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Film Review: ‘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.

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.

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.

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