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Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever centers on a sexual affair between a black man, Flipper, and a white, Italian American woman, Angela. This pairing centers on the type of interracial relationship and pairing (black man plus white woman) typically obsessed about in discussions of interracial romances. It is also the pairing offered by Left radicals, such as Frantz Fanon in Black Skins, White Masks (1952), as the prototype of racial revolution. The title of Julius Lester’s black nationalist classic Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gonna Get Your Mama! (1969), dramatically illustrates this view. Lee’s Jungle Fever upsets this radical stance by revealing several problems that haunt and eventually end the film’s central interracial affair. Flipper and Angela’s families, immediate communities, personal problems, and hang-ups are obstacles to their relationship that, in the end, they are unable and unwilling to overcome. The drama of Flipper and Angela plays out non-racist, communitarian, and black nationalist-inspired objections to interracial romance, typically voiced by black women. For example, one claim is that black men who are attracted to white women are “selling out” the black community and are only interested in escaping their “blackness” by associating with white women. Indeed, in the film these objections are given voice by an intimate circle of black women (a “war council”), one of whom is Flipper’s estranged wife. The objections of this “war council,” according to the philosophers Charles Mills and Anita Allen, are reasonable, and the relationship between Flipper and Angela will be used to survey and analyze Mills’ and Allen’s arguments. Even Flipper gives voice to these objections in his reduction of their failed affair when he tells Angela that, “In the end, this was about white pussy and a big black dick.” That colorful and devastating assessment aside, such objections do not add up to a general moral prohibition against interracial romances. This essay argues that the psychological assumptions behind such objections are too controversial to be accepted in all cases of interracial relationships. Likewise the communitarian and nationalist assumptions of racial identity, which inform those objections, are equally controversial. Furthermore, this essay argues that the impulse to discourage and condemn interracial intimacies is retrograde and unreasonable, especially in democratic liberal societies such as the United States that prizes and privileges personal autonomy. Lee’s Jungle Fever recognizes and depicts this expectation of autonomy in a relationship between a black woman, Orin, and a white (also Italian American) man, Paulie, that plays a minor concluding role in the film. Interestingly, the white man plus black woman pairing is thought of as the archetypical oppressive, dominating relationship in the history of American race relations: think Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. That pairing is the historic symbol that Julius Lester’s Look Out, Whitey! responds to. Spike Lee again upsets our racial assumptions. Nonetheless, there may be conditions under which interracial desire is racist and morally blameworthy; for example, when the beloved is loved simply or only because they are an instance of some exotic racial-sexual stereotype. This problem, alternatively called objectification, fetishization, or exoticization, is explained and analyzed in this essay, especially as it appears in Flipper and Angela’s affair. The interracial relationship between Orin and Paulie that Jungle Fever is at least open to is not plagued by these problems. Their mutual desire—which is as characterized by camaraderie instead of sexuality—is precisely not fevered. It is also, however, curiously disembodied, and when the Orin finally welcomes the Paulie into her home the door is shut and their love is conscientiously, perhaps prudishly, hidden from view. Although objectification, fetishization, exoticization, and so on are serious problems, and are certainly not desirable, and while their appearance in interracial relationships may give pause to onlookers—not to mention the friends and family of the lovers—they too are not reasons for a general prohibition of interracial romances, or even a reason to wholly condemn the relationships in which they appear. Flipper reduces his relationship with Angela to a fevered desire for white pussy and a big black dick, but Angela does not. Objectifications, even racial ones, are part of the fantasies and idealizations that haunt or fuel many intimate relationships. Who wouldn’t welcome a little fever? As the rhythm and blues standard, “Fever” (“You Give Me Fever”) testifies, “but what a lovely way to burn.


Article originally published in:

Mark Conard. The Philosophy of Spike Lee. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2011.