Jungle Fever – Ahead of Its Time Still, 30 Years Later

Jungle Fever is one of the best and most weighty films of the 1990s, and a retrospective on the film 30 years later with Annabella Sciorra present shows how ahead of its time it really was. I enjoyed growing up on this film. Spike Lee stood out from Do the Right Thing onwards for his combination of progressive politics and humanism mixed with a clear directing style that shows a strong perspective and enabled his actors to eat up his frame, but Jungle Fever has aged far better than I would have imagined. At the time, I recall enjoying the top notch acting, quest for equality, and portrayals of different cultural groups. That all holds up quite well, but it has gained considerable weight over time. The Denver Film Festival hosted a 30th anniversary screening with star Annabella Sciorra present, and this longer film at a bit over two hours stands out as one of the best and most visionary works of 1990s cinema. 

The pre-9/11 world of the 1990s was a much more optimistic time than the present. The Cold War had just ended, and globalization was in its beginnings. There was serious hope for a peaceful world of reasonable opportunity in the near future. Then the September 11th attacks happened a decade after Jungle Fever was made, and the world plunged into repression, violence, and mass spying. That was not what the world was like in 1991 though, when Jungle Fever was released. It’s charming to look through the eyes of Spike Lee, Annabella Sciorra, Wesley Snipes, and Samuel L. Jackson at a time when people hoped for better, but also had a lot of serious problems to deal with on the topics of poverty and race.

Films of today very often run past the two hour mark while rarely deserving their long running times. This is a studio formula of letting films run long to attract people to a large experience of the big screen rather staying home with the array of small screens and streaming we are all surrounded by. For 1990s cinema though, it was hard to release a film running over two hours. Spike Lee’s film has what seems like an epic weight to it, with messages and cultures merging throughout his lengthy canvas to create a work with enormous gravity. It’s a long film that seems to be compressing an enormous world that spills over its edges.

Annabella Sciorra is one of the best actresses in the world, and her two most memorable performances are in Jungle Fever and The Sopranos. Like a few other incredibly talented actresses, she always has good work, but only sometimes does she get a part which has the sophistication to match what she can deliver. Spike Lee handed her that in a compelling part that straddles being an Italian American whose life was limited by her own community while also being a challenging and open minded person able to try experiences many people might not have, even while embedded in a very traditional Italian American family, hence the interracial relationship with Wesley Snipes. Snipes went on to be a major film star in many hit movies, but most of those films were too commercial to let him act as thoughtfully as he does in Jungle Fever. So, this film is the best movie either of its leads have acted in, with their best film performances wrapped within a large set of issues Spike Lee brings to the forefront.

For Annabella Sciorra, The Sopranos would later also deliver a dream part with complexity that most characters can never come close to matching. The Mercedes saleslady Gloria Trillo gets into a relationship with Tony that leads to her tragic suicide, and Sciorra played the part of an iconoclastic woman with psychological problems through explosive expression and contradictory traits that can only be compared to what Marlon Brando achieved in Last Tango in Paris. I can still remember when those episodes originally aired. People were saying they didn’t even know what they had witnessed. Had Tony gone with Gloria, he would have had to leave his family. So, Tony not doing so in one sense showed a softness and sense of loyalty, but of course, Tony was too destructive for that to be the real story. Gloria was a basically normal, but obsessive and fragile, person who loved him and was herself damaged but fixable. Gloria was less enamored with Tony being a gangster than was his family. So, had Tony gone for her, he would have also been renouncing his gangster life, perhaps saving his soul. That’s weighty material, and it left the part of Gloria so complex as to be impossible to act. Yet, Annabella trounced it, gave the most memorable performance in the entire series, and brought James Gandolfini’s acting to its best point. Since we know that Tony would always be a gangster, his leaving of Gloria with its tragic result was inevitable, and the obsessive Gloria dies by suicide after being threatened by Tony in what was the most tragic moment of the show. It was impossibly good acting that is forever haunting, more ghostly and unforgettable than the famous fade to black ending of the whole series that was to come later. 

Fortunately, Spike Lee helped her start her career off before all of that with another outstanding portrayal which fit the actress perfectly. Angie Tucci is a very sweet and mildly ambitious, open minded Italian American woman who has similarities to the African American portrayed by Wesley Snipes they both think much bigger than their surroundings. The minds of both of these characters are too open for the limitations placed around them by their respective cultures and worlds. So, they reach for something on the outside, and find each other. Michael Imperioli acts alongside Sciorra as one of her brothers in Jungle Fever, and was himself to later become a regular on The Sopranos, as well as writing one of the episodes in which Sciorra played Gloria. So, this film has managed to cast a net over her whole career.  It’s a great distinction that gains still more weight on seeing how well both the film and the performance have endured.

Spike Lee’s direction is at its best throughout, and Sciorra’s remarks did a lot to elucidate how he works. Spike uses a shot list on his films but gives his actors a wide berth to find their own portrayals. He creates a space for them and lets them devour the material handed to them. This matches his poetic blocking of actors and concisely dramatic framing of shots. The camera is always positioned perfectly for opening a space for each of his characters while conveying a bit about their psychology and place in life. 

The cinematography and editing are to the point and beautiful. The sometimes intense color palette of cinematographer Ernest Dickerson is irresistible, creating a hyperreal world that draws the viewer into its vibrant spaces, elucidating whichever character is being portrayed. It’s an expressive trick that I have only seen Rainer Werner Fassbinder use as well as Spike Lee does. Camera placement enhances the performances, and as Annabella Sciorra explained, the actors were able to expect individual shots as their performance spaces. The editing keeps an impossible weighty movie, with a long running time, heavy themes, complex performances, and a masterfully large array of characters standing in for different social positions all moving fluidly and seamlessly. The film passes as though it’s a dream with some harsh notes of emphasis, and every cut manages to build the drama or smoothly transition between very different spaces. 

Samuel L. Jackson delivers one of his most underrated performances as Gator, the brother to Wesley Snipes’ Flipper. He plays a complex character who is tragically collapsing into a life of drugs, spinning out of control while showing moments of lucidity. The performance won a special award at Cannes, which Sciorra explained was introduced for this performance in response to viewing the film at its premier there. Flipper and Gator are brothers of a black minister father, a man who believes in god and morality and can’t face the decline his son has gone through. He tragically shoots Gator for trying to steal money from his own parents, showing that he is as limited by his own religious conservative moral perspective as are the other characters throughout the film. Before this event, we see a horrific and hallucinatory descent into the drugged out world of 1990’s crack houses. It’s a horrifying world of poverty, degradation, and desperation. People scream in misery while escaping their lives through drugs. We can see why Flipper wants out of his own community and feel horror at the way Gator is wrapped into a world which creates his collapse as almost a predestined event. Flipper wants a professional life and sees more of that in the white communities, but Spike Lee knows this isn’t really due to race as anything real or essential. It’s due to which communities are poor. Spike wants us to see the impoverished misery that many African Americans lived in as something that forced many into unfortunate roles, which could be fixed with better opportunities and surroundings. 

For Spike Lee, who also acts in this film, the tile of Jungle Fever refers to love. It is simply intense passion, blind love for another, forgetting everything else. Angie and Flipper both forgot which race each of them are and could care less. It’s meant to show a real truth, that race is only a fiction of the mind, a social construct with no reality in the essence of any human being. Interestingly, when Annabella played Gloria on The Sopranos, that relationship was called Amour Fou, crazy love. So, Spike Lee’s film about interracial romance breaks its surroundings to become a film that is willing to think of race as not real at all, becoming a film that is really about love. As if it was meant to be for a film striving to be color blind, the excellent song for the film, as well as the whole soundtrack, was written and performed by Stevie Wonder, a blind musician who literally would not be able to see color if he tried.

Yet, in a disturbing scene of a police encounter in response to a scene of Flipper and Angie play fighting over his car, the police point a gun at him and almost kill him, mistakenly thinking he had attacked her. The actors all shape and reflect cultures and economic positions which resonate against one another like a symphony. It’s a surprisingly complicated world in which the directorial vision allows for all these communities to press against one another, with Spike Lee able to see the perspective of all of his characters as their own human limitations, for which he shows a removed empathy. Like a natural director, he is able to see all of humanity acting out the parts of whichever box they were placed in. It’s a highly structural view of race relations, where no individual has full control. We are all placed in boxes defined by things outside of ourselves. This creates dramatic conflict between the parts, and Spike is able to orchestrate a way for us to see within that. It’s one of the best films of the last 30 years for the way it elucidates this world with such perfect control over all elements of the medium. 

For Annabella Sciorra’s real life, encountering Harvey Weinstein led to real tragedy later on, and she testified against him in court. Spike Lee can understand how someone nice and brilliant can end up in a bad situation, because we are all forced to act out our lives within whatever nonsense is placed right next to us by this larger social structure of people acting out parts. It was a delight to see one of the great films with her present and offering insight into the work, and let’s hope she makes many more films. You can see her now in the excellent tight drama, Before I Go, currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video. The Denver Film Festival presented her with a much deserved Career Achievement Award.


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