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‘Jungle Fever’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 07, 1991

In "Jungle Fever," Spike Lee's still in charge. Once again, he takes a politically charged situation and stirs it up with color, music and irony. The result, for the most part, is a provocative, quintessentially Spike symphony.

When architect Wesley Snipes and office assistant Annabella Sciorra succumb to dark impulses, their affair produces an explosion of political ramifications. Snipes is African-American. Sciorra's Italian-American. He's married to Lonette McKee. She's going with shy storeowner John Turturro. He's from Harlem. She's from Bensonhurst. Lovers, wives, friends and family all get caught up in this. A few breathy minutes of black-white passion leads to violence, enmity, breakups and virulent racial animosity.

As with Lee's other films, the mood, rhythm and music are everything. "Fever" is funny, political, stirring and sentimental, often at the same time. It follows the main storyline for a time, swings over to another key, then swings right back again. As always, Lee's visual purposes are beautifully realized -- or kaleidoscoped -- by the inimitable cinematographer Ernest Dickerson. Also, the movie is delirious with good music, including Terence Blanchard's memorable, jazzy-symphonic score and 12 -- count 'em, 12 -- songs from Stevie Wonder.

Lee seems to uncover every possible racial hypocrisy he can. It turns out, of course, that everyone in this movie is screwed up about color. Is Snipes's extramarital transgression worse for being interracial? Bitter wife McKee certainly thinks so, not to mention most of their other friends. When Lee, playing Snipes's confidant, hears Snipes has strayed, his shock intensifies a hundredfold when he learns Sciorra is white.

The ironies abound. Sciorra's girlfriends are supportive of her affair but viscerally disgusted. Despite their nasty, anti-black diatribes, the Italian regulars in Turturro's store are still dying to jump on the attractive black woman who comes in regularly for a paper.

The film is dedicated to Yusef Hawkins, whose death at the hands of a Bensonhurst mob made explosive headlines, and Lee keeps things constantly on the edge of violence. But even when the violence breaks out, as when Sciorra suffers a severe beating from her father, Frank Vincent, it's gone just as quickly. Still, the tensions rise again.

Lee also addresses crack addiction for the first time, something he was criticized for avoiding in "Do the Right Thing." Snipes's brother (Samuel L. Jackson), a desperate crackhead, will stop at nothing for a fix. He even steals a color TV from Baptist parents Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee.

Like all artists, Lee has his weaknesses. The main one still holds: He has scriptwriting blind spots. That his characters have life and believability is often due to his fluid direction; very often, he lays a rich embellishment on a poor idea. The structure in "Jungle" ultimately breaks down. Although Lee doesn't repeat the disastrously cliched conclusion of "Mo' Better Blues," he brings "Jungle" to an anticlimactic halt. He also includes a fatal household incident that borders on the unbelievable.

The most obvious problem occurs between Snipes and Sciorra. Lee's so interested in the ripple effect they cause, he almost forgets the affair itself. We see anger all over Harlem and Bensonhurst, but we're barely allowed into the main bedroom, where the real hell must be taking place.

The cast, which includes Anthony Quinn, is uniformly bright and appealing. Snipes and Sciorra more than earn their top billing, and McKee, Turturro and Jackson are particular standouts. But Lee's stylistic touch is the ultimate star of the show. It's always there, even during those times when Lee can't see the jungle for all the trees.

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