When it comes to American cinema, few directors have been as engaging, challenging, uncompromising, and important as Spike Lee. Spike, the aggressively independent spirit who has never been afraid to shake things up, erupted onto ‘Hollywood’ with his 1986 debut She’s Gotta Have It. From there, he inarguably spent the next decade releasing film after film that not only challenged status quo but also cinematic conventions. This is why it is a bit sad to see him work through his second consecutive remake. I have not yet seen 2013’s Oldboy, but the film — while not without its supporters — has mostly caught the director flak. With that in mind, it is hard to fathom the reason that Spike would choose for his follow up project another remake. The film in question this time is Ganja and Hess, the horrifically mistreated cult classic written and directed by Bill Gunn. Released in 1973, amidst the successful Blaxploitation cycle, Gunn’s film was too artistically inclined, too eccentric for American producers. It was thus chopped up, rearranged, and re-titled; the new titles — Black Vampire, Blood Couple, and Double Possession — all clearly point out what US distributors saw in the film: another cheap ploy to attract audiences.
This all sets the stage for Spike Lee’s kickstarted 2014 remake entitled Da Sweet Blood of Jesus. It may be argued that Lee was an — let’s say — interesting choice for Oldboy, but he is one of the most ideal people to see a Ganja and Hess remake through. The question then becomes, ‘what Spike Lee?’ The young and hungry Spike Lee that made Do the Right Thing?; or what about Bamboozled’s Lee, every bit as angry as his younger self but more confident to experiment greatly with form; and, finally, there is the Spike Lee that made films like Inside Man, undeniably more Hollywood but nonetheless entertaining. 2012’s Red Hook Summer did seem like a return-to-form for the director but there was still Oldboy looming over people’s heads. In the end, it seems that the director we got was an amalgamation of all Lee’s tendencies, which results in something of a beautiful mess, but still a mess.
As far as the script is concerned, the film is faithful to Gunn’s original narrative. This is even apparent in Lee’s co-crediting of Gunn as a scriptwriter (in spite of the fact that Gunn died in 1989) rather than adapted from a script by Gunn. Beat-for-beat the film follows and/or at least alludes to all of the major plot points in Gunn’s original film — with one major problematic scene, which will be discussed further down. Following a beautiful open that features Lil Buck Jookin at various Brooklyn landmarks — paying homage to the open of Lee’s earlier film Do the Right Thing — , Lee quickly develops the story. Dr. Hess Green (Stephen Tyrone Williams), an anthropologist and avid African art collector, meets with a collector who has a piece that he believes will be of interest to Hess. The item in question is an Ashanti dagger — a legendary relic believed to have been used in voodoo practices. Hess invites the collector, Lafayette Hightower (Elvis Nolasco), back to his upscale Martha Vineyard home where the two spend the night drinking and debating.
In the middle of the night, however, Hess discovers Hightower with a noose around his neck, hiding in a tree. With some trouble, he is finally able to talk the depressed man down and back into his home, but Hightower’s antics do not end there. After a few more minutes he attacks Hess with the Ashanti dagger, stabbing and seemingly killing him. Following the attack, Hightower shoots himself in the heart, an act that seems to revitalize Hess. Hess seems to make a full recovery; his stab wounds no longer apparent. In fact, he only suffers from a single but major side effect: an insatiable addiction to blood. The real heart of the film, however, revolves around the forming relationship between Hess and Ganja Hightower. In an attempt to locate her former lover, Ganja Hightower tracks him to Hess. Taking pity on her, Hess offers her — or rather Ganja demands it of him — a room in his home. The resulting film depicts their fraught yet steamy love affair.
It should be said right away that Spike Lee’s remake is very flawed, but it is not lacking a cohesive message. What emerges as the central core of the film, at least to this reviewer, is the commentary on wealth, in particular black wealth. Hess is born into luxury. He is set up in a lush pad just off the beach. When faced with the blood lust, Hess is quick to prey on almost-exclusively inner-city women. Like a hunter, he prowls the projects and preys on the weak. The commentary on wealth and power comes full circle with the introduction of Ganja. Ganja’s existence couldn’t be more different than Hess’s. A low class, black female, Ganja’s life is plagued by oppression. This is demonstrated through a moving anecdote in a monologue that Ganja recounts to Hess during one of the film’s most riveting scenes. Thus, the power bestowed upon them is accepted in a distinctly different manner: Ganja owning a newfound power, and Hess rejecting the corruption of it.
This is where one of the film’s major issues arises. Whereas in the original film Duane Jones (who readers will know also from Night of the Living) imbues Hess with a realistic and relatable range of emotions to show his transformation and inevitable guilt, Stephen Tyrone Williams style is more deadpanned and understated — to put it nicely. At times, Williams could be accused of being a poor actor but knowing Lee’s record it would seem as if his acting choices were deliberate and not the result of a lack of talent. While there may be benefits for Williams removed and cold performance, his transformation on screen is lacking. This makes his inevitable turn to Christ and self sacrifice feel somewhat contrived (perhaps this is Lee’s point, after all Red Hook Summer was far from a singular glorification of the church). In opposition, Zaraah Abrahams — beyond her shaky introduction — ends up demanding the most screen presence for the remainder of the film. Abrahams can be a bit too animated but overall rests comfortable between having a strong performance and one that still pays homage to campiness of Blaxploitation.
There are only two significant alterations to the film. The first, a welcome addition, sees Hess checking himself into a free clinic for an AIDS test after attacking and drinking the blood of an HIV+ prostitute. The scene is brilliantly shot, effectively commenting on the nerve-racking conditions of the waiting room. Hess is depicted through a wide angle lens, dwarfing his presence on screen. Lee also juxtaposes him in a way that puts him in direct relation to the clock, as he counts down the minutes. It is as if he is victim to the slowly ticking master. It is the inclusion of these shots that the film has that aesthetic we have come to expect from Lee.
The second scene, however, is the single biggest mistake Lee makes with the film. It occurs about ¾ of the way through, when an old acquaintance of Hess’s, Tangier Chancellor (competently played by stylist Naté Bova), visits the couple at their Martha Vineyard home. When Ganja learns that Tangier is Hess’s old flame, the situation becomes rocky. Hess disembarks, leaving the women alone and it is not long before the tension turns sexual and then, of course, violent. It would appear as if Lee is attempting to deliver a powerful message about female sexuality but, akin to his past work, Lee’s sexual politics are a bit suspect. Beyond the political aspects of the scene, it also just doesn’t work within the context of the film. It feels extra-clunky in an already uneven film. At almost two-hours, the redaction of this scene could have gone a long way to making the film tighter and more effective.
Technically speaking, the film is mostly a marvel. Daniel Patterson’s digital cinematography is stunning. With his brighter-than-life colors and subtle but significant camera movements, Patterson recalls the work of past-Lee collaborator Ernest Dickerson, while still carving out a unique style of his own. Lee’s direction, while questionable at times, is visually both demanding and impressive. Really the only complaint is with the film’s score. Arranging a series of eclectic and otherwise unconnected tracks with a jazzy score by Bruce Hornsby, the score rarely elevates the film to level that one is used to with Lee. It may be dynamic but it otherwise fails to give the film the power it needs. Hornsby work does have a similar feel as did many of Bill Lee’s scores, but is overpowered by an otherwise mélange of tracks of varying quality.
In the end, it would be wrong to consider Da Sweet Blood of Jesus a horror film. Nothing about the film is played within the conventions of horror or even to elicit fear. There is horrific imagery, but it owes as much to the genre as a film like Twilight does. Rather the film is a tragic story of love, addiction, race, and religion. It may be a lesser effort by Spike Lee but still a welcome addition to his oeuvre and hopefully a sign of great things still to come. It may throw off some Ganja and Hess fans, but will be certain to land somewhat favorable for Lee fanatics. If nothing else, Lee should be praised for still making challenging and uncompromising films, films that complicate notions of race, religion, and class. Love him or hate him, Spike Lee is still one of the most vital filmmakers working today.
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray via Anchor Bay.