Film Review: ‘Da Sweet Blood of Jesus’

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus

Spike Lee's crowd-funded joint sinks its teeth into a seminal work of 1970s American independent cinema but comes up with an oddly bloodless result.

Although Spike Lee has made it clear from the start that his Kickstarter-funded “blood addiction” drama “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus” isn’t a remake of 1972’s blaxploitation “Blacula,” it turns out that the closely guarded project is in fact a remake — at times scene for scene and shot for shot — of “Ganja and Hess,” playwright and filmmaker Bill Gunn’s landmark 1973 indie that used vampirism as an ingenious metaphor for black assimilation, white cultural imperialism and the hypocrisies of organized religion. Four decades on, “Ganja” still packs a primal punch, whereas Lee’s version serves as a gory yet oddly bloodless affair that’s been made with a lot of craft and energy but ultimately little sense of purpose. Lee’s name assures a certain amount of exposure for this hybrid arthouse/grindhouse attraction, but not that much more than his recent, far superior “Red Hook Summer.”

Coming on the heels of last year’s “Oldboy” remake, which reached audiences in something less than Lee’s intended form (hence his decision to replace his traditional credit “A Spike Lee Joint” with the less possessory “A Spike Lee Film”), “Da Sweet Blood” declares Lee’s crowd-funded independence early on with a title card reading “An Official Spike Lee Joint,” seen during a lovely opening-credits sequence that features dancer Charles “Lil Buck” Riley performing his athletic “jookin” dance moves in various locations around Lee’s beloved Brooklyn. It’s one of several indications here, including a rousing gospel performance late in the film (set in “Red Hook Summer’s” Lil’ Piece of Heaven Baptist Church), that, should the stars ever align, that Lee could do a bang-up job with an old-fashioned Hollywood musical.

When the dancing ends, Stephen Tyrone Williams (who made a big impression playing Abner Louima on Broadway opposite Tom Hanks in Nora Ephron’s “Lucky Guy”) steps into the role of Dr. Hess Greene, a noted anthropologist whose ongoing investigation of the Ashanti Empire brings him into contact with the cursed dagger that will forever alter his destiny. That dagger ends up being plunged multiple times into Hess’ chest by his unstable, suicidal research assistant Dr. Hightower (Elvis Nolasco) after a long night of talk and drink at Hess’ sprawling Martha’s Vineyard compound. (Exact measurements: 40 acres.) But while the guilt-addled Hightower follows up by taking his own life, Hess himself awakens unscathed and feeling like a new man — albeit one with a ravenous thirst for human blood.

Like Gunn (who died in 1989), Lee places a good deal of emphasis on Hess’ seemingly limitless wealth and lonely, Gatsbyesque existence — chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce, live-in manservant, extravagant garden parties and expansive collection of African art. Gunn meant a lot of those trappings to register symbolically, but his film’s rough-hewn, 16mm aesthetics affected a verisimilitude that Lee’s more polished technique never quite achieves, calling attention to all the arch qualities of Gunn’s screenplay rather than deflecting them.

Into Hess’ carefully manicured world comes a disruptive force in the form of Ganja (British actress Zaraah Abrahams), the ex-wife of the late Dr. Hightower, who shows up on Hess’ doorstep in search of her missing spouse but quickly finds herself falling for his debonair charms (and deep pockets). Soon, she’s all but forgotten about her ex — until, that is, she happens upon his frozen corpse in the wine cellar. But then, what relationship isn’t without a few little bumps in the road en route to the altar?

Indeed, Lee’s film is at its best when it plays out as a kind of ghoulish comedy, with the stunning Ganja (depicted here as far more of an aristocratic bitch-on-wheels than in the ’73 version) making life miserable for Hess’ Renfield-like manservant Seneschal (the rubber-faced Rami Malek, stealing his every scene), or testing her womanly mettle against an old flame (Nate Bova) from the good doctor’s past. The latter encounter leads to one of the most explicit lesbian sex scenes this side of “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” which, like much of “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus,” scores points for daring, though the R&B slow-jam Lee places under the entire scene lends a perhaps unintended pay-cable erotica vibe.

All of which is to say that “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus” is at once too much and yet somehow not enough. On the one hand, it’s exciting to see the always envelope-pushing Lee working without a studio- or distributor-imposed safety net (though he has typically enjoyed a high level of creative freedom even on his studio-backed projects). But while the film never lacks for ambition, it fails to satisfy emotionally or intellectually in the ways Lee intends. Both Williams and Abrahams give it their all, but never convince as an actual lovestruck couple in the way the great Duane Jones (“Night of the Living Dead”) and Marlene Clark did in Gunn’s film.

Meanwhile, “Ganja’s” innovative conceit that everyone is addicted to something — blood, drugs, religion, etc. — seems less novel today, having been mined extensively by everyone from Abel Ferrara to Jim Jarmusch. What’s missing most of all is anything approaching Gunn’s urgent sense of purpose and social engagement, a badly missed opportunity (save for a few pro forma references to the Wall Street elite and the ongoing epidemic of black poverty) to provide a 2014 analog for “Ganja’”s bracing reassessment of black identity in the post-civil rights era.

If nothing else, Lee has certainly delivered a sleek, stylishly made movie that at every turn belies its modest means, from the beautifully framed widescreen compositions of d.p. Daniel Patterson (a former student of Lee’s in the NYU graduate film school) to Kay Lee’s meticulously well-appointed production design and the striking costumes of “Malcolm X” Oscar nominee Ruth Carter (including a floor-length magenta gown that causes Abrahams to nearly pop from the screen like a 3D effect). Composing his second full-fledged original score for Lee (after “Red Hook Summer” and numerous other soundtrack contributions), ’80s pop star Bruce Hornsby provides a surfeit of piano jazz that sometimes strikes an intriguing dissonance with the action on screen, but more often inspires thoughts of wire cutters.

Film Review: 'Da Sweet Blood of Jesus'

Reviewed at American Black Film Festival (closer), New York, June 22, 2014. Running time: 123 MIN.

Production

A 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks production. (International sales: ICM Partners, New York.) Produced by Chiz Schultz, Spike Lee. Co-producer, Jason Sokoloff.

Crew

Directed by Spike Lee. Screenplay, Bill Gunn, Lee, based on the motion picture “Ganja and Hess” written and directed by Bill Gunn. Camera (color, widescreen), Daniel Patterson; editor, Randy Wilkins; music, Bruce Hornsby; production designer, Kay Lee; art director, Tiisetso Dladla; set decorator, Philippa Culpepper; costume designer, Ruth Carter; sound, Stuart Deutsch; supervising sound editor, Philip Stockton; re-recording mixer, Paul Hsu; visual effects supervisor, Randy Balsmeyer; visual effects, Big Film Design; associate producer, Kerry Mondragon; assistant director, Mike Ellis; casting, Kim Coleman.

With

Stephen Tyrone Williams, Zaraah Abrahams, Rami Malek, Elvis Nolasco, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Joie Lee, Felicia “Snoop” Pearson, Jeni Perillo, Katherine Borowitz, Donna Dixon, Chiz Schultz, Lauren Macklin, Steven Hauck, Stephen Henderson, Nate Bova.

Filed Under:

Want to read more articles like this one? SUBSCRIBE TO VARIETY TODAY.
Post A Comment 20

Leave a Reply

20 Comments

Comments are moderated. They may be edited for clarity and reprinting in whole or in part in Variety publications.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

  1. It’s almost frame Ganja & Hess, minus the voice overs of the original and with greater production value. i watched the films back to back and found that to be a better experience. Had I watched Spike’s film alone, I don’t know that I would have appreciated it at all. Both films are more art house than mainstream. You almost have to treat the films as paintings, subject to multiple interpretations, good and bad.

  2. David says:

    *rolls eyes at pretentious comments*

    Spike did nothing but steal Chan-Wook Park’s style, maybe you heard of him..? Probably not. Most Americans can’t process fast enough to watch movies with subtitles. He’s the guy who made “Oldboy” who just happened to make “Thirst” in 2009 which is about a Catholic priest who became a vampire. Incredible cinematography, scenes are like paintings. True master of his craft, all his revenge movies are amazing. Spike is obviously obsessed with the man, he’s just stealing from him and then passing it off to Americans hoping they won’t notice. Even when they do notice they don’t really care because at the end of the day everything in America is about race. Bunch of hypocrites smh.

    • A Viewer says:

      How is Lee stealing “Thirst” from Park when Bill Gunn’s “Ganga and Hess,” the source film for “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus,” was made in 1973?

  3. Barry Siegel says:

    I love Spike Lee and his clarity but hate this movie. Cinematically it’s beautifully shot and directed, but the story line is dull and there is no tension in the film, so nothing to resolve or even leave unresolved. You just ask, why this ….
    The scenes of evangelical churching have an authentic feel but never lead to any statement ie don’t espouse hypocrisy of iconic religion nor is the film’s central theme of blood lust tied to the blood of Jesus in any fashion either via the church scenes or otherwise.

    This movie could made many statements but fails. I mean licking the blood off of wood floors, wtf ? I would drug test the entire screenwriting team to see what substance induces someone to produce this type of schlock when so much more could have been achieved with this film.

  4. Kara waterhouse says:

    ” Do the wrong thing ” – the sequel, at last !!!!!!

  5. Kara waterhouse says:

    You are getting very, very sleeepppyyyy….. VAMPIRES ARE SEXY….. You are starting to feel soooooo very relaxed….. Sink into that safe relaxing place ….. KILLING + BLOOD IS SO NORMAL….. Please do allow your subconscious mind to finally rest, by allllllllllll means……. Lolololol

  6. Hannah says:

    Awesome film. Very carefully storyboarded and choreographed. It might not be for everyone, in the sense that it doesn’t follow the mainstream template, but there’s so much good stuff here that is hard to ignore. In many ways I think this is a film student’s film that won’t be fully understood by the masses until it’s given time to breathe and studied at-length by focused viewers. I think the biggest problem for auteurs like Spike Lee is that his audience is almost too diverse- he has one foot in the mainstream and one in the underground- with expectations all over the map. That’s just a guess, but I don’t think people are always watching his ‘film’ so much as they’re comparing it to what they were expecting to see, and that never helps.

    If you look at this movie in isolation tho, it is tremendous. The cinematography and set production is art imo. You could write books about the characters, their relationships, and the choices they make. The ‘rhythm’ of Da Sweet Blood of Jesus from scene-to-scene is memorable. Not every director can achieve that standard, certainly not on a “crowd-funded” budget like this, but Lee is not just any director. There are some themes and characters that may appear underdeveloped, but I assume that’s how it was intended i.e. almost like organized chaos, and that putting the puzzle together lies more with the individual audience member than anything Lee can show you himself. In that sense it’s an empowering movie and you really participate- I thought it was fun!

    I’ve had to watch it a few times and still don’t feel like I’m even halfway there. It’s almost like magic, if not hypnotic. It’s not that it’s a ‘hard’ to movie to watch, per se- it’s just there are a lot of things to watch FOR. I don’t believe DSBOJ (or any similar film) was meant to be screened on a computer/tablet, though… so I’m not sure digital distribution was necessarily its best medium. But I feel like I’m splitting hairs here; the bang for the buck is very good and I hope the cast and crew get full kudos for their work. It’s a shame we don’t see ambitious film projects like this anymore.

    • Kara waterhouse says:

      You’re right, it is magic : Black.

      • A Viewer says:

        @Hannah – It sounds like the way I would describe the original film, GANGA & HESS. It was definitely an arthouse film that had some interesting things to say about addiction, consumerism, various black identities and history, art, religion, and black people’s autonomy/sexuality.

  7. Kate Dallas says:

    If this is what a good director does when he has full creative freedom, then let’s pray no good director ever gets full creative freedom again.
    There’s nothing good I can say about this film. It’s poorly acted, poorly shot, poorly lit and miserably directed.
    I can’t believe this comes from the same guy who did The 25th Hour, there’s not a hint of talent in this movie, and above all, I can’t believe I helped fund this through kickstarter. This doesn’t look any better than most no-budget movies, and even if it had been done as a no-budget movie, it wouldn’t be an excuse for how bad it is. And 2 hours long???
    Tarantino is totally right, directors don’t get better with age.

  8. Jack Merrell says:

    Spike Lee should be able to muster enough money to shoot his own damn film. If he’s not willing to put his own assets up to support his creative vision, why should anyone else. Oh … did we all forgot how absolutely shitty RED HOOD SUMMER was. I wouldn’t give him a dime after that abortion. Spike Lee is not a good filmmaker PERIOD. On some level he knows that, cause he won’t use his own money.

  9. 123 minutes. Love Spike but what is with his inability to edit film under 120.

  10. Sean Jackson says:

    Yes … the article referred to Red Hook Summer as “far superior!” So I guess this movie is like watching old people eat grits without their teeth in?

  11. Travis says:

    Red Hook Summer was “far superior” to this? Thanks, you just completely talked me out of any desire to see it considering Red Hook was so unbelievably awful and anything worse than that by Spike would be utterly crippling.

  12. Scott says:

    i know our business is in a strangely bad place when Spike Lee uses crowd sourcing to fund films. I thought the idea behind that was to assist those without resources to make projects happen. Can the little guys get a break maybe or what? These guys have connections and resources they can tap, but why do they need to do this type of fund raising? it’s very unsettling for those of us struggling for some foothold to get our projects financed.

    • Lola says:

      Spike Lee WAS Kickstarter decades before the tech existed. Please have all the seats.

    • Ben Unanaowo says:

      Just wait to watch the film before you expound your glorious pedantic critique. If this film remake were done by Tarantino with his Hollywood money (Spike needed Kick Starter because he was Kick Starter before it was invented) you’d have no preconceived notions. Sh*t Sam Jackson would have never been noticed before Spike gave him a chance to shine, but that’s besides the point.

    • Author says:

      If you take money from the studios, you have to play by their rules i.e. less artistic freedom.

    • Smooth says:

      No one is stopping you from crowdfunding, quit hating and get busy.

More Film News from Variety

Loading