Jungle Fever is a 1991 Spike Lee joint about a Black architect who has an affair with his White secretary. Flipper Purify (Wesley Snipes) and Angie Tucci (Annabella Sciorra) are respectively from Harlem and Bensonhurst. Set during the period following the murder of Yusef Hawkins, the film not only charts the course of their entanglement but also the reactions of their friends and family.
The film opens with Flipper and his wife, Drew (Lonette McKee), let’s say…canoodling while their daughter, Ming, is in her bedroom. As they begin their day, the trio appears to be the very picture of a happy young family. Husband and wife are happily in love while their little girl is a cutie patootie who is a bit of a smart alec. Though I did think Ming’s preoccupation with her parents’ morning session was quite weird. What child regardless of age is curious about their parent’s sex life?
The story spans a few different New York City neighborhoods. Flipper and Angie were both born and raised in New York City but live in neighborhoods that are so unlike each other that it would be hard to believe they are mere miles apart. Flipper’s Harlem has a rich culture of being the Black Mecca in America while Angie’s Bensonhurst is a predominantly Italian-American neighborhood that gained infamy following the racially motivated murder of Yusef Hawkins.
Flipper and Angie are introduced by two men who seem to be the firm’s owners or managers. When Flipper requests a new assistant to take care of various office tasks, the temp agency sends over Angie. Initially, there is a problem with her selection as Flipper is the firm’s only Black employee and specifically requested a Black assistant for more diversity.
When Flipper complains about the higher-ups ignoring his request they retort that it’s a form of reverse racism. They explain that they hired the best person possible for the job. But when Flipper speaks to Angie it seems as though there weren’t any steadfast requirements. Also, if Flipper is at a level within the firm where he has an assistant, shouldn’t he participate in the hiring process even if he’s just part of an interview panel?
Yet, while I got the point Lee was trying to make, I felt like it didn’t quite land. This tends to be an issue that contributes to me considering Lee’s early films to be hit or miss which is disappointing in comparison to his consistently good documentaries. The problem is that the dialogue can sometimes feel like a clunky lecture rather than flowing like a real conversation. What should be serious conversations or moments in Lee’s films lose their impact when he chooses to use comedy rather than drama. This is because there is typically no witty observation or punchline. What should be an “ooh” moment between Flipper and his bosses devolves into a dry lecture from him and smirks on their end as they make an effort to be deliberately obtuse.
The film also offers a peek into Angie’s world. She is in her late teens to early 20s and lives at home in Bensonhurst with her dad and two brothers as her mother has passed away. While I grew to dislike Angie’s family during the film, I was initially surprised to spot Michael Imperioli and Frank Vincent who would later respectively play Christopher Moltisanti and Phil Leotardo in The Sopranos. And while the role was relatively small this film was also Halle Berry’s debut. It’s interesting to look back at these films and see actors very early in their career years before they appeared in the roles that would make them famous.
Spike Lee typically makes a cameo in his films, in this case as Flipper’s best friend Cyrus whose wife Vera (Veronica Webb) is friends with Drew. When Vera first appeared on screen she was shown in profile and I was confused for a second as I thought she was Halle Berry. Knowing a bit about the film and having seen it in bits and pieces, I knew that Berry played a drug addict but thought she might have been in a dual role. After a beat, I realized that Vera was portrayed by someone else who looked like and was sporting the same shortcut hairstyle that Berry would rock the following year in Boomerang.
To be honest, I just don’t feel like Wesley Snipes clicked in this role for me. He’s not a bad actor but the combination of his portrayal and the dialogue just didn’t pack a punch. I felt Flipper was the weakest character portrayed in the film and there was greater dramatic tension in the story between Gator (Samuel L. Jackson) and his family versus Flipper’s affair. They’re different characters but compare this portrayal to the passion of Nino Brown in New Jack City or even the more understated James Wheeler in Waiting to Exhale. I just felt like where you have a pretty good array of actors in the other roles and Snipes just didn’t bring it.
On the flip side, I’m not the biggest Samuel L. Jackson fan, not because I think he’s a bad actor but because over the years he has appeared in some terrible movies. But in this case, I thought Jackson’s portrayal of the drug-addicted Gator thankfully stole the show from Flipper and his miserably boring personality. Gator reminded me of being a kid in Brooklyn and seeing drug addicts moving about and acting crazy.
The first scene with Gator and his parents is interesting in contrast to what we see from Flipper. The two brothers come from what seems to be a stable two-parent home yet they are vastly different. Because he is an architect, it can be assumed that Flipper has likely gone to college, now has a great career, and is otherwise a stable family man. Gator on the other hand is an absolute mess. It makes you wonder what happened in his life that took him so far off track.
Mrs. Purify (Ruby Dee) is a sweet woman who loves Gator and sees the best in him but this means she is in absolute denial about his addiction and dancing abilities. She enables his addiction by giving Gator money which he uses to buy drugs. She also asks him to show her his latest dance moves.
But Gator can not dance. Gator and his dancing were a travesty. I think his mom is the only one that is a fan of it because, for the life of me, I couldn’t understand why she kept encouraging his janky moves. That pitiful two-step and shuffle were not the business. He’s like that little kid that wants you to watch them do a cartwheel but they always get halfway through the flip and fall to the side.
Meanwhile, Dr. Purify (Ossie Davis) is cold towards his son as he has accepted that Gator has a drug problem and frowns upon him being in their home. I don’t think he intends to be mean or harsh but rather that Gator has been on drugs for a while and Dr. Purify is likely tired of dealing with his nonsense.
The situation surrounding Gator is rather sad but it shows that when an individual is an addict, it not only affects their life but also the lives of their loved ones. Here you have two elderly people who should be relaxing and enjoying their old age. But instead, Mrs. Purify is getting scammed out of her money by her wayward son. He’s a grown man who should be taking care of himself rather than hustling his mom to feed his drug habit.
Within this parental unit, there are drastically different approaches to dealing with a child that is struggling with addiction. The dynamic between these three characters is incredible. You can see the love in his mother’s eyes as she knows what Gator is doing but still holds out hope that he might be able to get himself together. She’s the tender-hearted one while Dr. Purify is more firm. He loves his son as well but is frustrated, hurt, and disappointed.
With so many memorable scenes between Gator and his parents, the affair between Flipper and Angie seems less dramatic. Maybe my perspective is a reflection of the times. It’s possible that when Jungle Fever was released in 1991, the subject of interracial couples was still taboo. To a degree, their entanglement is still taboo in the present because their having an affair adds drama. But the dialogue and chemistry between them seemed to lack a spark.
Men and women can be friends or work together and keep things strictly platonic or professional. And I get that Flipper and Angie spending late nights at the office eating takeout and talking is supposed to show the start of their affair. I’ve seen a lot of movies that feature love stories, some of which are passionate or even loving despite the circumstances being scandalous. But their conversations are extremely basic and show no indication of budding great love.
During one particular conversation, they discuss Angie cooking for her father and brothers. There’s music playing in the background but instead of setting the mood it feels out of place and distracts from the scene. The idea of the scene is fine and completely believable but something was lacking in its execution. The dialogue felt clunky and the music didn’t help either. It sounded like something from an old-school romance novel with the guy and his nipples on the cover.
Filmmakers add in music and other effects to help convey the feeling of a scene and tie everything together. Elsewhere in Jungle Fever, there’s a lot of Stevie Wonder and those songs fit what’s going on in the scenes. But here’s this cheesy melodramatic mood music playing in the background. The music is blatantly obvious to the point where it just felt like a no for me.
After the film’s opening, there’s a photo of Yusef Hawkins, a young man who was shot and killed in 1989. Hawkins was a Black teen from Brooklyn’s East New York neighborhood but was murdered while visiting Bensonhurst, a predominantly Italian neighborhood. He and a group of friends had been chased and attacked by a group of local teens who believed they were there to visit a girl from the neighborhood. The combination of racial elements, a modern-day lynching, and problematic prosecution resulted in this becoming a major new story. (“Yusef Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn” is a great HBO documentary that dives into the case.)
In a sense, Jungle Fever uses the relationship between Flipper and Angie to provide commentary on the Yusef Hawkins tragedy or more accurately draw parallels. That’s one specific case but also points to a broader issue that has been present throughout American history. There’s been a taboo around Black men and White women being romantically/sexually involved and it has played a role in several lynchings.
We see Flipper and Angie getting to know each other through conversations where they’re by themselves sharing meals while working late at the office. Eventually, they touch on them both being New York City natives but never having visited each other’s neighborhoods. They’re aware of the other person’s neighborhood but thus far have remained within their territory. And as we in the conversations between the Italians and the Black ancillary characters, they haven’t had much contact with each other but believe stereotypes about the other group.
I couldn’t understand why but for whatever reason both Flipper and Angie made the mistake of telling someone about their entanglement. To be clear, cheating on your romantic partner or being someone’s person on the side is wrong. But if it’s hard enough to keep a secret between just two people why would you tell anyone else? In Flipper’s case, he tells Cyrus whose wife, Vera, is close if not best friends with Drew, Flipper’s wife. Angie told her friends who know her family as well as Paulie (John Turturro) a guy she’s been dating for years. It’s pretty much guaranteed that everyone is going to find out about these two. Maybe they wanted everyone to know?
Contrast that to the story of Hawkins where his death came about in part due to rumors and misinformation. A local girl named Gina was having a party in Bensonhurst and it was rumored that she was dating a Black guy and/or had invited a Black guy to the party. Hawkins had gone to Bensonhurst with a few friends to look at a car one of the guys was considering buying. It’s unlikely that Hawkins and Gina even knew each other but some local guys from Bensonhurst saw Hawkins and his friends and thought that they were visiting Gina. The attack on Hawkins and his friends was racially motivated by some White males’ age-old discomfort with Black men being romantically/sexually involved with White women.
Before the current wave of gentrification, New York City was more strictly separated into unofficial racial and ethnic neighborhoods so people lived and went to school among their race/ethnic groups. I remember being a kid growing up in Flatbush and despite all the people milling about, I would notice a random White person walking through the neighborhood because it was relatively rare. Aside from school and work environments, I rarely came into contact with White people until maybe college. Riding the B or Q train from Manhattan into Brooklyn, the riders would be mixed, then become predominantly Black and Hispanic around 7th Ave, and then predominantly White after maybe Cortelyou/Newkirk.
Traditionally Black neighborhoods have changed because of gentrification but there are still neighborhoods in New York City where you’ll rarely if ever see any Black people. Back when the film was made and even further back into the 1980s, Flipper and Angie wouldn’t have been hanging out in each other’s neighborhoods. Thus despite being just a train ride away, neither would have visited the other’s neighborhood nor had much personal experience with the other’s race/ethnic group.
When Flipper and Angie reveal the affair to their friends we get some insight from their reactions. Flipper’s conversation with Cyrus is juxtaposed against Angie’s conversation with her friends Denise and Louise. Denise is the more progressive of the two and thinks with this now being the 90s, dating interracially shouldn’t be a problem. Louise however is disgusted. She views Angie as being a beautiful girl with options and can’t understand why she would degrade herself by becoming involved with a Black guy.
Part of Angie’s issue is also that she has been dating Paulie since high school but it seems to be more of a relationship of convenience as it’s lackluster. They have a lot in common due to their roles as caretakers within their families. But the two are dating just because it’s what they know and would probably be better off as friends, freeing themselves to find more suitable romantic partners.
I felt for Angie because she’s young and has family responsibilities but no life of her own or real plan for her future. Flipper represents the potential for something new and interesting, an opportunity to add some intrigue to her otherwise boring life. Paulie seems like a nice guy but weirdly more like Angie’s unofficial third brother. Yet, he seems to warm up and come alive in the presence of Orin, a local Black woman who visits his shop to purchase newspapers. We don’t see Orin’s life outside of the shop but she’s different from the guys who hang around Paulie’s shop and offers encouragement and stimulating conversation. Orin is to Paulie’s life what Flipper is to Angie’s, an escape from the mundane though I don’t know if that’s enough to build a lasting relationship.
Sensing Paulie’s crush on Orin, the guys from the shop fall along the same divide as Denise and Louise. Some recognize Orin as being a nice and intelligent young woman and see nothing wrong with Paulie being attracted to her. But then there’s the other faction that thinks Paulie should stick to his own and not get involved with this Black woman.
The conversation between Flipper and Cyrus is rather similar but unlike Louise and Vinny, there’s no die-hard anti-interracial dating Black person in Flipper’s ear. Cyrus is more concerned with the fact that Flipper is having an affair and not particularly bothered by Angie being White. This is the first time that Flipper has ever cheated on Drew but he admits that he’s been sexually curious about White women in general. He simply decided to take advantage of the opportunity when it presented itself.
One of my issues with the character of Flipper is that he’s used to touch on topics but the film doesn’t necessarily go deep enough. I didn’t agree but understood Angie’s actions and Paulie’s crush. But unlike those two, Flipper seems to have a rather full life both professionally and personally. He adores his daughter and he supposedly loves his wife but there’s also some tension with at least his father and brother. Flipper has achieved professional success at work but is also experiencing some limitations. His having an affair and risking his marriage might be an attempt to add some drama and break up the monotony of his life.
I can only imagine the conversations about this arguably taboo topic when Jungle Fever was released. Flipper makes it a point to state that while he’s curious about being with a White woman, it doesn’t mean that he’s not attracted to Black women or doesn’t think they’re also beautiful. Cyrus seemed to understand Flipper’s feelings which was fine. But I wished that he’d at least asked more questions rather than Flipper just basically delivering a soliloquy. What could have been a very interesting conversation remained rather basic because Flipper’s thoughts and feelings are stated but not thoroughly explored. With these kinds of conversations, I’m always more curious about where the person’s ideas came from and how they developed rather than the ideas themselves being stated.
Even when discussing how the entanglement unfolded, Flipper doesn’t explain the situation as feeling some great connection with Angie. It was more along the lines of he’d always been curious about White women and then this woman appeared. My question would be if you’re married to this woman that you claim to love why would you risk it? You don’t even like this woman like that but you’d risk blowing up your life just for a chance to see what the fuss is about? It’s also incredibly sexist because you’re not dealing with that woman as an individual but rather what she represents. And likewise, there is also some racism at play with White women who date Black men because they as a group are fill in the blank here with a stereotype.
Flipper knows he’s doing wrong because he immediately begins trying to defend himself and his actions. I’m less concerned with who he chose as his mistress than I am with him having a mistress at all. Yet, he feels the need to explain that he still finds Black women attractive and hasn’t lost his Blackness? Where are these ideas coming from, why do you feel this way, and why is her race more of a concern for you than your having an affair?
This is something that Flipper is putting on himself. If this is something that you wanted to do not that you felt compelled to do? Why do you feel the need to explain yourself afterward? Why are you so defensive about your choices? Would it have been any different if your mistress was some random Black woman?
I don’t have an issue with interracial couples or with them being portrayed in movies or TV shows. Though in the present diverse relationships in the mainstream media means Black men or Black women partnered with just about anyone else but a Black person. It seems to be increasingly rare to see a happily coupled up unambiguously Black man and Black woman in ads, shows, or movies. Yet, while you’ll see a bunch of interracial couples, there’s still a representation of the White woman and White man pairing.
What I dislike about the portrayal and conversation around interracial dating is when it’s accompanied by negativity towards Black people. Not as a Black person I met this man or woman who happened to be White or whatever other race, we clicked, and are now together. That’s cool, consider yourself blessed and I wish you nothing but happiness. But it’s incredibly problematic if you’re saying as a Black person I date White women, White men, or whatever other race because Black women or Black men are insert negative stereotype or colorist comment.
Add to that this often promoted idea of Black women en masse supposedly being angry and distressed about Black men and White women being romantically involved. There’s a scene where Flipper and Angie visit the historic Sylvia’s Restaurant in Harlem. A waitress (played by Queen Latifah) gives them all kinds of attitude because of their interracial pairing.
First off, Flipper and his family live in Harlem. Why would you be so stupid as to take your mistress out on a date in your neighborhood where you might bump into your wife or someone you know? It’s like you’re just asking to get caught. Secondly, I could see a waitress being a bit cold or even passive-aggressive but it felt unrealistic for her to loudly tell them off while she’s at work. It’s the old story told over and over again in the media about Black women being uncontrollably angry about interracial dating. Black women are not yelling at random interracial couples in public.
Likewise, some Black men are open to dating all types of women, and indeed some only date White women. But that doesn’t mean that every Black man is just clamoring for a chance to be with a White woman. If you think about it, that’s a modern cleaned-up version of the often-told story from the past of Black men supposedly lusting after White women.
It’s this story that you see constantly in the media. White women are presented as the prize that all men, especially Black men are trying to win. Black women are then presented as being less desirable due to supposedly possessing a host of negative traits. It objectifies White women but then also plays into stereotypes about Black women being angry and aggressive. These portrayals do not present either group of women as fully formed human beings, they’re merely pawns for men to fight over or push aside.
There’s this constant narrative of Black men risking it all for a chance with a White woman while Black women stand on the sidelines crying and yelling. It was probably risque when Jungle Fever first premiered but in the years since that storyline has been overdone to the point of being tired.
As expected, Drew finds out about Flipper’s affair and is livid. I felt her passion and energy in the scene helped to give Jungle Fever a boost. And the later conversation between her and her friends was en pointe. I didn’t necessarily agree with all of the points that were being made. But I enjoyed that the dialogue just flowed a lot better in comparison to some of the other conversations. The dialogue itself was less cheesy and there wasn’t any unnecessarily dramatic music playing in the background which just irked me in some of the earlier scenes.
Compare that to the scenes between Flipper and Angie, where they felt rather stiff. Maybe it was supposed to be awkward as this is a new experience for both of them. But instead of maybe seeming nervous or a little bit apprehensive, it just felt uncomfortable. I’ve seen other movies with interracial couples and they capture that nervousness. Here there wasn’t even that typical rom-com vibe of nervously getting to know each other. On his end, it’s like here’s something to check off your bucket list. On her end, it’s like a break from cooking at home and having to listen to her brothers’ nonsense. Something to do because neither has anything else to do.
I felt even the scenes with Angie’s friends flowed better. Honestly, I think it was a matter of just finding Snipes a bit flat in Jungle Fever because I felt Angie was fine in scenes with other characters. His portrayal of Flipper just seemed like going through the motions without effort or energy. It’s one thing if the intent was to show the lack of depth and feeling in their relationship. But Flipper was this way in conversation with everyone. I also felt the scenes at Paulie’s newspaper stand were awkward rather than funny and either the lines and/or the delivery were off. It was just a lot of cringe for me.
There are a few things that kind of confuse me with the concept of race. If you saw Drew walking down the street by herself, what about her would make you think that she’s a Black woman? Drew’s father is a White man. Her hair is red and her skin is very light so aside from her considering herself to be Black, what’s the difference? She’s not that much darker than Angie so where is the dividing line? Is there a physical dividing line or is it more a matter of self-categorization.
The women point out and I think it’s a valid conversation to be had that in the past some Black men might have been looking for the lightest Black woman that they could find. It comes from the white supremacist idea that things become increasingly better and more valuable as they move further on the spectrum from Blackness to Whiteness. Jungle Fever is set in the early 90s just a few decades past the Civil Rights Movement. Interracial dating was still a taboo but not necessarily life-threatening topic. Some people still didn’t like it but it didn’t come with the same risk of death for Black men as it had in the past.
It’s pointed out that in the past, a woman like Drew would have been the height to which most Black men could aspire as she is a very light-skinned woman who looks almost White. But with times having changed and things being a little bit more relaxed, Flipper can now openly pursue an actual White woman. (He shouldn’t because he’s married, but aside from that.)
One of the darker-skinned women notes that when she was growing up being dark skin made her the last option. She was not the dream girl for boys as they were fixated on light-skinned women like Drew and Vera. If Drew and Vera are now no longer what’s coveted but rather old news what does that mean for dark-skinned women like her? It was a heavy conversation and felt more realistic than the waitress just yelling in the restaurant. At times the film feels a bit uneven. But this is one of the best scenes in Jungle Fever as it manages to hit just the right blend of drama and comedy while discussing a sensitive topic.
At the same time that it felt like Jungle Fever was trying to say a lot, it seemed to have two separate movies taking place. On the one side you have Flipper’s interracial affair and on the other side is Gator and his shenanigans. Flipper running into Gator while he’s accompanied by his new girlfriend Vivian (a dingy but still beautiful Halle Berry) made me sympathize with his character.
Their father Reverend Purify was somehow a bit terrifying with his monotone deep voice and tightly wound bible thumper persona. He’s like that quiet dad that never really does anything to anyone but yet all the kids and their friends are afraid of him. Mrs. Purify is probably religious as well but is a bit nicer and likely balanced out the dad when the kids were growing up. I initially expected Mrs. Purify to take issue with Flipper’s affair, which she did, but I was surprised by the civilized ferocity of Reverend Purify.
At one point Flipper ends up staying at his parent’s home in his childhood bedroom after Drew kicks him out. He makes no mention of wanting to get a divorce or otherwise end his marriage. Thus what kind of future could he and Angie possibly have? Why would you invite Angie to dinner at your parents’ home and why would you accept the invitation? It’s like they’re taking this thing that shouldn’t have even been a fling and trying to force it to become a relationship.
Reverend Purify’s sermon at the dinner table felt like a continuation of Flipper’s earlier conversations with Cyrus where they discussed White women and Angie in particular. In this instance, Rev. Purify offers his opinion about White women’s curiosity about black men. He makes some good points at least regarding Flipper’s messy affair. Flipper and Angie are in different places in their lives and don’t seem to have anything in common.
Flipper is dilly-dallying around with Angie and it’s obvious that he doesn’t take her seriously. Sure he’s having sex and spending time with her but he’s also trying to get back together with his wife. That doesn’t mean he has any great love for his wife but rather points more to him being selfish. This is not going to turn into some great relationship where they’ll overcome the odds and build a life together. The relationship is doomed to be a mess because they got together for the wrong reasons.
She was bored with her boyfriend and he wanted to try something new. This whole thing would have likely fizzled out sooner if their friends and families had remained unaware. Sneaking around likely made things more exciting and then having their loved ones react strongly made them dig in their heels. When they’re walking through the street fair they have a conversation about their situation. Flipper explains that he’s not going to leave his wife and child and Angie states that she doesn’t expect him to. So what exactly is the point of all of this? Are they just blowing up their lives for the fun of it?
Yet, despite these two and their foolishness, Angie’s father’s, Mr. Tucci, reaction to her having an affair with a Black guy was ridiculous. My first impulse would be to say it’s unrealistic but it might not be. In the past, many Black men were attacked for having or being rumored to have an interest in a White woman. Mr. Tucci couldn’t get to Flipper and likely took out his anger on his daughter instead. My main issue with these two is that they hurt other people, chiefly Drew and Paulie, with their affair. Had they both been single I wouldn’t care about the how or why of them getting together.
But at least her ending things with Paulie opened up the possibility for him to find someone who wants to be with him and he truly wants to be with her as well. The speech from Paulie’s dad about true love and real marriage was deep and very relevant. Looking back over his marriage to Paulie’s mom he felt it was successful because what they had was solid and based on more than just the fickle stuff between Paulie and Angie. Reverend Purify points out that Flipper and Angie are two selfish people who blew up their lives and the lives of people they claim to love out of lust.
These scenes go back to that sense I expressed about Jungle Fever feeling uneven. Ossie Davis takes hold of Rev. Purify and completely dominates his scenes. I’ve seen Wesley Snipes in other roles where he was excellent but here the characters around him are more interesting than Flipper. Even Mrs. Purify has some fire and complexity as we see in her interactions with Gator and also her throwing shade during the dinner.
It also didn’t help that I found the storyline with Gator and his parents more compelling than Flipper’s ‘let’s make our parents mad” relationship with Angie. I understood Rev. Purify’s anger towards Gator, especially towards the end where he’s desperately begging his mom for money. It wasn’t right but I understood him just being fed up with Gator. And while dealing with that his other son is also falling apart and making a mess out of his life.
A lot was going on and even I was stressed out by the end. There’s mounting tension between Gator and Rev. Purify and it gives a sense that something bad is going to happen. The crack den/Taj Mahal scene was like a descent into hell. With all of this going on, Jungle Fever felt fleshed out in some areas but a bit thin in others. Samuel L Jackson held his own against Ossie Davis which made the scenes between them incredibly memorable. But then Flipper would pop up again with his relationship drama to mess up the vibe.
I don’t know if it was the way that Flipper was written, the dialogue, or Wesley Snipes’ acting but whatever it was, I just wasn’t digging the character. Overall, I’ve always felt like Jungle Fever is an ok movie with two stories but one doesn’t seem as strong as the other. Maybe it’s just me and I’ve missed the point as this is one of those movies that other people seem to love while I think it’s ok. And for the life of me I understand that Flipper was terrified by the idea of his daughter growing up to become Vivian but I didn’t get the whole thing with him holding her and yelling in the street.
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