As a director, Spike Lee certainly knows how to show us the Big Picture. He has become our official grandmaster of the sociological long shot — his movies, at their best, offer an intoxicating overview of urban racial tension. It’s the close-up that still gives Lee trouble. In Jungle Fever, Flipper Purify (Wesley Snipes), an ambitious young architect, has a fling with Angie Tucci (Annabella Sciorra), his new temp secretary. The two hail from different worlds. Flipper, who’s black, still lives in Harlem, where he was raised. Happily married, with a sweet-faced young daughter whom he takes great delight in walking to school every day, he has never cheated on his wife. By his own admission, though, he has always been curious about what it would be like to have an affair with a white woman. And so, without really thinking about it, he takes the plunge. Angie is a young Italian-American from Bensonhurst, the working-class Brooklyn neighborhood known for its tribal ethnic pride — especially in the wake of the 1989 murder of Yusef Hawkins, the black youth who was killed there by a gang of white teenagers (the film is dedicated to his memory). Angie has been going steady with Paulie (John Turturro), a quiet and doting candy-store clerk who’s the kind of neighborhood schmo she’s been hanging around all her life. She’s tired of the neighborhood, and Flipper, because he’s handsome, successful, and — yes — black, represents something cathartic and new to her.

We assume, of course, that Lee is going to use the love affair as a way to explore the emotional briar patch of contemporary black-white relations. And that’s exactly what he does — but in a peculiarly externalized and detached way. Lee doesn’t actually devote many scenes to Flipper and Angie’s affair. Their courtship, which takes place over late-night take-out food at the architecture firm, is beautifully staged — it’s some of the most delicately dramatic work Lee has done — but as soon as the couple sleep together, they’re shoved into the background. We get almost no sense of the emotional chemistry between them.

Instead, the movie becomes another of Lee’s ripe urban collages. The characters, most of whom are vibrant and funny, include Flipper’s devout Christian parents (Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee), who converse in Biblespeak while Mahalia Jackson wails in the background; his older brother, Gator (Samuel L. Jackson), a homeless crackhead who, in a brilliant bit, does comically pathetic dance routines as a way of hitting people up for money; Angie’s imperious, widowed father (Frank Vincent); her two brothers, who want to castrate anyone who goes out with her; the colorful spectrum of racist loafers who hang out at Paulie’s store; and Flipper’s best friend (played by Lee, in his most modest cameo to date), who blithely, and unaccountably, betrays his confidence.

Just about everyone has something to say about Flipper and Angie’s relationship. Yet the fervid racial volleying, for all its surface passion, remains naggingly abstract, as if the two characters weren’t human beings so much as representatives of Black and White. When Flipper’s wife (Lonette McKee) discovers the affair, she’s emotionally decimated and wastes no time kicking him out of the house. A few scenes later, she’s sitting around with her girlfriends in a kind of impromptu encounter session, addressing the question of why the ”good” black men can’t be counted on. This is the sort of exploratory racial backchat that ignited on the screen in Do the Right Thing. Yet the characters in that stylized streetwise panorama were held at a comic-philosophical distance; the movie was about attitudes. Jungle Fever is far more intimate and realistic in tone, and so the statistical-debate quality of the conversations just seems a failure of dramatization (Flipper’s wife and her friends sound like R-rated versions of the guests on Oprah). To put it bluntly: The dialogue in this movie is so obsessively centered on race that its single-mindedness seems less the characters’ than Spike Lee’s.

Jungle Fever has isolated moments of power. There’s a terrifying scene in which the police shove Flipper up against a wall because they assume he’s attacking Angie (Snipes shows you how deep an American black man’s survival mechanisms have to go). And Samuel L. Jackson’s performance as the jumpy, increasingly deranged Gator is a small tour de force. But even the best parts of Jungle Fever don’t add up to a sustained vision. What’s disturbing about the movie is that its central failure — Lee’s inability, or unwillingness, to explore an individual relationship with the same fervor he displays in addressing questions of prejudice — seems a by-product of the very skin-color-is-everything mentality the film is attacking.

Snipes, it’s clear, is a major actor. He gives a commanding performance as the wary Flipper, who knows that the very idea of a successful middle-class black is anathema to much of America (maybe even to his ostensibly liberal employers). Snipes reveals that Flipper’s public personality is a kind of mask: He’s friendly, but in a stoic, slightly vacuous way. Lee, though, never gets deep enough beneath the mask.

What’s missing from Jungle Fever, I think, is a vision of the positive. By that, I don’t mean some shallow ”optimistic” message but, rather, an organic and casual sense of pleasure as one of the sustaining currents of everyday life — even in a country as mired in racism as this one. The film’s exhilarating opening-credit sequence, which moves to the jittery, infectious snap of Stevie Wonder’s title track, presents the contemporary urban map as a landscape of raw emotional possibility. Then, for the next two hours, the most fleeting chances for redemption are systematically choked off. Lee meticulously catalogs all the forces that drive Flipper and Angie apart. What he fails to show us (except in one highly erotic love scene) is why, in a better world, they might have stayed together. The truth is that Lee doesn’t even seem to want that kind of world to exist. That’s not tragedy — that’s eugenics. B-

Jungle Fever
  • Movie
  • 132 minutes