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MOVIE REVIEWS : Lee’s Fury in Control in ‘Fever’

TIMES FILM CRITIC

Spike knows anger.

There is the anger of an African-American professional colliding with the racism of the corporate world. The anger of an Italian-American father when his daughter crosses what used to be called “the color line.” The anger of a black wife when a husband betrays her over race, of a black waitress refusing to serve an interracial couple, of all black women over the lack of dependable men. Even the 360-degree anger of a dark-skinned Italian-American, furious not only because neighborhood girls moon over blond Robert Redford types, but also because neighborhood guys make him suffer for his skin color. And this is just the merest beginning.

In “Jungle Fever,” writer-director Spike Lee’s latest film, he is drawn again and again (no surprise here) to scenes of savage, scathing anger caused in one way or another by the ravages of prejudice. America’s racial agonies eat at him, they haunt his footsteps like the relentless hellhounds of Robert Johnson’s blues lyric, and they take possession of his films. In “Jungle Fever,” however, there is a difference. His work is less strident here, more controlled, less in-your-face explosive than for instance “Do the Right Thing,” but for all of that, no less penetrating, no less troubling. Given his passion, there’s no way it could be otherwise.

“Jungle Fever” (citywide) opens early one morning on Strivers Row, perhaps the most elegant street in Harlem, and everything, from the golden glow the scene is bathed in to the cheerful paper boy to the old-fashioned through-the-window camera movement, very self-consciously lets us know that we are about to enter a kind of Andy Hardy wonderland. Once inside, we first see Flipper (Wesley Snipes) making passionate love with his wife Drew (Lonette McKee), then having a series of loving/teasing interactions with their wise-beyond-her-years daughter Ming. A role-model aggregation if ever there was one, this family is clearly not an accident waiting to happen. But happen it does nevertheless.

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It begins on the job. Flipper, an architect, requested an African-American secretary, but the firm presents him with the very Italian Angie Tucci (Annabella Sciorra). Angry at first, he comes to appreciate her willingness to work hard and, as they get to know each other, Lee alternates between scenes of Flipper’s family in Harlem and Angie’s in Bensonhurst. On his side, we meet a pair of old-fashioned, devoutly religious parents (Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee), a trash-talking, crack-head brother Gator (a Cannes award-winning performance by Samuel L. Jackson) and a best friend/Greek chorus (Lee himself). On her side, there are a widowed father, two unimpressive brothers, and Paulie, a longtime neighborhood boyfriend, played with unexpected sweetness by John Turturro.

Unexpected sweetness is also a good way to describe the way Lee characterizes the early stages of the Flipper-Angie relationship. Both Snipes, who was mesmerizing in “New Jack City,” and Sciorra, last seen in “The Hard Way,” are possessed of considerable presence, assurance and vulnerability, and they make the gradual, tentative way Flipper and Angie warm to each other the most natural, inevitable of courtships.

Once they become a couple in the eyes of the world, however, the world, which insists on politicizing their actions, conspires to crush the life out of them, and much of “Jungle Fever” is a bleak, next-door-to-hopeless look at the factors that not only cripple interracial relationships but make our society a racial quagmire. Not for nothing does Lee dedicate “Jungle Fever” to Yusuf Hawkins, a black teen-ager murdered in Bensonhurst in 1989 apparently because he was thought to be in the neighborhood pursing a local girl.

No one but no one wants Flipper and Angie to make it--not even, apparently, Lee himself, who has said in numerous interviews that his characters are two people who get together because of “sexual mythology instead of love.” Unfortunately for this theory, the film itself gives considerable evidence to the contrary. Lee’s extremely appealing actors have in effect double-crossed him, making the couple seem not only as genuinely in love as any movie pairing, but more so than many that could be named.

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That difficulty points up some of the other problems with Lee’s work. He is first and foremost a didactic, polemical filmmaker, more interested in manifestoes than mainstream entertainment. As a result, his minor characters tend to run toward caricature, his situations toward melodrama. And, almost as if he fears each of his films will be his last, he tries to indict every single racist aspect of society he can think of, caring not a whit if the result tends to make the film awkward and unbalanced from overcrowding.

Not only, for instance, does he make room in “Jungle Fever” for an incident of police harassment (another example of the kinds of injustice that give him no peace), he even throws in a plea for an increase in voting, not to mention ad hominem references to New York Mayor David Dinkins and Washington’s controversial former Mayor Marion S. Barry.

Yet despite this, and despite a plot that offers no surprises, “Jungle Fever” (rated R for sensuality, language, drug content and violence) holds us in a relentless grip. Out of nowhere, scenes like a tirade on miscegenation by Flipper’s father, a monologue on the torments of being light-skinned by Flipper’s wife Drew or a splendidly raunchy rap session between Drew and her friends make an audience sit up and squirm.

Strong and powerful, “Jungle Fever” dares us to be disinterested, dares us to turn away. And that is why even though it is easy to take potshots at Lee, easy to point out the way his work is ragged around the edges, ultimately none of that matters very much at all. No, he doesn’t have any answers, nor does he pretend to, but in an America beset with heart-wrenching racial problems, no other filmmaker has the nerve to ask the questions that must be asked, to ask them so persistently, or so well.

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‘Jungle Fever’

Wesley Snipes: Flipper Purify

Annabella Sciorra: Angie Tucci

Spike Lee: Cyrus

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Ossie Davis: The Good Rev. Doctor Purify

Ruby Dee: Lucinda Purify

Samuel L. Jackson: Gator Purify

Lonette McKee: Drew

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John Turturro: Paulie Carbone

Anthony Quinn Lou Carbone

A 40 Acres And A Mule Filmworks production of a Spike Lee Joint, released by Universal. Writer-director Lee. Producers Monty Ross, Lee. Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, A.S.C. Editor Sam Pollard. Costumes Ruth E. Carter. Music Stevie Wonder, Terence Blanchard. Production design Wynn Thomas. Running time: 2 hour, 12 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (sensuality, strong language, drug content, violence).

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