When I was growing up in the suburbs of Chicago in the late 80s, there were only 2 other kids I knew with interracial parents. There were very few families in our small neighborhood of other ethnicities, but we still stuck out from from seeing as how we didn’t all “match”.
On television, there was no one who looked like me or my parents. So the closest media figure I could relate to was He-Man. In my 5-year old brain, he had brown skin and blonde hair — so he must have been biracial. Plus he saved the world from evil and that was pretty awesome. Other than that, any other media representation of being mixed or being an interracial couple was treated as a “special episode” or a one time media event. I didn’t let this bother me, but I was aware that my upbringing was not considered “standard”.
Now in the spirit of fairness, I’ve only seen snippets of the film since the year this was released. So this article is only about my initial reaction in the theater. And there are some great moments in the film, from the commanding performance of Samuel L. Jackson to the timeless Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. But I will be speaking in regards to the central narrative of the film.
So when the great Spike Lee was about to release the movie Jungle Fever, I was very hopeful. Even though just an 8th grader, I had seen all of his work. I saw that he was getting audiences to understand racial issues on a deeper level. And I thought that audiences would now be taking a deep look into interracial relationships, like the one of my parents and the other mixed kids I’d come to know.
I went to see it with my older brother. He was my frequent escort to Spike Lee films and all things rated R. We sat down and watched with excitement as the lights dimmed. And as I watched that excitement changed. I became confused — which turned to disappointment — and then anger.
On the way home I reflected on what I’d just seen — a story about a successful black architect who’d left his family for his secretary, who was white. No one accepted their relationship, but of course they wouldn’t. The very start of it was doomed to fail and to me blaming it on racial differences was just a cop out. When you leave your spouse for your secretary, usually it doesn’t work out.
On a deeper level, I wondered what this film was saying about interracial relationships. Was it just a momentary infatuation that was destined to fail? Was it saying that dating someone of another race was hurtful to your own?
But mostly, my anger was with the idea that this film hadn’t approached subject of interracial relationships and two people coming together with the same nuance and respect as his other films. It was as if it wasn’t worthy of that and it filled me with such a great disappointment.
How much of this was the filmmakers and how much was the studio or other outside influences is always hard to say. But the feeling it caused was all the same. I’d been hopeful that finally my upbringing would be explored in the theaters of America — but it hadn’t. It was background, filler, a conflict to be overcome and return to the status quo. The depths of our experience had been glances over yet again and still relegated to the category of “other”.
Now fast forward to today, and we’re beginning to be normalized. According to the PEW Research Center, 1 in 6 newlyweds are married to someone of a different ethnicity. So unsurprisingly, it’s no longer an aberration to see an interracial couple on screen. But we still haven’t been given equal status. Most interracial couples are found in the genres of comedy, horror, and sci-fi. Probably the most well known on-screen couple in today’s media is June and Luke from the dystopian Handmaid’s Tale. Whose backstory is almost identical to Jungle Fever — a successful man of color leaves his wife for a woman of another race, who he might not ever see again. And let’s not forget the Cheerios ad that caused a massive uproar recently.
So while we’ve made progress, the envelope needs to be pushed further. We need to see more interracial couples on screen being taken seriously and explored with the same nuance and care as couples of the same ethnicity. We need more Blue Valentine’s and 500 Days of Summer featuring diverse couples being depicted as real people with the graces and flaws we all share. And the mixed kids like me are going to have to be the ones moving it to the forefront. Because if art is a reflection of life, we need to help everyone catch up to where the world is heading.