Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Movie Review: Da Sweet Blood of Jesus

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus
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).

Back in 1973 black writer-director Bill Gunn got some money to make Ganga & Hess – which the backers thought would be a cheap Blaxploitation horror movie hit like the previous year’s Blacula. While Gunn gave them a lot of blood and nudity – which they wanted – and the film was about vampires (kind of) – it wasn’t what the backers were expecting. It was addiction more than anything else – and was also about gender and race roles, and was heavily symbolic – seemingly more inspired by European art flicks than Blaxploitation. The film was heavily re-edited, without Gunn’s input, although it was eventually restored – and is now hailed as a landmark film for black filmmaking. In 2014, Spike Lee took to Kickstarter to raise $1 million for what he promised would be a sexy movie – but no one really knew what that film would become. I have a feeling that a lot of people who gave money to Lee’s campaign will be just as mystified by the resulting film – Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, which is a fairly faithful remake of Ganja & Hess – as Gunn’s backers were. Neither film are what people would expect. I watched both films on the same day late last week – and I don’t think either film is great. Ganja & Hess is wildly ambitious, but also somewhat pretentious, with all the blood and nudity shoehorned into a movie where there are long stretches where pretty much nothing happens – and ends on a very strange (yet haunting) note. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus was, to me anyway, somewhat more satisfying (that may be only because I watched it second, so I was better prepared for what I was seeing, and less confused, as I already had done the work of putting everything together during Ganja & Hess. I understand why the people behind Ganja & Hess didn’t like the film – but it’s a fascinating ambitious film – and it’s too bad Gunn never really got another chance to direct, because it showed so much promise that went unfulfilled. I understand why many – most even – will likely dislike Da Sweet Blood of Jesus – it’s an odd film, with uneven acting, a strange tone, and just as heavily symbolic and ambiguous as Ganja & Hess. But like every film Spike Lee has made – it’s not boring, and it haunts you after it’s over with all the questions it asks – even if it doesn’t really answer most of them.

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is about Dr. Hess Greene (Stephen Tyrone Williams), an independently wealthy, black intellectual with a passion for all things Africa. The newest find brought to his attention by a would-be assistant, Lafayette Hightower (Elvis Nolasco), is an ancient dagger from a long forgotten African tribe, who thirsted after blood. Hess brings Hightower to his home on Martha’s Vineyard, and is disturbed by his uneven behavior – where he threatens suicide, and shows signs of further mental instability. Hightower will soon stab Hess with that dagger – and in the guilt riddled aftermath (he naturally assumes he has killed Hess, who lies motionless on the ground), shoots himself in the head – leaving a bloody mess on the floor behind him. But Hess isn’t dead – in fact he gets up off the ground with not even a wound. He walks around the house, and discovers Hightower’s body –and the bloody mess on the floor he left behind. Instead of being horrified, Hess gets on his knees – and starts lapping the blood off the ground. Thus begins his descent into his addiction for blood – which he will feed in a myriad of disturbing ways for the rest of the movie.

The other major character in the movie is Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams), Hightower’s wife, who calls Hess’ house from the airport on Martha’s Vineyard looking for her husband. She hates her husband – but he was supposed to give her money that didn’t come through. Hess invites her to his house – and soon, the two have forgotten about her husband, as they begin what is mainly a sexual relationship – as ravenous as Hess’ thirst for blood. Of course, she will discover her new lover’s secret – but that doesn’t really affect her as much as you may think it would.

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is, at parts, an uneven mess of a film. Williams, mainly known as a theatre actor, plays Hess as a buttoned down, smart, repressed man – who tries his best to keep everything under control, and not give off any signs of distress to anyone. He is smart, and can be charming, but that becomes a mask for his mounting hunger – for both blood and Ganja. It’s an interesting performance, and perhaps precisely what they were going for, but it’s not particularly riveting – and is in fact kind of dull. Much better is Abrahams as Ganja – who plays her as a woman who knows just how attractive she is, and uses that to her advantage. Lee, who has often (justifiably) been criticized for his one-dimensional female characters, actually has Ganja be the most interesting one in the movie – someone who it’s hard to get a read on, and she is clearly using those around her, but to what end? Opinion will be split on the performance of Rami Malek – as Hess’ butler, who gives a wildly over the top performance, which you will either think steals every scene he’s in, or ruins every scene he’s in. Put me in the former category.

The film moves, somewhat uneasily, between horrifically violent, yet subdued, scenes, to very sexual scenes – which are actually sexy (especially if you ignore the music Lee chooses for these scenes, in particular a lesbian sex scene late in the film, as the music does make the scene sound like something out of a low rent, soft core porn), and Lee’s more pointed observations on race and class. That Lee has made a film largely about race shouldn’t surprise anyone – although the fact he has found something new to say on it, is somewhat surprising. For the first time, he has set his sights on the upper class in African American society – Hess is wealthy because his parents founded a Wall Street firm, sold it for millions, and left it all to him. This is a world he knows well, and he finds that the civility in it is just a mask for the violence beneath it. Lee handles this better than Gunn did in Ganja & Hess – who set his film in a similar world. But Gunn outdoes Lee in his handling of religion – which is a central theme in Ganja & Hess, less so in Lee’s film. The film is a quasi-sequel to Red Hook Summer – Lee’s 2012 film – as it opens in the same church of that film and has a key scene very late in the game there as well- but largely abandons it for the rest of the film.

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is an odd film to say the least. I’m quite sure many will hate it – especially if, like the producers of Ganja & Hess who simply wanted a straight ahead, bloody vampire movie. Lee, like Gunn, isn’t interested in delivering that – he wants to do something more. The result is uneven to say the least – nowhere near Lee’s best films, and perhaps not even very good. But damn, is it a fascinating little film. After all these years, Lee remains a director whose every film is a must see – even if he hasn’t made a truly great one in quite some time.

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