Thu 30 Nov 2006
Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever gives a great deal of insight into the racial tensions that exist between Italian-Americans and African-Americans. In addition to displaying the relationship between the two races, the film depicts a stereotypical life in each race. Spike Lee’s film, Jungle Fever, publicizes the usually overlooked racism that exists to this day between Italian-Americans and African-Americans.
Throughout the entirety of the movie, tensions between the Italian-American and African-American characters run high. Prior to their first interaction, Flipper does not like Angie when all he knows about her is that is Italian, not African-American. Even after Flipper and Angie have a good friendship, often eating dinner together in the office, both characters are still very racially conscious. For example, when Angie gazes at Flipper during one of their dinners, he immediately asks her if she is staring at his black skin. Racial tensions between Angie and Flipper somewhat subside during their affair but are always present in the background.
The anxieties between Angie and Flipper begin to reemerge to the foreground as the affair draws to a conclusion. For example, when Angie and Flipper are about to break up, one of their last fights is about having children. The issue at hand is not the desire to be parents; but instead, about Flipper’s adamancy about not bringing any racially mix children into the world. The argument demonstrates the wearing effect that dealing with race has on Flipper. Flipper is plagued with prejudices surrounding his relationship with Angie; he cannot even imagine how hard it would be for a child to be stuck in the middle of such racial tensions being a part of both and neither races at the same time. Flipper does not want to put a child in this distressing position.
Angie and Flipper’s relationship gives both the Italian-American and African-American communities a platform to put all of their racial prejudices on display. Neither of their families and friends approves of the relationship. Angie and Flipper have similar experiences when they first tell their friends about the new relationship. Both groups of friends are shocked and slightly disgusted by the interracial romance. However, despite their personal beliefs, the friends are in Angie and Flipper’s corner when their families come down on them for dating outside of their race.
The scene when Angie’s father finds out about Angie dating an African-American is unbearable to watch. The enraged racist man beats her incessantly and threatens her brothers who try to come to her rescue. This horrifying reaction allows the viewer to see how deep seeded his hatred is for African-Americans. The fact that he would beat his child, his own flesh and blood, over the race of her boyfriend is absolutely unthinkable.
When Flipper’s wife discovers that he has been cheating on her, her reaction is similar to those commonly seen in Hollywood cinema, throwing all of Flipper’s possessions out of a window. Flipper’s wife is probably the least racist character in the film. Her acceptance of different races can be attributed to the fact that she is half white and half black. Therefore, she does not have a racist outburst when she finds out that the woman Flipper has been sleeping with is white. Instead, it is just salt in the wound and contributes to her insecurities: she feels like she is never “light” enough for Flipper. Flipper is incredibly dark skinned. As a result, his wife believes that he has an obsession with light skinned women; he only dates light skinned African-American women and his wife is not all that surprised when she learns that his mistress is white.
Flipper’s Reverend father has an unusual reaction to his son’s affair. Only a few days after Flipper’s affair with Angie is discovered, the Reverend invites them to his home for dinner. At the uncomfortable meal, the good Reverend berates Angie and Flipper for their behavior saying that they both have a case of Jungle Fever. The Reverend says that this has been happening since the days of slavery in America. According to the Reverend, during this time is history, white men put white women on an unreachable pedestal while they cheated on them with the African slave women. As a result of being fully aware of their husbands’ adulterous behavior, white women desired knowledge of the African men. The African slave men returned their curiosity; thus, Jungle Fever came into existence.
The white men’s pedestal for the white women can be seen when examining the Italian-American culture in the film. Both Italian-American families have lost their mother. The deceased mothers are treated as gods. In Paul’s house there is an alter dedicated to the memory of his mother. Every time someone leaves the house, they must say goodbye to a picture of the mother and make the Sign on the Cross. Angie’s deceased mother is also elevated to god status. For example, after Angie cooks her father and brothers dinner they complain that her cooking will never be as good as their mother’s. Jungle Fever demonstrates the glorification of women in Italian-American culture.
In addition to putting women on an elevated pedestal, Jungle Fever demonstrates many stereotypes of Italian-American culture. For example, the Italian-Americans in the film live in Bensonhurst, a stereotypically Italian neighborhood. Also, Spike Lee’s depiction of Angie’s brothers is stereotypical Italian-American. The brother’s physically look and dress like caricatures of New York Italian-Americans. The brother’s interests are reflective of stereotypical Italian-American men: protecting the women in their family and baseball.
Similarly to his depiction of Italian-Americans, Spike Lee’s depiction of the African-Americans in Jungle Fever is stereotypical. The African-Americans live in predominately black Harlem. Also, Flipper’s father is a Protestant Reverend. It is a common stereotype to think that African-Americans are deeply involved in their Protestant faith. Also, Flipper’s brother, Gator, is a crack addict. Drug abuse is another stereotype associated with the African-American community.
The foods that both cultural communities are associated with are stereotypical of each ethnic group. This can be seen when Flipper discovers that Angie is a good cook. The only dishes that he asks her if she can cook are Italian: spaghetti and lasagna. Also, Flipper takes Angie out on a dinner-date to a soul food restaurant. The scene in the soul food restaurant displays much more than simply African-American cuisine. The waitress’s treatment of Angie and Flipper demonstrates that interracial dating is not something that is embraced within the African-American community. These same feelings of disapproval are mirrored in the white community. For example, when Angie and Flipper are pretending to box by the car, someone calls the police and reports that Flipper is trying to rape Angie. Once the police are on the scene, although they know what was actually happening, they rough Flipper up to show their racist discontent with the relationship.
Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever is an excellent film study of the tension and racism in Italian-American and African-American cultural interactions. This central focus of the film is one rarely touched in Hollywood cinema. Although some of the elements of the film seem to be ethnic caricature, the over-exaggerated helps to highlight the main message of the film: interracial romances are doomed for failure because no matter how hard the involved parties try to make it work, society is not ready to accept interracial couples.