This is a research report I did for a class in university for my communication degree. Today the class is called “Design and Method in Qualitative Communication Research” and I’m pretty sure that’s what it was called when I took it. I find these reports interesting because they touch on matters that are significant to all of us. When you get your degree in communication, you learn to look deeper into things. This is an example of not taking things at face value and understanding the context of why something we think of as mere entertainment has more of a story to tell than we think it does. This type of analytical thinking is important for any profession, but especially in what I do today.
So below was the “historical method” of qualitative communication research. It is written academic-style, so the references are cited at the end, in case you wanted to know.
Jungle Fever: A Story Told in Black and White by Black
The film Jungle Fever, directed by Spike Lee confronts issues of race relations, particularly between blacks and whites, in the United States during the late 80’s and early 90’s. Lee conveys this in the most extreme experiment with racial relationships – that of a love affair. However, the movie itself speaks to more than the content. It voices a struggle that African Americans have had with the U.S. movie industry. Spike Lee as a director is symbolic in itself, showing a major breakthrough for the ‘black community’ and among filmmakers of his time. African-Americans have been known to be major audiences for films, especially for the ones about themselves (Bobo, 1991). This has been true since the beginning of the 20th Century. As Bobo notes, “Hollywood executives had long known that numerous Black people went to the movies, but they did not know how to exploit this audience at the box office” (1991). Before the 1980’s, there were few black directors and filmmakers who could, or would, make films confronting issues in the American black community. This was due mainly to segregation and lack of finances. So, the job was mainly left to white filmmakers to tell black stories (Lyons, 1992). However, in 1981, Ragtime was released, followed by A Soldiers Story in 1984. In 1985 The Colour Purple was released. These films, along with rising stars such as Eddie Murphy, and Arsenio Hall showed that black films could be big hits, and bring in big profits (Greenberg, 1990, Bobo, 1991). Thus, a new era of black filmmaking began. It was in this climate that Spike Lee was born as an infamous black director. In the 1980s he released She’s Gotta Have It and School Daze. These films were successful and shocked the film trade by showing that “a film about Black people could be produced and distributed to a large audience without a studio connection” and “demonstrated the power of word of mouth as a marketing technique” (Bobo, 1991). From this point on, black movies would begin to consistently make a profit (1991). An article in the New York Times during the era described the rising demand for flack filmmakers as a way for Hollywood to break into a new market: “Black film makers are being welcomed into the film industry as never before. Just about every studio in town has a project in development with a black director…or wants to” (Greenberg, 1990). It was starting to be realized that even the white community was interested in hearing black stories (1990).
This essay will argue that, by exploring the issue of race in America, Lee asserts himself as a black filmmaker, challenging the status quo that marriages should be endogamous and that the reason interracial marriages are under stress is because of the societies surrounding the couple. Lee also goes further in his film to say that black people can tell their own stories about themselves, and that African-American’s are just as capable of producing intense, serious films as white filmmakers.
According to Lyon, “black films of today have come a long way from the movies of the “blaxploitation” era” (1992). Movies featuring black characters in the past showed blacks as “subservient, untamed, exotic and cowardly” (1992). But in the early 1990s, there was a concern that black films may have taken a turn backwards, showing characters in a style that has been called “homeboy cinema” – mainly that blacks are violent gangsters who view “crime as deliverance” (1992). In one film, a middle-class black man tries to become that “homeboy” in order to woo a girl. Thus, “the film’s message is that a true black should be less like the upwardly mobile, middle-class, intellectual, conservative Phillips, and more like the fast-talking, perpetually-late-for-work, “homeboy” David son” (1992).
Spike Lee takes a bold step in Jungle Fever, by portraying his conflict with characters who, though both coming from ‘slum’ neighbourhoods, are more upward. This is to say at the outset that blacks are just as good and capable as whites in the real world, reflecting the director’s own background and experience. In fact, Lee puts his protagonist, a black married man, in the shoes of an overworked, but successful architect – clearly the person in power when compared to the love interest, a white secretary who is also committed to someone else (both of the characters’ previous relationships are with members of their own race). This shows a standing against the trend of white boss, black slave more commonly observed (Johnson, 1991). The two coworkers have an adulterous affair and the story, interestingly, focuses not on them, but on their respective ‘societies.’ The families do not react well. The female adulteress is beaten by her father and the architect is dismissed from his home, while his community rants and raves in one scene over the white race. Important to note is the fact that the whole fiasco first began out of a “curiosity” between the two adulterers for each other, based on their race (Grant, 1991, Kroll, 1991, Johnson, 1991). This sends the message that the more suppressed interracial marriages are, the more they will be pursued by younger generations. In other words, society’s imposed segregation (on both fronts) was creating standards that spurred unnecessary, or ‘invalid’ rebellion.
Lee claims that his inspiration for the movie came from a case whereby a black young man was killed by a group of Italian teenagers because they thought he was involved with one of ‘their’ girls (Kroll, 1991). “What it comes down to is that white males have problems with black men’s sexuality,” says Lee in Kroll, 1991. This shows Lee’s motivation in his portrayal of the two main characters and strongly implies the message he is trying to send. Kroll also points out that “Spike Lee uses the theme of interracial sex to explore the mythology of race, sex and class in an America where both blacks and whites are reassessing the legacy of integration and the concept of separatism from every point on the political spectrum” (1991). This also is important, as we shall see, since Lee crosses dangerous boundaries of the film’s era by having the two lovers commit not just the crime of adultery, but also the ‘crime’ of an interracial relationship.
This was true of the time. According to scholars, although interracial marriages had been on the rise since laws were removed that prevented them, there was still a general fear of unions between races, particularly between blacks and whites (Davidson, 1992, Todd et. al. 1992). In another article of the time, a review of studies showed that 23 per cent of blacks were living in highly segregated communities, and only two per cent lived in integrated communities. This “hypersegregation” led, ultimately, to more racism and separation from the wider American society. Thus, during the era of Jungle Fever, where race relations were becoming more severe, the idea of interracial marriage was hard to swallow, for both blacks and whites alike (Wilson Quarterly, 1990). According to Davidson, “even when the interracial family system itself is functional, the continued negative attitudes held about interracial couples and their children and the prejudiced behavior the couples may face in the workplace, in housing, with friends, and with family…set the stage for difficulties in personal and social adjustment” (1992). This is exactly the point that Lee sets out to achieve with Jungle Fever. It was two competing worlds in society that were causing tensions among relationships that should have been perfectly fine.
Thus, two strategies of interpretation can be found for the film Jungle Fever among the audience of its time. The first is that of it being a ‘black’ film, signifying a breakthrough among African Americans and their struggle to identify themselves in a dominant white society. The second is closely related, that of crossing boundaries to explore the opposite race and discover that it is society’s hold on it’s past experiences that are preventing the possibility of blacks and whites to live together in harmony.
The ‘black film’ interpretation can be seen mostly in sources outside reviews of the film, as mentioned above. However, in Kauffman’s review, he says, “at last a black filmmaker turns to the subject [of interracial love]” (1991). He also says, “here, after some centuries, a black artist — a black filmmaker — has a chance to explore this deep-running subject in our society” (1991). Here he is making it clear that a film about interracial love told in the eyes of an African American would be different than one told in the eyes of a white American, and should hold greater value as something having been relatively new to the time.
The ‘segregation attack’ interpretation can also been seen in Kauffman says that, “it’s hardly surprising that the theme [of interracial love] recurs in a country whose racial problems began early and remain severe” (1991). Johnson mentions the issue by saying that the movie “delivers a well-aimed blow at the solar plexus of urban America where conflicts of race, class and gender intersect” (1991). He also calls it a “loveless Romeo and Juliet, a story of star-crossed lust” (1991), again bringing attention to the matter of a ‘forbidden’ relationship by using the metaphor of Romeo and Juliet. Grant admits that the movie is “filled to exploding with ideas, positions, and ideological distinctions,” (1991) showing that the America of the time had not fully come to accept the idea of interracial relationships. Finally, Kroll bluntly states in his review of the film that “interracial love is still an H-bomb for many Americans of every color” (1991). He also compares Jungle Fever with the 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner that created riots among the Ku Klux Klan in an era where 16 states still banned the mixing of black and white (1991). The problem, he argues, is still around, and Jungle Fever addresses it.
This study would be further improved by a viewing of other films of the time, and perhaps by finding out what filmmakers of the time were saying about their own missions in creating movies about their communities. Also, going back much deeper into history to find out exactly how movies were made that included African Americans would shed more light on the phenomenon of black filmmaking that sparked in the 1980s and took off in the 1990s. For example, although the current research shows that a renewed form of segregation was taking place during the time period of Jungle Fever, it would be interesting to look at a film made during the time when segregation was actually part of U.S. law. It might also be useful to look at book that might have described blacks during the days of slavery, and to compare those portrayals with portrayals of African Americans in films throughout history. It was definitely a limitation to not be able to include a piece featuring Spike Lee at the making of Jungle Fever. Since the director being black had so much to do with the reception context, it would have been enriching to hear him speak on the matter himself. I don’t think that in this case I was affected by cultural values or social assumptions to a large degree. I think that being neither truly white (I am a first-generation Canadian), and certainly not black, helped me view this scenario from an outsider’s position. Also, since I live in an outside country to the U.S. that is much more tolerant of other races and cultures, it is hard to identify with the experiences that Americans might have gone through during the era when black was distinguished so severely against white. That is a limitation, but also strength, since I was able to do my research without much bias or former conceptions coming into the project.
Bobo, J. (1991). “The Subject is Money”: Reconsidering the Black Film Audience as a Theoretical Paradigm. Black American Literature Forum, 25(2), 421-433. Retrieved August 4, 2006 from Academic Search Elite.
Davidson, J. (1992). Theories About Black-White Interracial Marriages: A Clinical Perspective. Journal of Multicultural Counseling & Development, 20(4), 150-157. Retrieved August 5, 2006 from Academic Search Elite.
Grant, E. (1991). Film reviews. Films in Review, 42(7/8), 258-260. Retrieved July 27, 2006 from Academic Search Elite.
Greenberg, J. (1990). In Hollywood, Black Is In. New York Times, pH1. Retrieved August 5, 2006 from ProQuest Historical Newspapers, The New York Times (1851 – 2003).
Johnson, B. (1991). Sex at the color bar. Maclean’s, 104(24), 55. Retrieved July 27, 2006 from Academic Search Elite.
Kauffmann, S. (1991). Intermittent Fever. New Republic 205(5), 28-29. Retrieved August 4, 2006 from Academic Search Elite.
Kroll, J. (1991). Spiking a fever. Newsweek, 117(23), 44-48. Retrieved July 27, 2006 from Academic Search Elite.
Lyons, N.L. (1992). From race movies to blaxploitation to homeboy movies. American Visions, 7(1), 42-44. Retrieved August 5, 2006 from Academic Search Elite.
Todd, J. et. al. (1992). Attitudes Toward Interracial Dating: Effects of Age, Sex, and Race. Journal of Multicultural Counseling & Development, 20(4), 202-208. Retrieved August 5, 2006 from Academic Search Elite.
Wilson Quarterly. (1990). Segregation and ‘Integration Shock’ in America. Wilson Quarterly 14(1), 20-21.