This shouldn’t be news to those who’ve been following our coverage of Spike Lee’s Kickstarter-funded “blood addiction” joint – which he’s titled Da Blood Of Jesus. Although on IMDB, it’s listed as The Sweet Blood of Jesus.
In previous posts, I’ve wondered whether it is indeed a remake, or a re-imagining of Bill Gunn’s woefully-underseen 1973 film that revolutionized the vampire film, Ganja & Hess – a film that was suppressed in the United States because it wasn’t the Hollywood genre film that its producers had commissioned writer/director Bill Gunn to make.
I also wondered if it was a remake of Spencer Williams’ 1941 “race film” The Blood of Jesus, which I’d guess has been seen by even fewer people.
But I bring it up again today because we’re hearing that Ganja & Hess is indeed of influence on Spike’s The Sweet Blood of Jesus; although whether it’s a remake, a retelling, a re-imagining, whether it’s based on, etc, we can’t say just yet. But there’s apparently a connection between the two.
But again, whether this turns out to be fact or fiction, it’s not an entirely ridiculous assumption, based on available evidence.
To wit, while the film’s plot is still being kept a secret, Spike has given us a few clues since the project was first announced last year – specifically, that the film will focus on human beings addicted to blood (although, as he repeatedly emphasized, it’s not a vampire movie), and that there’ll be lots of nudity.
He’s also stressed his need for secrecy, because, apparently, the element of surprise is necessary for audiences to appropriately enjoy and appreciate the film, so we may never know exactly what the film is really about until we see it.
Gunn’s film came along during the blaxploitation era, a profitable movement the producers hoped to cash in on with Ganja & Hess, with what was to essentially be a black version of popular mainstream vampire films, likely inspired by what they saw in Blacula a year earlier; but Bill Gunn wasn’t interested in exploitation, and had other plans.
Gunn is said to have shared the following with a confidant: “The last thing I want to do is make a black vampire film… If I had to write about blood, I was going to do that, but I could not just make a movie about blood.“
And so he instead used vampirism as a proxy for addiction (although the complexity of the plot makes it nearly impossible to reduce the film to any simple metaphor or allegory).
This all sounds eerily similar to much of what Spike has told us about his film thus far.
Add to that the fact that the film’s cast boasts Michael K. Williams, Stephen Tyrone Williams (the film’s male lead) and Zaraah Abrahams (the film’s leading lady), as cast members – a perfect numerical match for the trio of actors who starred in Ganja & Hess – Bill Gunn (as George Meda), Duane Jones (as the film’s male lead, Dr Hess Green) and Marlene Clark (as the film’s leading lady, Ganja Meda).
So in Spike’s joint, Michael K. Williams will play a version of the George Meda character; Stephen Tyrone Williams as a variation of Dr. Hess Green; and Zaraah Abrahams as Ganja Meda.
The above still image is from Spike’s film, by the way. He shared it on Instagram a couple of months ago.
In Ganja & Hess, Dr. Hess Green, a wealthy and respected African American anthropologist, is assigned a new assistant, an intelligent but unstable man named George Meda. One drunken night, George stabs Hess with a dagger from an ancient tribe and then kills himself. It turns out that the tribe from which the dagger came, was cursed with a thirst for human blood, and, by the time George’s wife, Ganja, comes looking for him, Hess has developed a similar addiction to blood. Hess and Ganja fall in love, and they soon marry, but Hess infects his new bride with the curse, which gives them eternal life, but, of course, at a terrible price.
The fact that Gunn chose to defy the film’s producers, and make what was effectively the anti-Blacula – a challenging, allegorical work of avant-garde cinema – may have been to the film’s box office detriment. Made on a $350,000 budget, the film was released in 1973 to critical acclaim (it was a Critics’ Week pick at the Cannes Film Festival that year, to start), but wasn’t exactly the box office draw that the producers had hoped for. It was soon yanked from theaters, sold to another company – Heritage Enterprises – who drastically recut Gunn’s original, and re-released it as more of a genre film, under the title Blood Couple (although you might find it listed under a number of other titles).
And so, for many years, what was essentially a bastardized, gutted version of the film (created without Gunn’s involvement) was all that was available. But thankfully, a print of the original Gunn film remained and, almost 30 years later, Kino Classics released the film in the original, stunning and complex director’s cut, which ignores conventional narrative structure, mastered in HD from a 35mm negative.
It’s now available on Blu-ray & DVD. Special Features include: “The Blood of the Thing” (25 Min) an interview-based documentary; Audio commentary by producer Chiz Schultz, actress Marlene Clark, cinematographer James Hinton, and composer Sam Waymon; the original screenplay by Bill Gunn; an essay on the making of the film (and subsequent recutting) by David Walker and Tim Lucas; and a photo gallery.
Spike has said that he certainly doesn’t expect a huge release for The Sweet Blood of Jesus, and, like most films at its budget-level, sees a pick-up by one of the smaller distributors, and an eventual solid box office return for a film of its ilk.
Stylistically, he has said that he’s going for “something new,” although some of the usual Spike-isms will likely still be incorporated, like his famous dolly shot.
So, like Ganja & Hess, I say expect a stylized and *different* Spike Lee treatise on sex, religion, and African American identity in The Sweet Blood of Jesus.
I’d expect a cryptic first teaser trailer, which will likely debut any day now, given that he’s eyeing a summer release. Principal photography officially wrapped on October 11.
Spike raised just over $1.4 million to make the film.
But whether it’s influenced in any way by Gunn’s 1973 film, all the conversation linking both films is a very good thing for Ganja & Hess, if only because it could encourage those who haven’t seen it, to want to do so, giving the film a 21st century *revival* of sorts.
While we wait for Spike to confirm or reject all links to Gunn’s film (although maybe he has said something and we just missed it), watch this short summary/review of Ganja & Hess by M. Asli Dukan – producer and director of the feature length doc Invisible Universe (a project we’ve been following here on S&A) which explores the history of African American images in fantasy, horror and science fiction literature and film: