'Jungle Fever'

SPIKE LEE'S movies are both controversial and popular. His new "Jungle Fever" has critics finally giving him a spot among the handful of top US filmmakers. Newsweek's cover story states that "Jungle Fever," a dazzling, sobering New York film that revolves around an interracial affair between an Italian woman from Bensonhurst and a successful married black man from Harlem, "raises more crucial issues than any American film in a very long time." Lee frankly and sympathetically explores areas of culture that usually go unstated and unformulated. "Jungle Fever" is loaded with stories and images, both raw and refined, about drugs, family, sex, prejudice, hate, authority, neighborhoods, friendships, class. These elements all stew in the pot of race.

Lee properly says the film is descriptive, and that audiences must decide how to "read" it. Given the relentless power and pace of "Jungle Fever," its early popularity, and the strong influence film has in American culture, two critical points ought to be made:

First, the relationship. Flipper and Angela have no real common ground but physical attraction. There's nothing wrong with interracial marriages between mature people who see what's involved. Many such marriages work. There is something wrong with illicit affairs, and there's something wrong with relations reduced to sex. It isn't race, it's shallowness that wrecks these lives.

Second, the portrayal of religion. Flipper's father is a grim Scripture-quoting ex-Baptist minister, a tinny echo of James Baldwin's father in "Go Tell It on the Mountain," whose presence and actions in the film are purely negative. This isn't fair to blacks, ministers, or religion. Sadly, Lee eliminates the church as an answer to the very questions he raises. Implicitly, young blacks are told that Christianity is not for them, that it is a white man's religion and a hostile force in the black community .

Black Yale psychologist James Comer points out that of the top echelon of black leaders and thinkers, 70 percent come from families with connections to the ministry. Film should explode stereotypes, not reinforce them.

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