I'm often bemused by the press reviews of each new Spike Lee film. They always remind me of a comment made by Jonathan Rosenbaum, who suggested that when some reviewers were faced with the large ensemble cast and sprawling narrative of Do the Right Thing (1989), their only option was to pick out Lee's own character and designate him the hero – in order to then criticise the film for the way it presented its hero.
In a similar way, what's bemusing in the crop of initial Jungle Fever reviews is the tendency for commentators to list what they perceive as the problems of the film – when, it could be argued, these very problems are what make up the composite picture of a typical Spike Lee movie, and can be found utterly on the surface of all his works.
Characterisation, for instance. Jungle Fever has been especially found wanting for parading mere ciphers, not real people with in-depth psychology, but walking emblems of class, colour, race, sex and social status. Then there's the message content of Lee's films – the dramatically heavy-handed way characters stand around yelling the different sides of a big social problem at each other, usually capped off with a final soapbox pitch from the film itself, like the into-camera call for blacks to "wake up" at the end of School Daze (1988), or the almighty howl against crack that concludes Jungle Fever.
There's Lee's cinematic style – absurdly showy at all times, with the camera on a missile or spinning drunkenly around the room, actors moving on wheels, speed-driven editing, overwhelming music with an emotional content often quite contrary to the visuals it is competing with. Or Lee's preferred narrative structure – multiple threads all over the place, creating unusual, disconcerting rhythms and shifts in tone. For a very long time in the middle of Jungle Fever, you see in great detail the lives of every imaginable character related to the central lovers, but you get hardly a peep at the lovers themselves.
And finally – to take my personal favourite – dialogue. Lee's films, with their frenzied improvised dialogue, always put me in mind of the famous scene in Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets (1973), where one Italo-American starts needling another by simply saying "you're a mook". Things escalate very quickly into a full-scale brawl, with "no, you're a mook" and "don't call me a mook" the basic improvisational cues. Finally, it comes out that neither is particularly sure exactly what a mook is. Virtually every exchange in Jungle Fever – whether the intimate pillow talk of lovers, a women's therapy rap about sex, or a family evaluation of evening dinner – tends towards a case of the screaming mooks.
Personally, I wouldn't use any of the preceding observations about Spike Lee's films as criticisms. His films are not dramatically well-constructed in the conventional sense, and nor have they ever wished to be. They come out of another cultural tradition – one that is loud, boastful, erratic, performative, obsessed with surface glitz on the one hand, and the Big Statement on the other.
Spike Lee is, in short, a naive or primitive filmmaker, perhaps the most dedicated and visible naive to have stormed the citadel of mainstream cinema. His sensibility is an invigorating mix of street talk and B movies, consciousness raising and melodrama. This is – as his credits always so proudly declare – the "joint" that his films brazenly offer their viewers. If someone wants to smoke something more filtered or refined, I suggest they try another movie.
© Adrian Martin October 1991