When he left here two years ago, Spike Lee was as angry as “Do the Right Thing,” the movie he had brought with him. The young New York filmmaker proved an ungracious loser, criticizing the Cannes Film Festival jury for overlooking his picture, and for having given the coveted Golden Palm award to Steven Soderbergh’s “sex, lies, and videotape.”
Thursday, he returned with another angry film, “Jungle Fever,” but he said his own anger is behind him.
“No, there is no revenge in the air,” Lee said during a press conference following the “Jungle Fever” screening for the international press. “What happened in 1989 happened then. It’s two years later and I’m a kinder, gentler person.”
Like “Do the Right Thing,” “Jungle Fever” is a head-on assault on inner-city racism, and though it doesn’t erupt into the kind of third-act violence that caused some people to label “Do the Right Thing” a blueprint for a riot, it leaves just as bleak a message.
The film is ostensibly the story of a successful Harlem architect (Wesley Snipes) whose marriage to a department store buyer (Lonette McKee) is disrupted by his impetuous affair with his white secretary (Annabella Sciorra).
As he did with “Do the Right Thing,” Lee builds his story around the deep tension that exists in New York between Italian-Americans and blacks. “Do the Right Thing” was inspired by the Howard Beach incident; “Jungle Fever” is dedicated to Yusuf Hawkins, the black teen-ager who was shot to death in 1989 in Brooklyn’s Italian-American neighborhood of Bensonhurst.
“New York City is made up of many different ethnic groups,” Lee explained to an Italian journalist who asked why he continues to portray Italian-Americans as blacks’ enemies. “I’m not saying all ethnic conflicts are between Italians and blacks, but the most violent ones, in my estimation, have been.”
Lee, who was criticized for ignoring drugs in both “Do the Right Thing” and his jazz film “Mo’ Better Blues,” has gone after that issue with a fury in “Jungle Fever.” Almost as important as the central love story is the relationship between Snipes’ character and his older brother, a hopeless crackhead who robs his own parents to feed his habit. A scene showing Snipes searching for his brother in a warehouse littered with addicts is as bleak a look at inner-city drug life as any ever shot.
“I felt that drugs should be a big part of this film, not ‘Do the Right Thing’ or ‘Mo’ Better Blues,’ ” Lee said, obviously sensitive to the earlier criticism. “I had to be the one to determine when drugs would be in my films. In ‘Do the Right Thing,’ it would have been a bogus subplot . . . in ‘Mo’ Better Blues,’ I just didn’t want to do another story about a jazz musician who’s an alcoholic or strung out on heroin.
“Crack is totally wiping out generations of African Americans in America and it’s something that has to be addressed. I felt it was time to do it with this film.”
Lee, who wrote, directed and produced “Jungle Fever” and plays a pivotal role as well, said he didn’t intend the film to make a statement for or against interracial relationships. What is important to him about the affair between Snipes’ Flipper and Sciorra’s Angie is that they are attracted to each other initially not by love but by racial myths.
“When you’re a black person in the United States, you’re constantly bombarded in the media with (the notion of) the white woman being the epitome of beauty,” Lee said. “Movies, magazines, TV. You see blond hair, blue eyes, fair skin, thin nose. If you’re not that image, you’re not beautiful. If you’re black, you never see yourself portrayed (as beautiful).”
Snipes, who attended the press conference along with Lee and the film’s composer, Stevie Wonder, added that successful black men often choose white women simply because they can. “If you come from a background where you’ve been deprived of so much and get a certain amount of power, you look for that which you’ve always been denied,” Snipes said. “Why so many successful black men are with white women is because they’ve always been denied that.”
Lee said Angie is drawn to Flipper for all the obvious sexual stereotypes, that “the black male is a stud, straight out of Africa, a sexual superman.”
That Angie and Flipper are drawn together for these reasons may not be as clear to moviegoers as it is to Lee. Though Angie admits her fascination with his skin color, she seems genuinely attracted to him, and only his feelings for his wife and his small daughter seem to keep theirs from becoming a complete relationship.
A black London journalist said that he thought the film was hostile toward white women and drew laughter from the packed press lounge by asking if Lee had dated white women and had bad experiences as part of his research for the script.
“No, I have never gone out with any white woman,” Lee said emphatically. “My mother died in 1977 and my father remarried a white woman. That may be part of it. Interracial relationships have gone on since blacks were brought over as slaves. I’m not condemning interracial relationships. If two people love each other, that’s great. What’s important to me (in “Jungle Fever”) is why they are attracted to each other in the first place.”
Despite the cry of desperation that punctuates the last image in “Jungle Fever,” Lee thinks the film is ultimately optimistic.
“No one is saying there is no hope, that black and white people will never get together. It’s saying there is a very serious problem,” Lee said, recalling the kind of political passion that made him the critics’ favorite two years ago. “I think the biggest lie ever perpetrated on the American people is that if you’re American, it doesn’t matter what race, creed or color you are.
“The United States is built upon the Constitution and in the Constitution it says black people are three-fifths of a human being and can be sold as property, so it’s always been a lie.”