Jungle Fever (1991),

directed by Spike Lee. Reviewed by Kenneth Scambray

Since director Spike Leeís movies contain overt political messages, letís talk politics, not cinematic form or style. Leeís negative characterization of Italian Americans in Jungle Fever are those overworked, stereotypic images of immigrant Italians and their offspring. His portrayal of Italians has its roots in a rich cinematic heritage that found its fullest expression in the film noir of the 1940s and 50s in such films as Henry Hathawayís Kiss of Death, (1947), John Hustonís Asphalt Jungle (1950), Fritz Langís The Big Heat (1953), and Robert Aldrichís Kiss Me Deadly (1955). In these films the immigrant Italian is responsible for criminality in American society, the decline of family values, and the subversion of the American political system, among other un-American transgressions. At the time, these were important themes in the post-war period when America, while in the midst of the Cold War, was attempting to regain its economic and social equilibrium in the wake of the depression and two wars. To the criminal alloy that composed the image of the Italian in the 1950s, Lee has added racism to the stereotype of the Italian in American society in the 1990s. The inspiration for Leeís film was the 1989 killing of Yusuf Hawkins, a young black man, by a group of Italian-American youths in Bensonhurst, New York. As Lee said in a Los Angeles Times interview (ìCalendar,îMay 17, 1991), ì Iím not saying all ethnic conflicts are between Italians and blacks, but the most violent ones, in my estimation, have been.î In the context of the urban gang warfare that has been underway throughout the country for decades, especially in southern California, I can only wonder what newspapers Lee had been reading at the time. His depiction of Italians as violent is reflected in his caricature of Italian-Americans in Jungle Fever. His story focuses on the ethnic (Lee would say ìracialî) tension that develops in the love relationship between Italian American, Angie Tucci (Annabella Sciorra), and African American, Flipper Purify (Wesley Snipes). Flipper, a married, upper-class successful Manhattan architect, falls in love with Angie, a lower-middle class high-school dropout. She is a ìtemp,î a temporary day secretary to Flipper in his architectural firm. Thrown together in their work, by degrees they fall in love, or so it seems. As Wesley Snipes said in a press conference with Lee, ìIf you come from a background where youíve been deprived of so much and get a certain amount of power, you look for that which you have always been denied. Why so many successful black men are with white women is because theyíve always been denied thatî (Times May 19, 1991). Why Lee would choose a dark-haired, olive-skinned, working-class, Italian American woman as a symbol of the American power structure is not clear. Lee portrays his New York Italian American men as either gluttonous, violent animals or as overblown sentimental buffoons with a penchant for excessive emotionality. Angieís widowed fatherís appetite and bad table manners are exceeded only by his uncontrollable temper and violence. When he learns that she has taken up with Flipper, he beats her savagely and is only prohibited from doing real harm to her by her two brothers, Charlie and Jimmy. But her brothers are not models of decorum either. At the dinner table they stuff their mouths and, like their father, spout streams of four-letter words. Later when Paulie Carbone (John Turturro), Angieís first lover, comes by to pick her up one evening, they threaten his life if he dares violate their sisterís honor. Apparently, their threat is supposed to pass as an expression of Italian American family values. Paulieís home life is similar. His widowed father, Lou (Anthony Quinn), spends days sitting at the dining room table lost in a sentimental, blubbery haze over the ìgood olí days,î when men were men and women could be counted on to be good wives. One day, his eyes welling up with tears, he reminds Paulie of how his deceased wife used to cook for both of them and wash his back dutifully as long as he demanded. This is Leeís image of the dutiful Italian American wife. Missing in Jungle Fever, as it is in his previous film, Do the Right Thing (1989), is a complete image of the Italian American family. Why in both films are all three fathers widowers? Why is the Italian American mother absent in Leeís versions of the Italian American family? It is a curious and revealing omission. For an answer we can turn to the Italian American narrative. In the Italian American novel, among other images, the Italian American woman is often portrayed as the purveyor of tradition and humanizing values. She is a strong influence, not a weakling. For Lee to include the Italian mother would only complicate his story and undermine his efforts at caricaturing and stereotyping his southern Italian and Sicilian characters as inhumane and violent. He judiciously omits this one major influence in Italic life America, that would force Leeís audience to look elsewhere in urban America for the racism and violence that infects Leeís Sicilian street thugs. Consequently, Leeís two major Italian characters, Angie and Paulie, remain ambiguous people. They are the most sympathetically portrayed Italians in the film and are largely free of racist attitudes. But it is unclear how they arrived at their humane view of life, in the midst of a jungle of drugs, crime, and racism. Certainly, according to Lee, their values did not come from Italian-American culture, especially since their mothers were absent. The message is clear: what is good in their lives is not Italian. Lee goes to great lengths to illustrate this. In two specific scenes, Lee alienates Angie and Paulie from their families and their heritage. Angie is beaten by her father, and Paulie severs his emotional ties with his domineering father. Furthermore, in addition to omitting significant aspects of the Italic experience in North America, Lee distorts immigrant Italian American history. When Flipperís father, a retired Baptist minister, meets Angie over dinner, he berates her for being like all the other white, southern belles in African American history. He explains to her that they all lusted after the virility and sexual prowess of the black male. What would an undereducated, Bensonhurst Italian American woman know about that tradition in American culture? It would make more sense culturally to argue that she is attracted to Flipper because of his image as an educated, successful architect, which, of course, is the exact opposite of her uneducated father and brothers. The forbidden fruit for Angie would be the power and success implicit in Flipperís position in society. Leeís efforts to link Italian Americans, who themselves were the victims of Southern racism, is, at its very best, ironic. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Italians, from the northern industrial ghettos to the rural south, were considered people of color by white upper-class society. In fact, they were often sent to segregated schools with African Americans in the South. As African American writer Earnest Gaines writes in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pitman, Sicilian women in Louisiana at the turn of the century came to the rescue of persecuted black women and their children. Gaines locates racism elsewhere than in the heart of Italic culture in America. Interestingly, he does not shy away from portraying immigrant Italian women. Furthermore, the largest lynching in southern history was the racist and political lynching of eleven ìdagoesî in New Orleans in 1891. To his credit Lee alludes to the lynchings of several Italian factory owners in the South for giving equal pay to African American workers. But he quickly mitigates the impact of the remark with the racist diatribe that comes from his Sicilian street thugs in the film. What Leeís Sicilian characters lack is what Flipperís crack-headed brother, Gator, lacks: a specific knowledge of their heritage and historical narrative. On the one hand, Lee grants his African American family, Flipper and his parents, specific knowledge of their history. Yet he denies the Italians in his film knowledge of their historical narrative and their history as an exploited class and as subalterns in both Italy and America. The only indigenous form of racism in Italy is that of the North against southern Italians, Sicilians included. This historical racism ultimately forced Italians, especially southern Italians, to emigrate to America. There is simply no long-standing, historical, cultural, or social tradition of racism, as there is in white southern America, that separates Italians from Africans. Sicilians are linked to Africa as much as they are to Central Europe, Greece, and Asia. So what is the origin of the savage racism of the Sicilian street thugs, like those who killed Yusuf Hawkins, in Jungle Fever? Unintentionally, Lee provides the answer: the urban jungle, infested with crime, prostitution, drugs, and, last but not least, poverty. No one would deny that racist attitudes are held by some Italian Americans. But Leeís film aims to suggest that racism is indigenous to Italic culture and that Italians are the enemies of African Americans. The truth is that in New York City Italian American youth rank third in the high school dropout rate. Leeís racist, uneducated, semi-literate thugs, serve as kind of a chorus, intended as the unofficial voice of the Italian community in Bensonhurst. Their only intellectual nourishment is what they experience on New Yorkís crime infested streets and in its crack houses, like the massive ìTaj Mahal,î a bombed out warehouse in Harlem, where everyone from the homeless to Yuppies buy and do their drugs. From these degrading circumstances they derive their racist views and their only view of humanity. It is only out of ignorance that Lee portrays Italian Americans as the enemies of African Americans. To his credit, in Do the Right Thing Lee gave some depth to the widowed father and his relationship with his sons and Mookie. But in Jungle Fever Lee offers little more than caricature of Italians. Like the film noir directors of the 1940s and 50s, he has discovered that it is again lucrative commercially and politically to blame Italians for Americaís social problems. In the 1990s the problem is racism, not seditious political influences or criminality. Lee has powerful, formal skills as a director. But a truthful development of his ethnic themes requires accurate cross-cultural and comparative images. Lee is clearly not yet prepared for that, not, at least, with Italian American culture.
A version of this essay appeared in LíItalo-Americano (6/91) Reprinted with permission of the editor.