A turbulent ride of racism, sexism, and classism, this film is full of ism’s and high drama in regards to every subject matter that most of our society would rather avoid. Accustomed to our routines the average man or woman doesn’t often gravitate towards unfamiliar ideas and experiences, but instead stays within their comfort zone where their preconceived values are blindly agreed upon and not questioned. However out of 7 billion people in the world there are bound to be a few outliers who choose to broaden their horizons, only to generally be met by great resistance and opposition for their ideals. This film highlights both sides of the coin and on each side of the fence, as no cultures and demographics are immune to these characteristics, which therefore should be considered unfortunate qualities more than likely innate to the human condition. Therefore Lee decided to tell a story that hits home regardless of race or gender, in a way that’s relatable to everyone, with hope that we’ll one day appreciate how we all have more in common than we’d like to admit.
Opening with the vibrant sounds of Stevie Wonder, there’s honestly no secret as to where this film is going, thus the only question revolves around just how far Lee will go in making his point. Wesley Snipes plays the successful architect who resides with his wife and daughter on Strivers Row, a notable section of Harlem known for it’s great history of prosperity, and a deviation from his native Brooklyn making this his first film shot on the other side of the East River. Snipes is in his prime as an actor in 1991, and his role of Flipper is perhaps his most profound, as separate from his appearances as a flamboyant action hero this character has depth and complexity that was rarely seen despite his box office appeal. From the outside Flipper has what seems like the American Dream, complete with a beautiful family and a high paying job, yet it’s evident early on that he has a desire for more. After getting denied a promotion for what he determines is a matter of clear discrimination, Flipper makes the audacious decision to embark upon a romance with a temp worker recently hired at his office, which doesn’t take long in becoming a full fledged affair that would be sure to change both of their lives forever.
Of course what makes Flipper’s circumstances provocative, is not only that he’s in lust with a woman who’s not his wife, but that woman is an Italian woman who is as white as the arctic snow. On the contrary Flipper himself is as black as night, perhaps a crude description but applicable considering it’s their skin contrast that the world won’t forgive them for. Also supposively relevant is the fact that even Flipper’s wife is fair skinned for her race, therefore suggesting that he’s had a color complex all along, an apparent affliction that his wife wholeheartedly believes in as she throws his clothes out the window and kicks him to the curb. In a scene that follows his wife delineates on this concept with a few other women of her race, all of whom believe that shade and complexion has caused division even amongst themselves, with the prevailing thought that lighter skin has always been equated with beauty while darker skin has been less desired by men throughout the world. However where they ceremoniously become united is in their contempt for a vanilla woman with a sweet tooth for chocolate, to their knowledge which would only be for the most indecent reasons as if it could never be a matter of real feelings or true love.
Or perhaps it’s just that opposites attract, as some people consumed by themes of black and white are likely to wonder if the grass is indeed green on the other side. Yet regardless of what the reasons may be in other cases, in this film Lee makes it clear that only a mutual respect and an unshakable attraction is what drives our main protagonists, and while infidelity is hardly admirable their admiration for one another is nothing short of innocent. In fact Angela our leading lady, played exceptionally by actress Annabella Sciorra, is nothing less than graceful and could never be confused for anything but decent. Angela is a professional woman by day who comes home and takes care of her helpless brothers and widowed father, cooking and cleaning for them every evening while inheriting the role of the mother, despite her family seemingly taking her for granted without shame. In comparison her friends are hardly as elegant and ultimately products of their environment, stuck in their ways and mystified why such a pretty white girl would choose to be with a black man. As it turns out Angela’s only true ally is ironically her only betrayal, as while her longtime boyfriend from the neighborhood is left with a broken heart, he in turn becomes the most admirable character from any Spike Lee joint ever put on screen.
John Turturro plays Paulie Carbone, a tender soul who runs the candy shop for his debilitated but demanding father who lives in the apartment above, yet beneath his delicate exterior lies a strong enough of conviction to think for himself and not adhere to the intolerance and bigotry that permeates around him. Instead Paulie is fair minded and reasonable, with no interest in subscribing to ideals that neither make sense or are objective, thus alienating him from the locals who frequent his shop and are stuck in their ways. The scenes in the candy store are unequivocally pure gold, as they’re effective from both a realistic and entertainment factor all the while showcasing Lee’s writing skills for which he’s never gotten enough credit for. You can watch a thousand films and not see dialogue as culturally rich and tragically flawed, to the point where the audience can only marvel at it’s authenticity as it portrays just how sad our biases really are. What makes these scenes so powerful is that they are not specific to Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, but instead are relatable to the private conversations of every neighborhood; dialogue which is likely to go unheard to the masses yet is ever so real and destructive to those that entertain or are subjected to it either way. With that in mind all the Italian American actors in these scenes illustrate their prejudice with unforgettable performances, and this sub plot actually trumps the film’s main storyline as far as replay value and significance.
Nonetheless the Harlem and Brooklyn scenes intertwine appropriately, as the new couple quickly finds out that neither location is a safe haven for two consensual partners from two completely different backgrounds. Yet what can’t go unnoticed is that the world itself has enough on it’s plate to concern itself in trivial matters like romance, highlighted by the drug epidemic that’s prevalent throughout our cities (and suburbs) and is catastrophic for men and women of all colors under the rainbow. Right on cue the third subplot of this film is surprisingly the most remembered, as Samuel L Jackson’s performance as Flipper’s brother Gator has widely been admired by critics and viewers alike, even if it doesn’t exactly symbolize the heart of the film itself. Even still his portrayal of a drug addict alongside a young Halle Berry is certainly worthy of praise, as is the performances of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee who play the mother and father left helpless with no answers on how to manage the chaos. For better or worse the film’s defining moment has been the Gator dance he parades before succumbing to his fate, yet putting it’s humor aside the question that remains is why that’s all we remember about this film all these years later.
Ultimately the resolutions to all these storylines are more or less open to interpretation, in regards to whether or not evil prevails or if everything that happens is for good reason. I’d like to think that Lee’s thesis is that in the face of so much malice there’s still hope for some good in the world, and while ignorance and hate is all too common they are no match for love when it’s truly genuine. As a film Lee articulates this message both dramatically and stylistically, with the script, score, and screenplay all hitting on all cylinders. Stevie Wonder’s soundtrack is maybe the best performance out of the whole lot, featuring “Living in the City” “Fun Day” and “These Three Words” among the many other timeless records played throughout the film. Otherwise the contributions from longtime cinematographer Ernest Dickenson is top shelf by no surprise, as New York City looks as vibrant as ever and full of life no matter the indiscretions by so many of it’s inhabitants. On a separate note it’s long been speculated that the film was inspired by Lee’s own life story, as it’s been rumored that Lee fell out with his own father for marrying a white woman after the death of his mother. While that hearsay has never been corroborated by Lee himself, it was in fact implied by his father and stepmother within their public disapproval, which if nothing else undoubtedly provided an additional layer of intrigue and curiosity to an already cryptic film. In any event what is certain is that Lee captured the city as well as the gifts and the curse of racial pride and identity, with I believe the intention of showing what makes us unique is our similarities in spite of our differences.