Movies We Like
Replace the repressed white male anger of Fight Club with that of the repressed white housewife’s in order to explore the terrain of Jungle Fever and you get the gist of writer/director Larry Cohen’s debut. Instead of fitting squarely within the genre of blaxploitation, the film examines some of the stereotypical representations of the black male which helped make the genre possible to begin with.
Bernadette (Van Patten) is a bored Beverly Hills wife who lounges by the pool when she’s not spending her husband’s money. Her husband, Bill (Duggan), is the prototypical American salesman who’s invested so much of his life in the manufactured desires of advertising that he no longer remembers if there’s anything real behind the imagery. (We see him dreaming of selling junkyard cars filled with bloody corpses.) As George Costanza said, “it’s not a lie, if you believe it.”
While bemoaning the incompetence of minority labor to his buttered toast of a wife, Bill finds a dead rat in his pool’s drainage system. In the midst of a heated discussion regarding who should be called to remedy the situation, the titular black man (Kotto) magically appears and saves the day by throwing the rat over the fence. How can they pay him off? Garbed in what appears to be a prison uniform from some Southern chain gang and befitting his name, Bone is after more than a few bucks for his labor. Being on his third mortgage with no cash at hand, Bill is sent to the bank to cash in a bond before a deadline in order to save his wife (or him?) from a certain indignity.
Arriving at the bank with time to spare, Bill realizes his wife’s primary fear and decides that he’d rather have his money than her sanctity. He goes for drinks, and meets up with kooky hippie chick (Berlin), who lures him back to her beaded boudoir for some aggressive hanky-panky and a steak dinner. Meanwhile, the clock runs out for Bernadette, and Bone begins to fulfill his threat. Only, his manhood fails him much to the surprise and evident disappointment of Bernadette. This prompts a discussion between the two over drinks about sexual prowess and the lies it’s taken to keep up the image of bourgeois bliss (including telling everyone that her son is in Vietnam, rather than a South American prison for peddling heroin). Yadda, yadda, yadda, that old racist fear of a white woman wanting to be shtupped by a black man is – shall I say – cinematically analyzed.
The film begins with a picture of a flickering lightbulb (that would make its reappearance in the work of David Lynch) and ends with the housewife hand-in-hand with her former black aggressor hunting down the morally delinquent husband. After exacting her brutal revenge, Bone disappears as mysteriously as he came, making that lightbulb a cartoon-derived clue as to where this narrative takes place. The low-budget restrictions make the film bloat with Cohen’s over-extended, half-baked ideas about racial representation. Combine that with hatchet-styled editing, a darkly comedic take on violent and sexual imagery, and you get what any Surrealist would call a masterpiece.