In January, I published the below piece, making a case for why I believed Spike Lee’s Kickstarter-funded "blood addiction" joint – "Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus," which, up until 2 days ago, he’d been very secretive about – is a remake/reimagining of Bill Gunn’s woefully-underseen 1973 film that revolutionized the vampire genre, "Ganja & Hess." I say that it’s now no longer a secret, because the film made its World Premiere at the American Black Film Festival on Sunday night, screening to packed houses (it screened twice) of eager audiences who’ve long been in the dark about what the mysterious project was all about. Other than a few teases, Spike never went into detail about the film’s plot, and we were all left guessing, wondering what the veteran filmmaker was cooking up for us. Zeba Blay and I both saw the film on Sunday, and Zeba interviewed Spike (as well as the film’s 2 leads) on Monday afternoon. A post-interview review of the film will be published here in the next day or so. It’s a film that comes packed with plenty, and demands that one sit and digest it over a day or two before formally writing about it. A second viewing might even be necessary, although neither of us had that luxury.
But I thought I’d repost my original rumination on the film as the then likely remake of "Ganja & Hess," before Zeba publishes her piece, if only to remind you of it, alerting you to the fact that it’s no longer speculation, prepping you for what’s to come. So if you still haven’t seen Bill Gunn’s original 1973 film, I encourage you to seek it out before seeing Spike’s take. Or maybe not; one could argue that it might be better to see Spike’s film first, so that one’s appreciation (or lack of appreciation) of "Da Sweet Blood of Jesus" isn’t potentially tainted by having seen the original, as comparisons are inevitable, as was the case for me.
It’s a near exact copy of the original film, but with Spike’s own cinematic flourishes. He makes it his own, essentially. And I’m so sure that, just like "Red Hook Summer," his prior juncture into the, shall we say, avant garde, "Da Sweet Blood of Jesus" will be just as polarizing, and I can’t wait for the discussions that will follow its commercial release, which hasn’t been set yet.
Until then, here’s my January piece considering the film as a remake of "Ganja & Hess," which will be followed by Zeba’s review in the next day or so.
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 to speculate that "Ganja & Hess" is indeed of influence on Spike’s "Da Sweet Blood of Jesus;" Although whether it’s a remake, a retelling, a re-imagining, whether it’s based on, etc, I can’t say just yet. But there appears to be a connection between the two. And, 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 "Da 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 "Da 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: