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Celebrating Jungle Fever’s 20th Anniversary

Celebrating ‘Jungle Fever’s 20th Anniversaryby Wilson Morales

June 7, 2011

The year was June 7, 1991 and on that day, director Spike Lee had released his latest film, ‘Jungle Fever,’ which was his fifth film coming after 1990’s ‘Mo’ Better Blues.’

Exploring interracial relationships between an African American and an Italian American, the film had a cast of veterans and several actors who had either made their film debut or were shown in a bigger spotlight.

Talk about an all-star cast!!

Wesley Snipes, Annabella Sciorra, Spike Lee, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Samuel L. Jackson, Lonette McKee, John Turturro, Frank Vincent, Anthony Quinn, Tyra Farrell, Michael Imperioli, Nicolas Turturro, Michael Badalucco, Debi Mazar, Tim Robbins, Brad Dourif, Theresa Randle, Charlie Murphy, Grand Bush, and Doug E. Doug.

Making their film debut were model Veronica Webb, TV’s Living Dolls actress Halle Berry, and rapper Queen Latifah.

The film centers on successful New York African American architect Flipper (played by Snipes), who begins an affair with his temp secretary, the Italian American Angie (played by Sciorra). Chaos escalates when his best friend Cyrus (played by Lee) tells him it’s the wrong move, and his wife Drew (played by Mckee).

While the families and friends of Flipper and Angie deal with this sudden relationship, Flipper also has to deal with his crack addict brother Gator (played by Jackson), who continues to borrow and steal money from his family to continue his habit with his girlfriend (played by Berry).

The soundtrack was composed and scored by the legendary Stevie Wonder.

At the time of its release, the film was met with positive reviews and continues to hold an 84% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 26 “Fresh” reviews and 5 “Rotten” ones. It was distributed by Universal Pictures with Lee’s 40 Acres & A Mule serving as the co-producers.

On an estimated budget of $14 million dollars, the film grossed $32.4 million domestically. By the end of the year, it garnered the 10th best film of the year by the National Board of Review.

Prior to its release, the film had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, where Samuel L. Jackson won the Best Supporting Actor award for his portrayal. It’s the ONLY time the award has been given for this category, while the film was awarded the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury – Special Mention.

Coincidentally, at the same festival, it was the only time 3 Black American films were shown – ‘Jungle Fever‘ by Spike Lee, ‘A Rage in Harlem‘ by Bill Duke, and ‘Boyz N The Hood‘ by John Singleton.

Legendary casting director Robi Reed, who worked with Spike on this film as well as 6 other Lee films, is currently the Vice President of Talent and Casting, Original Programming for BET and spoke with about working with Spike when they put the cast together for this film.

Can you talk about working with Spike on casting this film?

Robi Reed: The film was based on race relations at the time. So many things had gone on in the city and it was inspired by the Tawana Brawley case, as well as the story of Yusuf Hawkins, a young man killed when it was rumored that he gone into Bensonhurst to date an Italian girl. When we set out to cast, we wanted people who knew that world, and we wanted Italian actors because authenticity was the key.

Who was already attached in the film before you and he worked on casting the other roles?

Robi Reed: In that movie, we knew we wanted Wesley Snipes. That was going to be his starring role. At that point, he had been in films but had played supporting parts. Of course, he had Ozzie (Davis) and Ruby (Dee). He had worked with him before.

Can you talk about the casting of Halle Berry and Queen Latifah?

Robi Reed: With Halle, she had initially came in for the role of Spike’s wife, and we decided to try something different, and go against the obvious casting. When she came back, she auditioned for the role of Vivian and her interpretation is what set the tone for her career. She could have always been targeted as the pretty girl, but coming out for a role that’s against type showed what she could do. It opened the door for her for so many opportunities afterwards.

In casting Queen Latifah in the role of Lashawn,  we sort of started the rapper-actor casting. She was so popular with her music at that point and no actor had read for that role, but she brought so much to it. She represented being a proud black woman with her music and had an opinion about the Wesley and Annabella interracial relationship, so for us, it made sense. It was like a conscious casting with her in that role. It was never about trying to sell tickets.

Did you ever think when casting this film, that most of the talent involved would go on to achieve accolades in different areas and still be in the game today?

Robi Reed: I thought Halle would have the opportunity for the reasons I already stated, and would have the chances to get parts that she might not have been looked for had her first role wasn’t playing a crackhead without the makeup.

This film goes to show that no matter how big or small the role is, if you want to stay in this business, each role will have its rewards.

Robi Reed: Yes, eventually it does pay off. I tell people who want to be in this business that if you work long and hard, your card will come up.

Currently starring opposite Chris Rock in the Tony nominated play, ‘The Motherf**cker With The Hat,Annabella Sciora spoke briefly about meeting with Spike Lee and getting cast in the film.

“I met Spike at Sbarro on Times Square and he didn’t talk. He sort of looked down at his soup for a long time, and then I auditioned 4-5 times and I was improvising all these different things, and then finally he called me and said, “Ok, you’re Angie!”

Lonette Mckee, known for her role in the musical film ‘Sparkle,’ has worked with Spike Lee on numerous films including Jungle Fever (1991), Malcolm X (1992), He Got Game (1998) and She Hate Me (2004), recalled being cast in this film.

When you look back at that film, can you recall how Spike approached you to be in the film?

Lonette McKee: That was my first work with Spike. He got in touch with me, I was actually living a few blocks from him in Ft. Green, Brooklyn and he told me he’d been looking for me to do “Mo Better Blues.” I said, “Who in the hell was your casting director that they didn’t know how to find me? C’mon. You call up SAG and ask for artist’s registry and find out where the artist is being represented.” I don’t understand that, but doesn’t matter. We went on to do four movies, and I was the first artist to sign to his record label. I love Spike. Spike and I have a unique and wonderful close relationship, and he’s one of our champions. He broke the glass ceiling, broke through where no other filmmaker had before. He made our stories viable, he made money from them, he made money for the people that put the money up, and he told our stories. He sticks to his guns, and he’s not an ass-kisser, he’s very militant and into the black cause. You gotta respect him.

You have to respect anybody who keeps fighting.

Lonette McKee: And it is a fight! We are living in a racist society, they’re constantly trying to keep us down. We don’t have to buy into that, but you must factor that in anytime you set out to do something in an entrepreneurial vein that you’re gonna have the haters. People say,” Black product doesn’t sell overseas, urban films don’t sell in Japan,” and it’s all BS. We do sell over there, that’s just what they say when they’re don’t want to give you money for your project.

Here are some major accolades cast members have received since Jungle Fever:

Halle Berry (Monster’s Ball) and Tim Robbins (Mystic River) – Oscar winners
Queen Latifah – Oscar nominee for Chicago and film producer
Michael Imperioli – Emmy winner for The Sopranos
Michael Badalucco – Emmy winner for The Practice
Ruby Dee – numerous awards and Oscar nominee for American Gangster

We have since had interracial relationships films such as ‘Zebrahead‘ with Michael Rapaport and N’Bushe Wright, ‘Guess Who‘ with Zoe Saldana and Ashton Kutcher, ‘Something New‘ with Sanaa Lathan and Simon Baker, and last year’s ‘Our Family Wedding‘ with Lance Gross and America Ferrera to name a few.

But none of them had the same explosive impact as Jungle Fever!

Viva Riva/ Manie Malone

Blue Crush 2/ Elizabeth Mathis