Cast: Stephen Tyrone Williams, Zaraah Abraham, Elvis Nolasco, Rami Malek
Director: Spike Lee
Running Time: 2 hours 3 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Spike Lee is still one of our most controversial and idiosyncratic filmmakers, despite the fact that he hasn't been that relevant (aside from charged gentrification rants) in well over a decade. Take, for example, his 2013 remake of Chan-wook Park's Oldboy; a film that wasn't as forgettable as many reviewers have suggested, but which nonetheless felt like a hired gun struggling to insert his own sensibilities into an existing property. It's not a mistake, then, that his latest film is also a remake of an older picture; Bill Gun's cult favorite Ganja & Hess. The difference here in terms of comparisons to Oldboy can be gleamed right away from the opening credits sequence with a title card that reads " an official Spike Lee Joint." Along with 2012's micro-budgeted Red Hook Summer, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus indulges in what many claim are Lee's worst tendencies as a filmmaker; clashing tones, amateurish acting, odd music cues, and a sledgehammer bluntness in terms of racial themes. The film is also, as evidenced by the Bruce Hornsby-scored opening with a hip-hop dancer set against striking NY street tableaus, one of Lee's more defiantly personal pictures to come along in some time.
The lack of a coherent narrative running throughout Da Sweet Blood of Jesus may have something to do with the source material, but it doesn't really hamper Lee's stylistic and sociopolitical concerns here. Instead, the film is more about maintaining a particular mode of romantic, mournful, and undeniably strange atmosphere. Focusing on wealthy black anthropologist Dr. Hess Greene (Stephen Tyrone Williams), who specializes in primitive Ashanti practices, and who possesses an ancient dagger which may contain untold powers, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is less a traditional vampire movie than a pointed dissection regarding the cataclysmic divide between the races and as a parable about the corrosive powers of wealth. Living on a lavish Martha's Vineyard estate, Hess is not only estranged from his African American roots, but also seemingly detached from normative social engagement due to his infiltration into the upper-echelon white society. Things take a bizarre turn once his research assistant (Elvis Nolasco) attempts suicide and later attacks Hess in a claustrophobic setting with the dagger in tow. What happens next shouldn't be spoiled, but there's certainly a "change" that occurs within the anthropologist; something that not only hints at the material's vampiric underpinnings, but also moves the film into far more metaphorical and political territory.
As is typical with Lee, nothing in Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is subtle or unobtrusive; from the loudly clashing music (going from Hornsby's piano-laden motifs to rap/ R&B selections), to the way the violence and sex is ratcheted up to near absurd levels. This is all intentional, of course, and in terms of tonality, a riff on the horror genre seems perfectly suitable to Lee's bombastic sensibilities. Once a third character is introduced; the ex-wife of Hess' research assistant named Ganja (a scene-stealing Zaraah Abraham), things take a decided turn into lurid melodrama that reveals Hess to be a deviant bloodsucker who not only houses large quantities of human blood in his basement, but also takes trips into the city to prey on lower class black women. Hess' relentless bloodsucking is figurative as well, and it's here that Lee makes his most astute points without being as didactic as he may have been had the racial/sociopolitical elements been more direct. Not only is the film presenting us with an African American character sheltering himself inside a sprawling mansion (echoes of The Great Gatsby abound), but it's also damming that very assimilation, stripping Hess of his essential "blackness" by making him a docile, slightly emasculated figure. The way he deals with the various people in his life, including the flirtatious Ganja and his assistant (humorously played by Rami Malek) is through the prism of someone whose personality has been irrevocably altered by wealth and the corresponding addictions that result from it. The images of blood spurting veins, brutal stabbings, dismembered heads, and disturbing sexual violence are notable insofar as they point to the way certain vices (in this case bloodsucking) are filtered through the prism of capitalism. The curse that befalls Hess, therefore, has less to do with a nefarious Ashanti forces, and more with his own preoccupation with assimilating himself into the social structure of rich whites; which both warps his identity as well as empowers him to take advantage of other blacks wallowing in lower class milieus.
If all of this sounds incredibly erudite, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus never gets as overly preachy as past Lee joints because it's extricably bound to it's B-movie exploitation roots. The swirl of conflicting visual touches (the film seems to take place in modern day, but Hess only drives vehicles vintage Rolls-Royces), as well as the auditory overload of laying the soundtrack awkwardly over the images (a Lee speciality) makes the case that this Kickstarter-funded effort puts him firmly back in the arena of vibrant independent filmmaking. Most surprising of all is the aura of poignant sadness creeping at the edges here; a contemplative take on class, race, and wealth that nonetheless displays Lee's skills as a frenetic, though at times jumbled, master of imagery and ideas.