The hashtag meme #teamInsertPerson’sNameHere — to convey firm endorsement — is perhaps, like everything on Twitter, utterly reductive and destructive to any kind of nuanced discourse. It’s a black-and-white, you’re either for or against, with no other options, and it's often used in the favor of auteurs or anyone receiving a critical bashing (“I don’t care what anyone thinks, I’m #teamPaulW.S.Anderson”). That said, despite an uneven career trajectory in recent years (including an ill-conceived attack on A.O. Scott), if forced to choose, I would avow myself as member of #teamSpikeLee. If the director was a mayor, I wouldn’t love all his policies, but I’d vote for the guy. If he was a sports team, I may grow tired of the losses and head-scratching plays, but I’d still root for the man.
Which brings us to his latest, “Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus," a disappointing, disjointed, gaudily campy, and ill-conceived folly (and off the back of the unfortunate remake of "Oldboy"). One could hardly argue with any critic suggesting that narratively, Spike Lee has been in a creative depression for several years, even as his documentary work has flourished (his two Katrina docs in particular are phenomenally moving). Lee's last great drama was 2002's "25th Hour" (though "Inside Man" is a solid genre pic), and the years in between have been really unkind with a lot of flops and bombs. Lee insists he’s not a studio filmmaker or an indie filmmaker, rather a versatile one, and failure is certainly indiscriminate of those invisible barriers — “Red Hook Summer” and “Oldboy” are not his finest hours. And “Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus” continues this narrative rut and creative cul-de-sac the filmmaker cannot free himself from.
An “inspired by” retelling of the 1973 blaxploitation film “Ganja & Hess” (a fancier way of just saying remake), Lee’s version of this B-movie includes his Brooklyn movie universe, changes the setting to the elegance of Martha’s Vineyard, and obviously has its own idiosyncratic flairs (much like his “Oldboy” remake), but structurally it’s more or less the same film.
Opening in Brooklyn, but mostly confined to Martha’s Vineyard, Stephen Tyrone Williams stars as Dr. Hess Greene, a wealthy and erudite but eccentric African-American anthropologist studying artifacts from an ancient African tribe. Coming in contact with an ancient Ashanti dagger, his eager but unhinged colleague, Lafayette Hightower (Elvis Nolasco), comes to the vineyard to assist in his work, but a drunken night of despair quickly turns into an evening of bloody murder and suicide. The cursed African dagger transforms Hess, making him immortal with an insatiable addiction to blood (not quite a vampire, but an undead bloodsucker, with many of the same thematic concerns). This unquenchable desire haunts his every move, but love does eventually present a challenge. When Lafayette’s prickly, pompous British wife, Ganja Hightower (Zaraah Abrahams), tracks him down at Hess’ beatific and chic getaway, what ultimately ensues is a lustful and garish affair of love, sex, and violence that passes on this curse of addiction.
Nothing about “Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus” is remotely subtle. Lee’s deal breaking problem is the movie wants to be everything at once, and thus its tenor is disastrously incoherent and inconsistent. Equal parts self-serious drama with religious overtones, overwrought melodrama/romance, silly comedy, and horror movie, tone is a serious problem for Lee’s picture. Imagine Napoleon playing a drunken game of RISK, that’s how all over the map it is. Lee attempts to further explore ideas of absolution, belief, redemption, and the spiritual longing evinced in “Red Hook Summer,” but as filtered through a decidedly B-movie lens — gratuitous gore, violence, and especially nudity — this negotiation of genre and theme never connect in any meaningful way.
Stylistically, the picture is also hyper-manicured in its overdone aesthetics and production design. In its attempts to convey a chic, ordered, and refined universe for the mannered Hess, the picture quickly chokes on its lack of oxygen. Awkwardly theatrical (even for a Spike Lee film), the purposely affected performances therefore make for a movie that’s all the more stilted and hermetically sealed. Thus what is supposed to be a sophisticated and well-designed milieu becomes a caricature of a world straight out of P. Diddy’s former manservant Farnsworth Bentley’s digs.
“Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus” is chockablock with artistic choices, but with no discerning vision of when and where to pull back, these varying selections glaringly chafe. Music has always been a central element to Spike Lee movies, but ‘Sweet Blood’ is positively slathered with pop music, the preferences of which seemed to be employed without much rhyme or reason. Hip-hop and neo-soul sit next to Brazilian/Afro pop by Jorge Ben and Milton Nasciemento, and something akin to the Moody Blues. Then there’s Bruce Hornsby’s painfully ill-suited score which is its own brand of foolishness (note, he’s done terrific work for Lee in the past, but sounds ill-equipped to handle genre — his “Oldboy” score was reportedly rejected by the studio too).
The only actor that seems to successfully navigate the movie's tongue-in-cheek tone (except when it’s dead serious) is Rami Malek as Hess’ manservant Senechal (who also seems like he's actually having the most fun too). His scenes are lively and the off-kilter humor actually works here, but these moments are few and far between. Other little redeeming qualities include pretty cinematography and the gut feeling that Stephen Tyrone Williams is probably a good actor when not asked to play a robotic scientist in love who is sanguinely obsessed.
All over the place, inarticulate, and gravely goofy at times, the fine line between laughing with Lee and laughing at Lee's movie is certainly blurred. Ultimately, for all its semi-weighty spiritual and societal concerns, "Da Sweet Blood of Jesus" is an extremely difficult movie to take seriously and might be the closest we've seen to this director making a student film in public. Thematically, it’s also all too on the nose. Any allusions to addiction as part of society’s current ills are hamfisted (and delivered in overt, spelled-out monologue).
The chaotic and even absurd nature of ‘Da Sweet Blood’ makes for, at the very least, an interesting, occasionally funny experience at first, but the movie’s potholed tonal shifts soon wear out their welcome and grow tiresome. A predictably gaudy lesbian detour in the third act also feels like an eye-rolling move on a checklist of trangressive plot devices meant to cheaply provoke. Post-collegiate graduates who majored in Advanced Irony will probably revel in its campiness, its awkward, unsexy sex scenes, and its overall craziness, but its doubtful regular civilians will find much satisfying coherence in the picture. Occasionally interesting, marginally amusing, and intermittently engaging, Lee's movie is mostly a tone deaf misfire. (I've seen utterly terrible exploitation films more committed to their central idea and mood than this.)
Perhaps the most ill–advised choice of “Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus” — considering some of its hair-brained ideas — is that its pseudo-vampires are now connected to the Spike Lee movie universe, the Republic of Brooklyn, and the masterpiece “Do The Right Thing,” which, in a way, taints the entire architecture and leaves a bad taste in the mouth. (It’s a really poor, thoughtless choice, but one not out of character for this movie.) Truth be told, even though it’s ultimately worse, Spike Lee’s “Oldboy” is a much more coherent film.
Filmmakers don’t owe their Kickstarter audiences anything (well, other than what they were promised for the financial assistance). Certainly not artistically. But it may come as a surprise for those who backed it just how much of a confused, slapdash film this is. “Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus” is, without question, bold, distinct, and idiosyncratic filmmaking with its own voice. Unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good or in any kind of reasoned key. Anyone who puts a high premium on auteurial voice therefore may give it a pass, but the emperor may have finally proven he has no narrative clothes, as this is folly of the highest order, plain and simple. In its meager defense, “Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus” is original and unique, there’s nothing like it out there. But if I had my druthers, I’d keep it that way. [D+]