Last year, Spike Lee launched a successful $1.45 million Kickstarter campaign for a mysterious, untitled new joint. He offered only the vaguest of hints at its synopsis: “It’s about people addicted to blood,” he said. “But they’re not vampires.” Over the months, some casting news, film stills, and an intriguing title trickled out, sparking speculation that the movie might be a remake of Spencer Williams’ 1941 race film "The Sweet Blood of Jesus," or possibly Bill Gunn’s underrated horror classic "Ganja & Hess."
We now know of course that "Da Sweet Blood of Jesus," which made its world premiere at ABFF over the weekend, is indeed a reinterpretation of Gunn’s 1973 movie that used vampirism as a metaphor for addiction. A genre-defying answer to blaxploitation films like "Blacula," "Ganja & Hess" premiered at Cannes to a standing ovation and critical acclaim. But upon arrival in the States it did dismally at the box office, and was eventually recut (without Gunn’s approval) into several watered down versions of itself with titles like "Blood Couple," "Black Evil," and "Double Possession."
Lee has attempted to pay homage to Gunn’s original vision with a film that at moments is deeply engaging, but also muddled, meandering, and ultimately frustrating. His reinterpretation borrows much of the plot of its predecessor: Dr. Hess Green (Stephen Tyrone Williams) is a rich anthropologist who lives in a huge Martha’s Vineyard mansion filled with rare African artifacts. After being attacked by his suicidal research assistant with an ancient Ashanti blade, he takes on a sudden insatiable hunger for human blood. Later, he meets and seduces his assistant’s wife Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams), a beautiful and dynamic young woman who he eventually grants the gift and curse of immortality.
Set largely at Hess’s forty acre estate, at times shifting to a Red Hook housing project (where he picks up his unassuming victims), "Da Sweet Blood of Jesus" is an anomaly and a contradiction, not only to its source material but to much of Lee’s oeuvre. It has its strengths, brief glimmers, largely thanks to lead actors Williams and Abrahams. Their chemistry and conviction in the often spiraling narrative and clunky dialogue they’re given to work with, grounds what is otherwise a thoroughly mystifying viewing experience.
It’s hard to know what kind of film Lee thinks he has made. It closely follows Gunn’s story, yet, much like "Oldboy," he refuses to call it a remake. It’s a heavily gorey movie about an undead couple addicted to drinking human blood, but he refuses to call it a vampire film. Like the original, it is certainly a more complicated take on genre, but it lacks the nuance and the sophistication that elevated "Ganja & Hess."
As part of Lee’s Brooklyn series, there are strong ties to his last joint "Red Hook Summer." Many of the wrong choices that Lee made with that film turn up in this one - meandering scenes and montages, stilted dialogue, a great but overbearing soundtrack that disrupts key moments that would have been more powerful with silence. There’s also the return of the Lil’ Piece of Heaven Church, tying in themes of black identity, sexuality, class, religious guilt and constraint that plague Hess, much in the way they plagued preacher Enoch. And, like "Red Hook Summer," the problem here is that so many interesting themes are addressed, but vaguely and with so little consequence as to make the viewer wonder why they were introduced at all.
The end of this month marks the 25th anniversary of Lee’s seminal moment as a director - the movie he will always be remembered for, "Do the Right Thing." It was with "Do the Right Thing" that Lee hit his stride as a new, young director, calling on all his tools to produce one of the most vibrant and important films of 1989. Perhaps then the most fascinating thing about "Da Sweet Blood of Jesus," the most fascinating thing about its many weaknesses in narrative and style, is the puzzle work that must be done on the viewer’s part in trying to find the threads that connect the director who made "Do the Right Thing" to the director who made this one.
But the pitfalls in such an exercise, in trying to find the links from then to now, is that there is often a desire to pick away at any and all potential moments of allegory or symbolism or meaning, the way one would pick at a scab; even when there is no meaning. Because there’s the question of how deliberate Lee’s choices are. In "Da Sweet Blood of Jesus," some of his changes from the original seem more arbitrary than calculated, the experimental flourishes of a storyteller who is making things up as he goes along. A character that was male in "Ganja & Hess" is made female here, and while there is the potential for nuance in this change, the lesbian sex scene that follows is simply overlong and exploitative. One wonders if Lee has simply run out of things to say, or, more specifically, lost the tools with which to say them.
There’s this needling desire to give Lee the benefit of the doubt, to consider that he has somehow made a not-so-great film on purpose. That desire is easy to give in to with this joint because, again, there are moments of vitaliy, the same kind of frenetic, palpable, sincere energy that has made his earlier work so important. Unfortunately, and to the detriment of what could have been a much better movie than it was, those moments are simply too few and far between.
Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a regular contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory, and co-hosts the podcast Two Brown Girls. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.