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Spike Lee's Kickstarter-Funded 'Blood of Jesus' Is Likely A Remake Of 'Ganja & Hess' (1st Look)

by Tambay A. Obenson
January 31, 2014 12:07 PM
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Zaraah Abrahams And Stephen Tyrone Williams In "The Sweet Blood Of Jesus"

This shouldn't be news to those who've been following our coverage of Spike Lee's Kickstarter-funded "blood addiction" joint - which he's titled Da Blood Of Jesus. Although on IMDB, it's listed as The Sweet Blood of Jesus.

In previous posts, I've wondered whether it is indeed a remake, or a re-imagining of Bill Gunn's woefully-underseen 1973 film that revolutionized the vampire film, Ganja & Hess - a film that was suppressed in the United States because it wasn't the Hollywood genre film that its producers had commissioned writer/director Bill Gunn to make. 

I also wondered if it was a remake of Spencer Williams' 1941 "race film" The Blood of Jesus, which I'd guess has been seen by even fewer people.

But I bring it up again today because we're hearing that Ganja & Hess is indeed of influence on Spike's The Sweet Blood of Jesus; although whether it's a remake, a retelling, a re-imagining, whether it's based on, etc, we can't say just yet. But there's apparently a connection between the two.

But again, whether this turns out to be fact or fiction, it's not an entirely ridiculous assumption, based on available evidence. 

To wit, while the film's plot is still being kept a secret, Spike has given us a few clues since the project was first announced last year - specifically, that the film will focus on human beings addicted to blood (although, as he repeatedly emphasized, it's not a vampire movie), and that there'll be lots of nudity.

He's also stressed his need for secrecy, because, apparently, the element of surprise is necessary for audiences to appropriately enjoy and appreciate the film, so we may never know exactly what the film is really about until we see it.

Gunn's film came along during the blaxploitation era, a profitable movement the producers hoped to cash in on with Ganja & Hess, with what was to essentially be a black version of popular mainstream vampire films, likely inspired by what they saw in Blacula a year earlier; but Bill Gunn wasn't interested in exploitation, and had other plans.

Gunn is said to have shared the following with a confidant: "The last thing I want to do is make a black vampire film... If I had to write about blood, I was going to do that, but I could not just make a movie about blood."

And so he instead used vampirism as a proxy for addiction (although the complexity of the plot makes it nearly impossible to reduce the film to any simple metaphor or allegory).

This all sounds eerily similar to much of what Spike has told us about his film thus far.

Add to that the fact that the film's cast boasts Michael K. WilliamsStephen Tyrone Williams (the film's male lead) and Zaraah Abrahams (the film's leading lady), as cast members - a perfect numerical match for the trio of actors who starred in Ganja & Hess - Bill Gunn (as George Meda), Duane Jones (as the film's male lead, Dr Hess Green) and Marlene Clark (as the film's leading lady, Ganja Meda).

So in Spike's joint, Michael K. Williams will play a version of the George Meda character; Stephen Tyrone Williams as a variation of Dr. Hess Green; and Zaraah Abrahams as Ganja Meda.

The above still image is from Spike's film, by the way. He shared it on Instagram a couple of months ago.

In Ganja & Hess, Dr. Hess Green, a wealthy and respected African American anthropologist, is assigned a new assistant, an intelligent but unstable man named George Meda. One drunken night, George stabs Hess with a dagger from an ancient tribe and then kills himself. It turns out that the tribe from which the dagger came, was cursed with a thirst for human blood, and, by the time George's wife, Ganja, comes looking for him, Hess has developed a similar addiction to blood. Hess and Ganja fall in love, and they soon marry, but Hess infects his new bride with the curse, which gives them eternal life, but, of course, at a terrible price.

The fact that Gunn chose to defy the film's producers, and make what was effectively the anti-Blacula - a challenging, allegorical work of avant-garde cinema - may have been to the film's box office detriment. Made on a $350,000 budget, the film was released in 1973 to critical acclaim (it was a Critics' Week pick at the Cannes Film Festival that year, to start), but wasn't exactly the box office draw that the producers had hoped for. It was soon yanked from theaters, sold to another company - Heritage Enterprises - who drastically recut Gunn's original, and re-released it as more of a genre film, under the title Blood Couple (although you might find it listed under a number of other titles).

And so, for many years, what was essentially a bastardized, gutted version of the film (created without Gunn's involvement) was all that was available. But thankfully, a print of the original Gunn film remained and, almost 30 years later, Kino Classics released the film in the original, stunning and complex director's cut, which ignores conventional narrative structure, mastered in HD from a 35mm negative.

It's now available on Blu-ray & DVD. Special Features include: "The Blood of the Thing" (25 Min) an interview-based documentary; Audio commentary by producer Chiz Schultz, actress Marlene Clark, cinematographer James Hinton, and composer Sam Waymon; the original screenplay by Bill Gunn; an essay on the making of the film (and subsequent recutting) by David Walker and Tim Lucas; and a photo gallery.

Spike has said that he certainly doesn't expect a huge release for The Sweet Blood of Jesus, and, like most films at its budget-level, sees a pick-up by one of the smaller distributors, and an eventual solid box office return for a film of its ilk.

Stylistically, he has said that he's going for "something new," although some of the usual Spike-isms will likely still be incorporated, like his famous dolly shot.

So, like Ganja & Hess, I say expect a stylized and *different* Spike Lee treatise on sex, religion, and African American identity in The Sweet Blood of Jesus.

I'd expect a cryptic first teaser trailer, which will likely debut any day now, given that he's eyeing a summer release. Principal photography officially wrapped on October 11.

Spike raised just over $1.4 million to make the film.

But whether it's influenced in any way by Gunn's 1973 film, all the conversation linking both films is a very good thing for Ganja & Hess, if only because it could encourage those who haven't seen it, to want to do so, giving the film a 21st century *revival* of sorts.

While we wait for Spike to confirm or reject all links to Gunn's film (although maybe he has said something and we just missed it), watch this short summary/review of Ganja & Hess by M. Asli Dukan - producer and director of the feature length doc Invisible Universe (a project we've been following here on S&A) which explores the history of African American images in fantasy, horror and science fiction literature and film:

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  • vanessa | June 23, 2014 4:46 PMReply

    what is the song that starts at 1:45? it's killing me!

  • Isaac | March 5, 2014 5:25 PMReply

    I'd like to remake Spike Lee's genitals.

  • jeni | February 3, 2014 4:49 PMReply

    *Sigh* Let's hope it's not a remake, but rather a film inspired by G&H. G&H was so bizarre and esoteric that I think that he'd have a really hard time selling tickets to a modern audience that likes to be spoon fed.

    *Ponders what would happen if he revisited the School Daze campus in the 21st century*

  • Adam Scott Thompson | February 1, 2014 4:31 PMReply

    The full "Ganja and Hess" film is on YouTube, as is "The Blood of Jesus."

  • Mateen | January 31, 2014 11:36 PMReply

    Nice article, and Skin Folk link was right on time.

  • RedHooked | January 31, 2014 9:51 PMReply

    Coming off Red Hook Summer it would be nice to see something Spike Lee didn't completely contrive himself. As for whether or not he remade a film--simply explore whether or not he obtained the intellectual property rights to ... and you'll have your answer.

  • audiodramatist | January 31, 2014 9:17 PMReply

    Maybe we should call it a film in the lineage of The Blood of Jesus and Ganja and Hess. And, of course, you could just ask long-time Lee collaborator Sam Pollard if he thinks the project is influenced by G&H, since Pollard assist. edited G&H.
    I've seen both films and both are worthy of revision / update, though I personally think updates, reimagines, remakes... are for lazy artists. If anything, all projects like this should include DVD, B-ray (or whatever format) extras of source or related materials. Something like what Spike did with the DVD set of X.
    One last thing: Comic relief specialist Leonard Jackson is worth the look for Ganja & Hess.
    Note: In some Caribbean and African cultures the scared herb is called ganja. Maybe the herb could be the antidote, and folks who ingest it would be immune to... (Sorry, I got carried away.)

  • Dankwa Brooks | January 31, 2014 6:19 PMReply

    Great reporting Tambay! This kind of reporting is what makes S&A great! I like reading 'The Hollywood Reporter', but they would never give as much "ink" to this film or its correlation to DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS (what Spike has been calling it since he revealed the full title on Kickstarter).

    As an investor in the film this info looks very intriguing.

  • Mark and Darla | January 31, 2014 5:40 PMReply

    Last Saturday night 'Off Beat' B movies.

  • Brandon Harris | January 31, 2014 4:17 PMReply

    This has been bumming me out all afternoon.

  • Daryl | January 31, 2014 1:43 PMReply

    Good article Tambay shining light on the great film Ganja & Hess. I'm interested to see Spike Lee film because he will not have no studio interference and will be able to take chances with this film. I hope the film does well because it will have a significant impact on black films on how they are funded and distributed. If it does well black filmmakers will finally see we can do for self and be successful and we don't need hollywood to fund our films. This is an important film because of that. Trust me a lot of people are going to be watching how this film does because of the impact it can have on the industry.

  • Dave from Tulsa | February 3, 2014 12:15 PM

    Miktal, you are forgetting Tambay is a card-carrying Spike Lee fanboy (and that's his right).

  • Daryl | January 31, 2014 11:34 PM

    Miles you make some good points, I agrre with you on a lot of hwat you said. That's why I'm saying this film is important if it a success it could be a game changer because all the pr surrounding it and the attention on it. Example Spike Lee film Red Hook Summer was a success story that a lot of black filmmakers and celebs could have learned from, you may ask how? It only made $338,000 at the box office. This is how, Spike Lee made the film for $600,000 and the film was picked up for 1.2 million, so Spike Lee had already made a profit before the film was released. The big thing black celebs could have taken from this is knowing your worth. Spike Lee knew his name alone was worth at least a million dollars, so he shot a film on the story he wanted to tell for $600,00 that was going to insure him a profit. Why are none of these black celebs with over a million twitter followers and facebook followers doing the same type of thing to tell the stories they want to tell, the reason being they don't really care about the future of black cinema, it's just about getting theirs or they don't understand their value or believe in their value, that's why I say this film is important because if it a success we will inally start seeing other black celebs and black indie filmmakers using our power and investing in ourselves because we will see it is value in telling other stories about black people and you don't have to conform to hollywood to get your story told. To do this on a big level it has to be that first one that does big business without hollywood by somebody that is not considered a sellout or a safe black person. If this film makes 8 to 30 million at the box office it will be a game changer.

  • Miles Ellison | January 31, 2014 9:10 PM

    The question is whether there's an audience for this film. Are the same people who flocked to see the likes of The Help, Think Like a Man, Ride Along, and the latest Tyler Perry opus going to seek this out? The only way that this will have any impact on the distribution and funding of black films is if people actually see the movie. The jury's out on that. Even then, it will take a string of successes before anything really changes.

  • Daryl | January 31, 2014 7:44 PM

    Carey and Miktal I say this is going be important, Spike Lee is a legend and a lot of of black filmmakers look up to him, Spike Lee has been one of the few black celebs that challenges white supremacy, using Tyler Perry is not a real good example because he is nowhere near the director Spike Lee is, yes I give him props on financing and creating jobs for black folks but let's be real, a lot of black filmmakers and black folks in general feel like he is the safe black guy because his films don't challenge white films from artistic standpoint and it also keeps certain stereotypes about black folks going. If this wasn't such a big deal why did Spike Lee recieve the most backlash of anybody that has ever raised money in kickstarter, mind you it has been other films that have raised a lot more than Spike Lee that didn't recieve that type of flack, because this film released by this director can be a game changer because it will prove something I been saying for a minute, it's a market out there for us to tell our own films, not hollywood sterotypes of black people and we don't need hollywood support to make and distribute our own films. Carey and Miktal ya'll missing the importance of this because if this is a success it will usher other black celebs and filmmakers to go this route to have control and tell thier own stories that hollywood is not doing. I hate to say it like this but most black celebs need to see that success to believe in themselves that they can do it and it's not just a dream to start making the change we want, they need to see that first big sucess story of somebody not consider a sell out or being that safe black guy that makes it on a big level without hollywood that can challenge them artistically. That's the reality because of mental warfare that has been perpetrated by white supremacy on the black masses.

  • CareyCarey | January 31, 2014 7:00 PM

    Thanks Miktal, I too thought this comment was waaaay out of bounds. For one, we're talking about SPIKE LEE! He's an anomaly in so many ways, therefore, whatever he does, whatever genre he works in, whatever his funding source is, will have no affect on the decision making process of those considering future film projects. And really, take Spike off the table and we have the same old trite argument that we've seen over and over again --> "if this film (Red Tails) does well it will have a significant impact on black films on how they are funded and distributed" ... "if this black director does well it will blah-blah-blah"... "if this black female director does well, it will blah-blah-blah for more blah-blah-blah in the future" etc, and what has really changed (how did that work out for us)?

    Another important note, as you said Miktal, this is not the first black rodeo, so I am left to say the devil's always in the details, the least of which centers on the skin color of those funding the films.

  • miktal | January 31, 2014 5:41 PM

    I think you`re grossly overemphasizing this films importance. There has been Black filmmakers using their own money for many years; there`s no revolution here. Also, I know Tyler Perry is a dirty word around here, but isn't he using his own money and free of Hollywood interference??

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