Spike Lee on ‘Da Sweet Blood of Jesus’ and Hollywood’s Diversity Problem

Spike Lee on 'Da Sweet Blood
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

'I'm good with titles.'

Spike Lee’s latest horror film, “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus,” is about a couple of bloodsuckers, but don’t call them vampires. “This is not a vampire story,” Lee says from his production offices in Brooklyn. “Vampires can’t go out in the day in the Fort Green Projects. This is about people who are addicted to blood.” His movie was inspired by 1974’s “Ganja & Hess,” directed by Bill Gunn, which Lee first saw in NYU film school. “Bill didn’t think it was a vampire movie either,” Lee says. “Once it was taken from him and recut, it was sold that way to capitalize on the success of ‘Blacula.'”

Lee’s project, which he co-wrote and produced, is probably best known as the one he pitched on KickStarter last year. He says he learned about the crowd-funding site from his students at NYU, where he’s long taught film classes. Lee raised $1.4 million, slightly more than the $1.25 million he asked for, from 5,000 backers to make the homage. He shot the indie in 16 days last fall in Brooklyn and Martha’s Vineyard, and cast unknowns (Stephen Tyrone Williams and Zaraah Abrahams) as his leads.

On Sunday night, “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus” premiered at the Annual American Black Film Festival, where it’s being shopped by ICM Partners for a domestic distribution deal. On Monday, Lee sat down with Variety to talk about the film, why last year’s black Hollywood renaissance isn’t necessarily real and the 25th anniversary of “Do the Right Thing.” Excerpts below:

Do you think a studio would have ever made “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus”?
Here’s the thing. Me doing this film is not me turning my back on Hollywood. It’s not a ‘fuck you’ to Hollywood. I’m not condemning the Hollywood studio system. There are many different ways to make a film. And not every film is necessarily going to be a studio film. I understand that; I’m a big boy. So “Inside Man” is a studio film. “Do the Right Thing” is a studio film. I do films that are within the Hollywood system, and I do films that are independent. I enjoy both.

And you’ll continue making studio films?
Yeah. People get me confused with Steven Soderbergh. You never heard me say, like Steven did, “I’m out!” Even though we both had a film in Cannes in 1989, “Do the Right Thing” and “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” we are not the same guy.

But Soderbergh donated $10,000 to your film.
We don’t really call it a donation. It’s like an investment. Well, it’s not an investment per se: they don’t get money in return, but they get something. For me, my $10,000 pledge was to sit with me at a courtside Knicks game and I take you to dinner before the game. Steven Soderbergh was the first person to do the $10,000 pledge, and that came out of nowhere. For a lot of people that legitimized the Kickstarter campaign. So we were able to sell 36 games.

Who were these people?
They were from all walks of life.

You also used social media for the soundtrack.
I put a call out to all unsigned artists to please submit songs to our film. And then 800 songs were submitted. I listened to each and every one of them. I selected 12 songs, then I went to Epic Records to see L.A. Reid, went to his office, closed the door, turned off the phone. I played him all 12 songs, and we had a deal.

Do the songwriters still get royalties?
Yeah. People need a shot.

How did you come up with the title?
“Da Sweet Blood of Jesus”!? How did I come up with “Do the Right Thing”? How did I come up “He Got Game”? How did I come up with “Bamboozled”? I’m good with titles.

Speaking of “Do the Right Thing,” it turns 25 this summer.
June 30 will be the anniversary date. BAM [the Brooklyn Academy of Music] and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in LA are having retrospectives of my work. They are both going to have gala screenings of “Do The Right Thing.”

How do you feel about the movie today?
It still works. It’s still relevant. It’s still great.

How did you find Rosie Perez?
I was in LA at my birthday party. She was dancing on the speakers in this club. I told her to get down.

And she introduced herself to you as an actress?
No, she jumped off the thing and cursed me out.

Last year, there were all these articles about how it was a strong year for—
My man, I know the question you’re going to ask me.

I was going to ask you about the success of “12 Years a Slave,” “The Butler” and “Fruitvale Station.”
I know. These articles come out every 10 years. Every 10 years, I get calls, “Spike, can you speak about this new discovery of black film?” It changes that year, but then there’s a nine-year drought. I do not have a position at the studio. Spike Lee is not the greenlight vote. I think that question has to be directed back at the gatekeepers. Why do we have this renaissance of Hollywood’s infatuation with black people every 10 years? They need to be asked that question.

It still doesn’t seem like enough is changing.
I agree with you. The only way this is going to change is when you have African Americans or minorities who have a greenlight vote at the studios. It’s very simple. These studios decide what films get made. I would like to know who is a person of color that has a greenlight vote. I think a lot of people have not read the U.S. census forecast about what the racial mix of the country is going to be. White America is going to be the minority.

Kevin Hart opened at No. 1 last weekend with “Think Like a Man Too”?
Where is Clint Eastwood? [laughs]

“Jersey Boys” was at No. 4. It’s not very good.
I didn’t see it. For me, I just think it’s good business that you reflect the diversity of this great country. I’m talking about the management. If you compare sports to Hollywood, Hollywood looks like it’s still in the 1940s.

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  1. Oh I forgot aliens are blue

  2. I hold no ill will for this man who calls him self a film maker there are many who do this craft and have no concept of what there doing. I for one don not like his films and find most offensive and slightly raciest, but by others he is harrowed as a great film maker. But this is the same public that watch trash like duck dynasty and here comes honey boo boo, so take it at what you will. I true film is one that makes you think and question what life and your very existence is all about. It draws you in and captivates you letting you forget if just for one moment that this world is not all its cracked up to be. Sorry but none of his movies have done this other than make me feel like I have wasted the few hours I took to watch one of his films. But to each there own if you like his movies than good for you me I would rather watch paint dry be cause in the end I would have felt I had done something constructive.

    • dome says:

      Spike is a great director and haters will never back off. I do not always agree with him but he is one of the greats.He is a great story teller and director.I like you to give names of Directors who do write their own scripts. I can only think of Mr Tarantino and Allen.
      Spike lee is vocal never shy to voice his opinion the so called left/right wingers can’t stand that. That’s my 2 cent. .

  3. Boom says:

    Not a bad interview but I do have a few issues with what Lee stated.

    1.) Using the U.S. Census as an indicator for this country is vastly misguided. The Census has a track record of being skewed & highly flawed in its numbers & known for being inaccurate in its indications. The CDC has a much more accurate system let alone shows the inaccuracies of the U.S. Census.

    2.) The whole comparing factor of sports & Hollywood is an interesting interpretation but both have the same problem but I find it completely one-sided how it’s okay for the NBA to 83% black but it’s not okay for Hollywood members being 92% white. I’m sick of this one-sided B.S. Lee compares today’s Hollywood to the 1940s but you could make a comparison of the NBA for example practically being a damn negro league of 1910 but that’s okay (sarcasm). I mean just a year ago or so, the Minnesota Timberwolves were almost entirely white but the NCAAP & other social PC groups complained absurdly making the NBA to force them to add more black players. How come it’s okay for an all black team but not okay for possibly an all white? I could keep going but I will digress & I won’t even begin on how the NBA’s scouting system is corrupt but anyways. Fix the NBA then maybe we can fix Hollywood. If not, then shut up with this ignorant one-sided bigotry crap.

    • Hendricks says:

      The reason the NBA is 83 percent black is strictly because of the talent of the players. The reason Hollywood is 90 percent white has absolutely nothing to do with talent. THAT is the problem.

  4. What happened to Inside Man 2 ? It was on Spike’s imdb page for a while. What needs to happen for that show to get going? Is there at least a script for it? There should be. Too often projects get green-lit based on nothing but actor availability and then the SCRIPT – the element that should get the most care – is rushed. I know the first one was written well before being greenlit. And the first one made money. I say there’s a demand for Inside Man 2.

  5. Good interview. Side question – why on an upscale site like Variety am I seeing an ad at the right of the screen with an old, long-debunked “story” about Ellen and cosmetics? That I expect to see on a pirate site. Upscale articles should have a better class of ads. It seems to be courting Ellen haters.

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