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
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.