fever" to Mr. Hawkins, and there is a reference to
some of the events that allegedly surrounded Ms. Feliciano, as well as a mention
of Mr. Hawkins' murder. Earlier, in April 1989, the high-profile Central
Park Jogger Case (a brutal night-time rape and beating of a white female jogger
later named as Tricia Meili, who went public in 2003) exacerbated the city's
already tense racial relations. Mainstream media reports from around the
world, taking their cue from the rabid New York City mainstream press,
repeatedly trumpeted that five black and Hispanic youths ranging in age from 13
to 17 were responsible for the attack on the woman. (Donald Trump had
taken out a full page ad in The New York Times stating that the young men, who
were repeatedly labeled as "animals" and a "wolfpack", be given the death
Subsequently at trial, the five black and Hispanic youths (including one honors student) were convicted, solely on the videotaped statements that they gave police -- statements that the young men said were coerced via intimidation by police detectives. No physical evidence linked the young men to the crime. In 2002 a judge overturned the convictions (owing to a confession made by the man who actually committed the rape of Ms. Meili -- a serial rapist and murderer named Matias Reyes -- whose DNA was the only such evidence found at the crime scene), but by then it was far too late. The young men served prison sentences ranging from 5 to 13 years. (In 2003, the young men sued the City of New York, its police department and the Manhattan District Attorney's Office.) And in 1988, Tawana Brawley, a black woman, had been publicly excoriated when stating that a white district attorney in Westchester, New York (Steven Pagones) and a police officer raped her. Many white and black members of the public and most of the mainstream media expressed doubt about Ms. Brawley's statements, and a grand jury was not given enough evidence to fully determine whether the New York State District Attorney Robert Abrams could indict Mr. Pagones, and therefore decided not to indict, based on a "no true bill" vote. Mr. Lee references the Brawley case in his film "Do The Right Thing" (where the wall graffiti "Tawana Told The Truth!" is emblazoned.) And just three months before the release of "Jungle Fever", the videotaped beating of Rodney King by several white Los Angeles police caused outrage and consternation across the U.S., in much the same way that the acquittal of O.J. Simpson in 1995 during his trial for the murder of his then-wife Nicole Brown Simpson did -- among whites in general, but particularly among white Southern Californians.
So for both American films, a climate swirled around them in the society that made their releases that much more eagerly awaited. While Stanley Kramer's "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" made the American Film Institute's Top 100 Films of All Time List several years ago, Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever" has endured and is ranked among the director's strongest and most commercially successful films.
In Mr. Lee's film, people colorfully give voice to sentiments about intimate relationships and marriages between the races that a majority of Americans keep largely to themselves. At times the film exposes powerful and explosive feelings, truths, misunderstandings, stereotypes, stigmas and complexities, galvanizing moviegoers to explore the issues of race, sex and class in America. One of the most noteworthy scenes in "Jungle Fever" occurs midway through the film and features a group of black women candidly expressing their views about black men and interracial relationships. The scene, unscripted and unrehearsed, is one of the best and most honest scenes that Spike Lee has let play out in any of his non-documentary feature films. Another impressive scene is the Taj Mahal sequence featuring Mr. Jackson and Ms. Berry, shot by cinematographer Ernest Dickerson. The sequence is haunting to watch on the big screen, with Stevie Wonder's "Living For The City" echoing eerily and cacophonously throughout.
Mr. Wonder wrote a soundtrack of songs especially for "Jungle Fever" and Mr. Lee practically begged the megastar singing legend for permission to use the entire recording of his classic "Living For The City" for the aforementioned Taj Mahal scene. During the end credits of the film, Mr. Wonder's sorrowful and urgent "Feeding Off The Love Of The Land" plays in both audio and lyric form. The lyric, isn't love to be admired/has the good in man expired could take on numerous meanings including the need for "tolerance" of love among and between people of all backgrounds -- hence the idea that all aspects of love among adults should be given societal approval regardless -- or the notion that love as an entity is paramount -- and the only singular thing that truly matters.
Where "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" was a sunnier, subtle but occasionally acidic look at black-white love and marriage in America, seen ostensibly from a white liberal perspective and sensibility, "Jungle Fever" is more exacting and direct, throwing the myths about black men and white women at its audience. There is no escape - and you are left to face and explore your own feelings about these issues. Just as "Dinner" had its cinematic legends in Hepburn and Tracy (who was ailing at the time the film was being made), "Fever" has its cinematic legends in Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, towers of humanity on the big screen and off it. Mr. Davis passed away in 2005, and Ms. Dee, who had been married to Davis since the late 1940's, was left to soldier on. (The couple also appeared together in Mr. Lee's "Do The Right Thing" in 1989.) Ms. Dee will next be seen in "American Gangster", which opens next month in the U.S., as the mother of Frank Lucas, the real-life 1970's Harlem drug-dealing business magnate played by Denzel Washington.
ISN'T LOVE TO BE ADMIRED?
HAS THE GOOD IN MAN EXPIRED?
The selected lyrics above are from Stevie Wonder's song "Feeding Off The Love Of The Land", whose entire lyrics are played out in word and audio during the end credits of Spike Lee's 1991 film "Jungle Fever", which tackled the thorny hotbed of love and intimacy between blacks and whites.
There are other Hollywood films that have taken on the intimacies between
black and white over the years -- and the mere mention of the words "black",
"white" or "interracial" when discussing or exploring the thorny issues of race
relations -- a long and ever-present powder-keg in American society -- may
appear balkanizing or polarizing. The way that the discussions of such
issues are conducted in American society may be represented the same or very
differently in films released in Hollywood. Some may view the prism of
so-called "interracial" love or marriage as just that -- a prism -- a narrow
filter that exempts most if not all other groups of people. After all,
what about intimate relationships between other races (Asians, Latinos, etc?)
Where white-Asian romantic intimate relationships depicted in Hollywood films
are concerned, there is scarcely the kind of controversy that typically attends
black-white romantic relationships. One clear and obvious reason for the
difference in the intensity of controversy is the absence in white-Asian
intimate encounters of the backdrop of the long history of sexual relations
(forced and consensual) that have occurred between blacks and whites long before
America became the United States (i.e., enslavement of blacks by white
At the risk of being presumptuous, the romantic relationships between white men and Asian women on the big screen in Hollywood (and off it in American society at large) are viewed in some quarters as so ubiquitous and accepted (at least in the mainstream American media - via television and film) that there appears to be barely a raised eyebrow among members of the movie-going public. For example, no audible hackles or objections can be heard when Woody Harrelson and Lucy Liu are paired up on the big screen as a couple in "Play It To The Bone", or when Fay Ann Lee and Gale Harold are playing lovers in Ms. Lee's recent film "Falling For Grace". In contrast, in some movie theaters, particularly in areas of New York City, objections could be heard from some rather vocal audiences in several black neighborhoods, against Mr. Snipes's and Ms. Sciorra's characters' togetherness and physical interactions in Mr. Lee's "Jungle Fever". Similar hoots of disapproval met movie screens in the same city when Denzel Washington's onscreen character was seen in bed with Milla Jovovich's character in Mr. Lee's "He Got Game" in 1998.
Years ago "A Patch Of Blue", another Sidney Poitier vehicle, saw the matinee idol and a blind white woman fall in love. Some film critics and audiences saw the film as patronizing, condescending and insulting. Also in the 1960's, the Poitier film "To Sir, With Love", spotlighted a possible glimpse of love for Mr. Poitier's teacher character, dubbed "Sir" by his students in a London classroom, from Judy Geeson's student character. The 1970's saw a parade of films where the black man (or woman) depicted was viewed as a sexual stud or "vamp" who played into or exemplified the dominant white society's perceptions and stereotypes of black physical and sexual prowess, either among themselves or with white sexual partners. (See "Sweet Sweetback's Baaadaaass Song", "Shaft", and films starring Jim Brown, who had also starred in the 1969 film "100 Rifles", which featured some steamy scenes with Raquel Welch, for which Mr. Brown and Ms. Welch received a lot of hate letters and criticism from a contingent of American movie-goers and the mainstream press.)
Wesley Snipes will team up with Spike Lee in the near future as the late Godfather of Soul James Brown, in Mr. Lee's biopic on the legendary entertainer. (Photo courtesy: VH1)
So the question has to be asked: where the depictions of intimate onscreen
relations between whites and blacks on the big screen in America are concerned,
has much changed in the forty years or so since the Poitier era?
Years later, films like "Zebrahead", which featured a combustible romance between Michael Rapaport and N'Bushe Wright in 1992; Robert De Niro's films "A Bronx Tale" (1993) and last year's "The Good Shepherd"; the sexual relationship Jon Voight's character has with an enslaved black female servant in "Rosewood" (1997); the romance between Pam Grier and Robert Forster in Quentin Tarantino's "Jackie Brown" (1997); Mr. Snipes and Nastassja Kinski and Ming-Na Wen in "One Night Stand" (1997) and films like 2000's "M:i-2" (Tom Cruise and Thandie Newton); "Monster's Ball", featuring a sexually-charged relationship between Halle Berry -- who in 2002 would become the only black woman to win a lead actress Oscar by virtue of her performance in Marc Forster's 2001 film -- and Billy Bob Thornton; the 2003 film "The Truth About Charlie" (Mark Wahlberg and Thandie Newton); the 2005 film "Guess Who", a comedic update of Mr. Kramer's "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" -- all of these may suggest that such topical movies or interracial dynamics are still being greenlit, despite any objections that may be made by film audiences in America or elsewhere about the racial backgrounds of those in love. (Incidentally, "Guess Who" starred Bernie Mac as the disapproving father, and Ashton Kutcher and Zoe Saldana as the white-black lovers.)
Perhaps further evidence that there might be a modicum of "comfort" for some American movie-going audiences with films exploring intimate romance between blacks and whites can be seen with last year's "Something New" (starring Sanaa Lathan and Simon Baker); "Shadowboxer" (featuring romances between Oscar-winning duo Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding Jr., and Mo'nique and Stephen Dorff), and this year's smash summer hit film "Hairspray", which featured Amanda Bynes and Elijah Kelley as a white-black singing couple in a loose parody of the famous 1968 Petula Clark-Harry Belafonte brief hand-touch incident on American network television (that offended many white southerners and corporate sponsors of Ms. Clark's television music special on NBC.) "Something New" and "Shadowboxer" did not perform well over all, although "Something New" grossed $5 million in its opening weekend in the U.S. and Canada. The film focused on the interracial relationship Ms. Lathan's attorney character has with a white architect (Mr. Baker), and is viewed from a black woman's perspective, something not seen very often in Hollywood movies. "They've been way more black men-white women romances on the big screen," Ms. Lathan said in an interview with National Public Radio in February 2006. The actor implied that this fact was reflective of the perception that the black man-white woman relationship was more accepted, citing a statistic that she did not wish to be quoted on, in which she said that 13-14% of black men in the United States were in such relationships, whereas only 3-4% of black women in the U.S. were in relationships with white men.
This month, Halle Berry and David Duchovny play a married couple in Susanne Bier's "Things We Lost In The Fire", but their race isn't something that draws attention to itself in the context of both their relationship and Ms. Bier's film. Benicio Del Toro also plays a substantial part as a potential love interest for Ms. Berry in the film.
There are numerous other films -- one or two of those listed in the previous paragraphs were not big hits at the North American box office -- but they definitely had viewers and the some in the media talking. The likelihood is that American studios will continue to make such films, as long as money exists to be made. The political content of the films may change, or skew in different way than either Mr. Kramer's or Mr. Lee's films do. In the final analysis, Americans may never fully accept seeing love between those of different racial backgrounds flourish either onscreen or off, but one thing is certain: any sighting of such relationships onscreen or in real-life will always give onlookers in America something to gawk at, "Jungle Fever", or no "Jungle Fever".
Copyright 2007. The Popcorn Reel. All Rights Reserved.