Friday, August 10, 2018

The Films of Spike Lee: Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014)

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014)
Directed by: Spike Lee.
Written by: Spike Lee based on the film Ganja & Hess by Bill Gunn.
Starring: Stephen Tyrone Williams (Dr. Hess Greene), Zaraah Abrahams (Ganja Hightower), Rami Malek (Seneschal Higginbottom), Elvis Nolasco (Lafayette Hightower), Thomas Jefferson Byrd (Bishop Zee), Joie Lee (Nurse Colquitt), Felicia Pearson (Lucky Mays), Naté Bova (Tangier Chancellor).
What precisely are we to make of Spike Lee’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus – his remake of Bill Gunn’s cult film, Ganja + Hess, which is both faithful, basically, to the story, and yet a completely different film? I feel too many critics saw the film once and dismissed it back in 2014 (if they saw it at all) – noting the stilted dialogue and strange tone of the film, criticizing the two lead performance by Stephen Tyrone Williams and Zaraah Abrahams as existing in two seemingly different movies. The score two, is a mixture of different sounds – rap plays at times, at others, it’s Bruce Hornsby’s jazz score – and as with many Lee films, the music is up loud throughout the film. Is Da Sweet Blood of Jesus a horror film? Yes, in the sense that it is about vampires – even if they are never called that in the film – and there is copious amounts of blood split in the film. But it’s more than that, as the film really isn’t trying to scare the audience. This is another one of Lee’s films where his themes overtake the story – this time in some fascinating ways. Yes, the film is perhaps a little slow, and not what we are expecting when you say a horror film – but I found it endlessly fascinating – much more so now than when I first saw the film.
In the film, Williams plays Dr. Hess Greene – the wealthy son of two (now dead) parents – the first African Americans to own a firm on Wall Street, who sold it, and left him their vast fortune. He is highly educated and refined – but he doesn’t seem to work very much, preferring to spend all his time on his spacious estate (not coincidently, it’s 40 acres) on Martha’s Vineyard, holding parties that The Great Gatsby would feel at home attending, surrounded by his collection of African artifacts. The most recent one to enter his collection is a ritual dagger of some kind. When a houseguest, Lafayette Hightower (Elvis Nolasco), tries to commit suicide – and ends up fighting with Greene, the dagger eventually makes an appearance – and you know what happens next. When Lafayette’s now widow, Ganja (Abrahams) shows up looking for her husband – who she hated – and finds Greene, she doesn’t leave – and soon both of them share the same thirst.
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is then, a horror film, because it does contain two people who become monster and literally feast on the blood of their victims. But Lee is more interested in how Greene in particular is a figurative vampire himself – and how various American institutions, are vampires as well – sucking the wealth out of people it considers less than. Oddly, the film Da Sweet Blood of Jesus reminded me most of is David Cronenberg’s much maligned Cosmopolis (2012) – which featured Robert Pattinson as a Wall Street millionaire, depicted as an emotional vampire of sorts. The Greene in Lee’s film would despise Pattinson’s character – but they share a lot in common. As do the performances, which are very quiet and deliberately emotionally closed off. Abrahams, as Ganja, on the other hand takes her performance almost over the top – there are times when it seems to almost be slipping over into camp, but it never quite gets there (Rami Malek, as Greene’s ever loyal servant, does the same thing).
What is perhaps the most impressive thing about Da Sweet Blood of Jesus – especially coming from Lee – is the mastery of tone he shows here. You may not like the dreamy tone he sets – but he keeps it consistent throughout, whether they are bloody scenes, sex scenes, or the closed off parties, etc. There are a lot of elements Lee is juggling here – they don’t all cohere – but the tone he wants never falters. Lee has often made deliberately messy films – and while this film is as packed with meaning as his others – he doesn’t let the various elements get out of control.
I’m not trying to argue that Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is one of Lee’s best films – it isn’t, because some of the complaints people have against the film are true. The film is too slow – and at two hours, too long, and while I admire Williams’ commitment to his performance, and the way he controls his emotions, it doesn’t exactly make him the most interesting person to spend two hours with. But I do find Lee’s exploration of race, class, religion, capitalism, addiction and everything else he throws at the wall here to be fascinating. It’s a film very much in line with his other, perhaps more overt films about the same issues – there are elements here of Jungle Fever, Summer of Sam, She Hate Me, Inside Man, Red Hook Summer among others, all wrapped up in a genre package, with a tone of a dream that turns into a nightmare. It’s not one of Lee’s best films, but it is one I’m still trying to unpack.

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