Ganja and Stress
By Ashley Clark
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus
Dir. Spike Lee, U.S., 40 Acres and a Mule
Following 2013â€™s listless Oldboy, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is Spike Leeâ€™s second consecutive remake, following a nearly three-decade career during which heâ€™s avoided them altogether. It is, narratively speaking, a largely faithful cover version of Bill Gunnâ€™s 1973 cult horror film Ganja and Hessâ€”a grim, allusive vampire movie rich in class, religious, and racial commentary. Its plot follows the travails of wealthy, upper-middle-class anthropologist Dr. Hess Green (Broadway star Stephen Tyrone Williams), who becomes a vampire after his disturbed assistant Lafeyette Hightower (Elvis Nolasco) stabs him with a dagger infused with an ancient African curse. Hightower commits suicide, and his abrasive widow, Ganja (British newcomer Zaraah Abrahams), comes looking for him at Hessâ€™s lavish bachelor pad in Marthaâ€™s Vineyard. The pair soon fall in love, and become partners in vampiric crime.
On paper, such material would seem a good fit for Lee. The director has repeatedly broached issues of dependence in his work, from sex in Sheâ€™s Gotta Have It, to crack cocaine in Jungle Fever, the drug-dealing â€śgameâ€ť in Clockers, and even the trumpet in Moâ€™ Better Blues; here, he uses the blood addiction of his central pair as a wide-ranging, unsubtle metaphor for a variety of societal ills, from drug abuse to cultural snobbery. There are also compelling parallels between Lee and Gunn, two African-American directors who, by virtue of their unorthodox aesthetic approaches, subversive artistic content, and anti-establishment views, could be described as mavericks. Gunn, for example, ran afoul of Warner Brothers, who suppressed his 1970 film Stopâ€”a drama about a tortured love quadrangle that remains sadly buried today. The same studio gave Lee such a rough ride over the budget of his 1992 epic Malcolm X that he had to go cap in hand to celebrity African-American funders (including Oprah Winfrey, Prince, and Michael Jackson) to complete it. Since Malcolm X, Lee has complained about the difficulties of getting black-centered movies funded, and for his latest, he worked outside the system altogether, launching a successful Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign for $1.4 million in 2013. The production saw Lee getting squarely back to his indie roots: it was shot over a brisk 16-day period.
That Lee is working with a newfound freedom becomes apparent in Da Sweet Blood's gorgeous first moments. In an era where the excision of opening credits in favor of a cold open has become increasingly commonplace, Lee is the rare filmmaker who understands both the mood-setting potential and the opportunity for unfettered stylistic expression offered by the credit sequence. Weâ€™re treated to a languid montage in which the lithe young street dancer Lil Buck â€śjooksâ€ť with tough, sensual elasticity against a changing backdrop of Brooklyn locations (basketball court, riverfront, project housing). These imagesâ€”which are set to a plangent piano score from regular collaborator Bruce Hornsbyâ€”blend the micro-travelogue beauty of the monochrome stills that opened Sheâ€™s Gotta Have It with Rosie Perezâ€™s pugnacious B-girl bopping in Do the Right Thing. Itâ€™s a poignant, deeply personal way to begin, rooting the film in a specific slice of New York inhabited by historical ghosts both real and imagined: Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is the seventh film in Leeâ€™s loose â€śChronicles of Brooklynâ€ť series, following Sheâ€™s Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing, Crooklyn, Clockers, He Got Game, and Red Hook Summer. I have a history here, the 57-year-old Lee seems to be saying, and I still have stories to tell.
Lee then thrusts us back into the Lil' Piece of Heaven Baptist Church, locus of 2012â€™s Red Hook Summerâ€”a messy but sorely underseen meditation on the declining role of the Christian church in the impoverished, eponymous African-American community. In fact, we seem to be picking up almost exactly where we left off. Disgraced pastor Enoch (the reformed pedophile so brilliantly portrayed by Clarke Peters) has now diedâ€”perhaps of shameâ€”and been replaced by Bishop Zee (Thomas Jefferson Byrd, the craggy-faced Lee stalwart youâ€™ll remember as the AIDS-addled junkie in Clockers, or the morally bankrupt MC from Bamboozled). In his fire-and-brimstone sermon, Zee preaches about the deleterious effects of gun violence in the community, and the rapt attention he receives from his modest audience suggests that his concerns are shared by the parish. If his words seem like thinly disguised bullhorn sermonizing from the filmâ€™s director, the energy and stylistic brio of the scene makes itâ€™s difficult to care; the church interior is ablaze with reds, golds, and purples captured by cinematographer Daniel Patterson, whose digital lensing is impressively crisp and precise throughout. Then, once weâ€™re introduced to Dr. Hess Green, we discoverâ€”in one of the filmâ€™s precious few subtle touchesâ€”that the pastor also moonlights as Hessâ€™s chauffeur; a detail which suggests that although an active participation in religious community might provide spiritual nourishment, it doesnâ€™t offer economic succor, and class boundaries remain rigidly defined.
So far, so good, but Da Sweet Blood comes off the rails almost as soon as the narrative proper begins. Gunnâ€™s original is certainly perplexing at times (thereâ€™s plenty of chronological crosscutting and odd flashbacks to a mysterious African tribe), but its bleak spell never dissipates, largely thanks to the evident seriousness of Gunnâ€™s intent. By contrast, Leeâ€™s film is prone to lurches from ill-advised slapstick comedyâ€”worst offender: Rami Malekâ€™s effete mugging as Hessâ€™s butlerâ€”to gruesome violence to labored attempts at sensuality, often in the same scene. Da Sweet Bloodâ€™s problems are most clearly exemplified in the confused and/or confusing way it positions the crucial character of Dr. Hess Green. In Gunnâ€™s original, Hess, as essayed by the towering, glowering Duane Jones, seemed bedeviled by remorse at every turn, oozing a palpable ache at having to leech from lower-class African-Americans to satisfy his addiction. This new Hess, in contrast, marauds around, seemingly getting off on his bloodsucking adventures. In one scene he swaggeringly passes himself of as a playboy named Dick Long; in another he raids a blood blank like heâ€™s pilfering from a candy store. Hessâ€™s brazen callousness makes no sense when set against scenes of his apparent remorse, and also badly undercuts the dramatic impact one should feel from his ultimate salvation in the bosom of the Lilâ€™ Piece of Heaven church.
Williams gives a curious turn, delivering much of his dialogue in a flat mutter while wearing an unreadable expression, in the process joining Bamboozledâ€™s Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) as another of Leeâ€™s stilted, moneyed outliers. Itâ€™s impossible to discern whether the actor delivers a poor performance, or whether heâ€™s being inadequately directed. One thing, however, is clear: he shares little chemistry with Abrahams. Given that the film hinges on this relationship, the absence of spark is a significant problem. The British actress gives a committed performance, but errs badly in replacing the studied haughtiness of Marlene Clark in Gunnâ€™s film with a flat-voweled obstreperousness (â€śIf I had two balls and a dick Iâ€™d be a bloke,â€ť she huffs coarsely in one of her first scenes). To make matters worse, Leeâ€”in a departure from Gunnâ€™s originalâ€”foists a lesbian love interest upon Ganja to fondle in a soft-focus shower scene. Itâ€™s less a cheering blow struck for sexual fluidity than a doomed, clammy-handed bid for titillation on the part of a director with a demonstrably patchy record on sexual politics.
Worse still, Lee unwittingly acts as self-saboteur with his musical choices. In a generous, community-spirited gesture, Lee issued an open call for unsigned artists to contribute to the soundtrack, before selecting twelve songs for the final film. Yet many of theseâ€”which run the gamut from squalling rock to clattering, skeletal hip-hopâ€”act as noisy, brutish impositions on dialogue and mood. These intrusions feel even more crushing in light of how crucial musical texture has historically been to Leeâ€™s work. Consider the inspired use of extra-diegetic music that has shaped and defined some of his most potent scenes: Sam Cookeâ€™s â€śA Change Is Gonna Comeâ€ť in Malcolm X; Public Enemyâ€™s â€śFight the Powerâ€ť in Do the Right Thing; or Stevie Wonderâ€™s â€śLiving for the Cityâ€ť in Jungle Fever. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus just bombards us with sensory overload by way of Leeâ€™s misplaced altruism.
Yet, for all its flaws and eminently questionable artistic qualities, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus at least finds Lee back in playful, experimental form after the joyless Oldboy (which was, tellingly, the first Lee film to be released without the quirky â€śJointâ€ť appellation). Itâ€™s his most gleefully excessive, least easily readable film since Bamboozled, and accordingly the most ripe for interpretation. The question, however, is whether viewers will be prepared to return to this messy, bloody stewâ€”which runs to a chronically distended 123 minutesâ€”to pick the bones out of it.