Filmmaker Spike Lee is a singular presence in the world of film. Stubbornly independent (to a fault sometimes), outwardly vocal about his ideas on race, sex and basketball, and certainly attuned to the fissures of the modern zeitgeist, his 24th film, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, encompasses pretty much all of that in its 123 minute running time.
Continuing on his streak of remakes after the 2013 Oldboy with Josh Brolin, this time Lee tackles Bill Gunn’s marginally groundbreaking 1973 vampire film Ganja and Hess. And I use the term “vampire” loosely. Originally crafted during the era of ‘blaxploitation’ films, Ganja and Hess daringly dismantles the traditional gothic trappings of the Dracula tale and frames it inside a universe remote from the typical baroque setting, that being the early 1970’s status of an African-American art collector in New York City. The original film also broke the confines of the Dracula narrative by its re-writing of the rules. Gone are the coffins, fangs, the bat metaphor and the general allusion of vampires being a nocturnal entity. Ganja and Hess has its blood-stricken vampires walk freely in daylight. The afflicted look and act like the rest of us. There’s even an aversion, initially, to the act of murder by having one of his vampires rob a local blood bank for its supply. It’s such a great film because it subverts the idea of addiction and loneliness and creates a post-modern treatise that can be read on many levels.
In Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, Dr. Hess Green (Stephen Tyrone Williams) is a wealthy collector of African art. One look at his secluded Martha’s Vineyard retreat yields a museum of sorts. His assistant, Lafayette Hightower (Elvis Nolasco), turns him onto an ancient dagger suspected to be used by the Ashanti tribe in various rituals. Later, while staying with Hess, Hightower becomes deranged and suicidal. He’s talked out of hanging himself from a tree in Hess’s estate by the comedic reasoning of Hess that any murder within the neighborhood will surely attract unwanted attention by the police on its lone African-American resident. Later that night, Hightower attempts to kill Hess with the dagger, but its mythical powers instead provide Hess with eternal life.
Soon afterwards, not only does Hess have to come to terms with his new-found thirst for blood, but deal with the curious wife of Mr. Hightower, Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams) who comes looking for him. Ganja’s own fate will be intertwined with Hess as he falls in love with her.
As Hess, Williams is a bit of a blank slate, embodying his entitled character with little emotion, which gives some of his vicious outbreaks on his unsuspecting victims an added sense of disorientation. The flashier and more accentuated performance is given by Abrahams as Ganja. Immediately unlikable in her spoiled tone of voice and statuesque poise, Ganja’s passage into the vampire realm is more visceral and passionate. The way in which she interacts and seduces visitor Tangier (a striking actress named Nate Bova in her film debut) is a marvel to behold. Playing an ex-girlfriend of Hess and lured to the house for drinks, Abrahams toys with her, imparting wary glances and subtly using every inch of her beautiful body to entice. It’s one of the more sensual set pieces in Lee’s illustrious career, managed through patient long takes and incisively timed editing.
Slowly, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus narrows its focus on the divisive ways in which both Ganja and Hess deal with the prospect of cold veins forever. Essentially, this is the natural crux of both the ’73 original and Bram Stoker’s monumental piece of fiction. The theory of eternal life and endless youth sounds magnificent, but at what cost?
Though Lee has softened the experimental edges of BIll Gunn’s original effort, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus remains a well intentioned homage with some updated references, such as Hess’s trip to a local doctor to be tested for HIV after his first killing. I imagine its the first vampire film to rectify the ravages of AIDS on the undead.
Even more odd are the wry touches of humor infused against the bloodletting. The first victim of Hess, a prostitute named Lucky (Felicia Pearson), evokes what’s probably the line of the year upon awakening and observing the state brought upon her by the Hess. Strange, yes, but at least its a vampire film that gives us something completely fresh and unexpected.
With all that said, its easy to see what attracted Spike Lee to the project. Funded and supported through a Kickstarter campaign, his self-described re-imagining of Ganja and Hess doesn’t quite pack the overwhelming social critique of the original, but Da Sweet Blood of Jesus remains a unique and wholly watchable experiment.
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus opens Friday February 20th at the Texas Theater.