Spike Lee is a lot like Stanley Kubrick to me in that they are both hit or miss directors that can wow me with one film and completely lose me with another. I can’t think of two directors that can make my opinion of their work swing from liking to disliking as quickly. It’s been since Lee‘s 2002 film 25th Hour that I’ve felt he lived up to what he gave with his masterpiece Do the Right Thing. Since then, it’s been a series of misfires and almost-theres. So, when I had the chance to see Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, his remake of Bill Gunn‘s cult classic Ganja and Hess, I will admit I was curious. I had high hopes that his working independently of a studio would capture some of the lightning that was bottled back in the 90s. Unfortunately, this film fell more in the Oldboy (which was an absolute mess) camp than his He Got Game camp.
The story is as such: Dr. Hess Greene (Stephen Tyrone Williams), a foremost expert on African cultures, begins a new project with the help of a researcher Lafayette Hightower (Elvis Nolasco). After the two meet and have some in depth conversation at Hess’ beautiful Martha’s Vineyard estatel they adjourn for the evening. When an unidentified sound drags Hess out of his house, he finds Hightower wailing high in a tree with a rope around his neck, about to throw himself from the branch on which he sits and kill himself. He is clearly a troubled man and Hess does everything to convince him to keep from committing suicide and it works…for the time being. Later, after further discussing the events of the evening, Hess is convinced that this is a one time thing and that Hightower will recover. Short lived, Hess wakes up to Hightower trying to strangle him. As the two battle back and forth, Hightower grabs a recently unearthed Ashanti dagger (the Ashanti are the major culture in Ghana) and stabs Hess, killing him. Or so we think. Later, Hess wakes up, still alive and apparently well despite the wound from the dagger. However, he is a changed man with an insatiable lust for blood. When he confronts Hightower after rising from the dead, Hightower shoots himself and we see Hess lapping at the blood left behind, sealing his fate. What plays out after this is Hightower’s wife, Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams), arrives on the island looking for her husband as he owes her money. They are on the outs and she just wants to be rid of him. It’s fairly easy to tell what happens after this…Hess and Ganja fall in love, marry and Hess turns her into a bloodlusting fiend just like him. How does all of that play out…well, for that you will need to see the film.
Tonally, this film is all over the place. It plays like the original (although I will confess I’ve not seen all of it) but with a higher class level of exploitation. The film’s thematic material also runs the gamut – colonialism, race, class. The way it was filmed reminded me so much of Fassbinder‘s Whity, although there is little other reference to it in Da Sweet Blood of Jesus aside from the racial aspects, which Lee has always had a knack for transcribing to the big screen. This is where Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is most successful, even though Lee isn’t terribly subtle with some of his references (e.g. Hightower trying to hang himself in a big tree). I really enjoyed Williams in the lead role, but the acting aside was spotty at best. I also really appreciated that this film didn’t devolve into some ridiculous vampire film. No one will ever do an understated vampire film better than Jim Jarmusch‘s Only Lovers Left Alive in my opinion so Lee was wise not to tread on that territory. The eroticism that was laced throughout was well earned and avoided the trappings that befall other bloodsucking films. I love that Lee used Kickstarter to fund this film as no studio in their right minds would have funded it. This definitely allowed Lee the license to add content that would never have been allowed otherwise. I applaud his courage for that.
As a whole, this certainly is an interesting film and I may revisit it again. This film has been very hit or very miss with little wiggle room in between with other critics. I think this film is a near miss, but perhaps my opinion of it will change after finishing Gunn‘s film in its entirety. If you are a Spike Lee fan, this is worth a watch. If you want to see some off the beaten path, then I would suggest it. It may strike your fancy where it didn’t strike mine.
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus was released this week on Blu-Ray and DVD.