The same question came to mind immediately after watching each of Spike Lee’s last two features: Why?
I don’t mean, Why did I watch that? To me, Lee remains a vital filmmaking voice, no matter how marginalized he’s become. Rather, Why did he make this? Oldboy, from 2013, was a remake of a specious Korean revenge thriller; Lee’s version, a camp hoot, never seemed to have its heart in its awfulness. And now we have Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, another remake, this time of a 1973 vampire blaxploitation flick called Ganja & Hess. What, exactly, is Lee doing?
It’s hard to tell from what’s on the screen. Like Ganja, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus follows Dr. Hess Greene (Stephen Tyrone Williams), a professor of African studies who is stabbed by an ancient Ashanti dagger and develops an overpowering thirst for blood. As he tries to maintain a normal lifestyle – including a new relationship with Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams), the ex-wife of a colleague – he finds his unholy addiction getting the best of him.
Ganja & Hess was a dizzying experience – partly because of the low-budget grunginess, but mostly because of the experimental way director Bill Gunn overlapped dialogue, image, voiceover and music to create a creepy, surreal stew. Lee does something similar in Sweet Blood, but the effect is less eerily disorienting than disjointed. Bruce Hornsby-composed piano numbers bump up against hip hop songs, both of which often seem to be at odds with the images. (The soothing soul over one particular stabbing felt especially off.) And while Sweet Blood never quite tumbles into camp the way Oldboy did (Sharlto Copley will do that for you), there are a few unfortunate moments here, including Ganja’s zesty chomp on a bunch of berries at breakfast.
Bruce Hornsby-composed piano numbers bump up against hip hop songs, both of which often seem to be at odds with the images.
At least Abrahams brings some verve to her performance. As Hess, Williams has negative presence. Part of that is commentary – he’s playing an elite African-American who has adopted the stereotypically stilted and reserved manners of white high society – and part of it is a nod to the reserved performance of Duane Jones in Ganja & Hess. Still, that doesn’t mean Williams had to completely drain the lifeblood from the character. Monotone and hushed, this Hess is dead long before he gets stabbed.
The ideas in Ganja & Hess were often as scattered as the imagery (I never fully connected the genre tropes with the racial politics), but there’s certainly more of a thread of meaning to follow in that film than there is in Sweet Blood. Lee seems to be striving to say something about race and class one moment (Hess throws an awkward cocktail part for his white, affluent neighbors), gender the next (Ganja gets a speech about the challenges of being a black woman that’s disrupted by more jarring Hornsby chords) and sexuality at another (including an exceedingly gratuitous sex scene between Ganja and a female friend). And, of course, hovering over all these ideas is the standing metaphor of vampirism as addiction, yet another stake that Da Sweet Blood of Jesus never drives home.
If anything sticks in Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, as the title implies, it’s the extra emphasis given to the Christian elements at play. Hess – rather reservedly – attends Lil’ Peace of Heaven Baptist Church, and he often speaks of his predicament as a spiritual battle, especially during a pleading (and unanswered) prayer. The film climaxes with a rousing gospel number and altar call at the church that’s something akin to Ganja & Hess’ alarming baptism scene, only here the effect is more comforting than disturbing.
Still, the religious elements never coalesce into anything compelling – or seem to be the answer to why Lee may have wanted to make this film. And the “why” matters, because it speaks to the sort of clarity all good art should have. I’m not suggesting a film has to be crystal clear about what it “says” or “means,” or even what it’s “about.” But it should have a sense of vision and urgency, one that’s felt in either its narrative or its imagery. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is missing both.