Bet You Didn’t Know: Secrets Behind the Making of “Jungle Fever”

May 21, 2012  |  
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You know when you go to see a Spike Lee film you’re going to be watching a true piece of art. It’s beautifully shot. There’s a serious message about the nature of society but it’s often lightened with moments of humor. Whether you liked the movie or not, you’ll definitely have something to talk about, sometimes for years to come. Which is the reason why we’re exploring Lee’s classic, Jungle Fever.

In Memory of Yusuf Hawkins

At the beginning of the movie, there’s a picture of a young, black teenager. That boy was Yusuf Hawkins. Hawkins was a 16 year old teenager when he was killed in the predominately Italian American neighborhood of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn in 1989. Hawkins and his friends went to Bensonhurst to inquire about a car that was for sale. ?While there, they were attacked by a mob of Italian men who incorrectly suspected that Hawkins was dating a white girl in the neighborhood. Yusuf Hawkins was the third black man killed by mobs in the ’80s. Spike Lee later said that Hawkins wasn’t killed because he was black, he was killed because they assumed he was dating a white woman. The real life incident set the tone for this fictional movie.

The Crackheads

In addition to the subject of race and interracial relationships, there’s a subplot concerning drug use. For many of us, this was the first time we saw Halle Berry looking less than glamorous. She took the role so seriously she refused to bathe or change clothes for two weeks. Samuel L. Jackson didn’t have to go that deep to prepare because he had already lived that story. When he started shooting, he was just two weeks out of rehab for a cocaine addiction. Jackson’s said that he didn’t require makeup for this role because his face reflected the true recovery process. He later referred to the portrayal of that character as cathartic. After this role his career took off.

Not an Attack on Interracial Relationships

Judging by Spike’s strong pro-black persona, one could easily assume that the film was made to discourage interracial relationships. But in an interview with the New York Times, Lee said that it’s not about that:

“I hate this whole Hollywood process of breaking down a movie to one sentence,” he said. “My films don’t deal with one theme. They interweave many different things. You have to think. I’m not saying interracial relationships are impossible. Flipper and Angie are not meant to represent every interracial couple in the world. They are meant to represent two people who got together because of sexual mythology instead of love. Then they stay together because they’re pushed together. They’re outcasts. And since their relationship isn’t based on love, when things get tough, they can’t weather the storm.”

Art Imitating Life

Just because Spike wasn’t discouraging interracial relationships doesn’t mean he needed to neglect the viewpoint that was strongly opposed. You remember the scene where black women of all hues are sitting around discussing the plight of relationships with black men and their [negative] feelings regarding interracial relationships? That’s almost all ad-lib. Lee said that those women could improv better dialogue than he could ever write. And as a black woman, we know he’s right. So right in fact, that Lonette McKee, the woman who played Flipper’s wife Drew said she wept when she saw the final, edited scene. Being a biracial woman (black father and white mother), McKee was neglected by the white side of her family and really related to that part of the movie. She said, “I live it everyday.” She wasn’t the only one who felt it. The women in the scene were so connected they formed friendships once filming wrapped.

Italian/Black Beef

I’m not from the East coast so I had no idea that there was tension between blacks and Italians until I saw Do The Right Thing. Clearly, it’s a theme Spike doesn’t shy away from. Probably because it was something he experienced first hand growing up in Brooklyn. When he was a boy, Spike was not allowed to join his neighborhood Cub Scout Troop, which was all white, because he was not “Roman Catholic.” With all the violence between the Italian and black community Spike said it had to be something. He speculated that it might have something to do with the fact that Sicily and Africa aren’t too far from each other. We know that Moors, black Africans, have been in Italy for centuries and you know the people mixed and mingled. Could some of the tension be a result of some type of self hatred? Who knows…

What’s with that Last Scene?

Every single time I watch Jungle Fever? I’m always perplexed by that final scene. You know where a crackhead approaches Flipper (Wesley Snipes) and offers him fellatio in exchange for $2. It always seemed like such a deviation from the main plot and such a weird way to end this movie about race. But Spike always wants you to think. In that same NYT article, this is what he had to say about that final scene:

“Which is more important,” the director asked, “whether a black man should love a white woman, or what drugs are doing to the black community?”

Aaaah, I get it now!

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