Review: Spike Lee’s Sometimes Engaging, But Muddled, Meandering & Ultimately Frustrating ‘Da Sweet Blood of Jesus’

Review: Spike Lee's Sometimes Engaging, But Muddled, Meandering & Ultimately Frustrating 'Da Sweet Blood of Jesus'

Last year, Spike Lee launched a successful $1.45 million Kickstarter campaign for a mysterious,

untitled new joint. He offered only the vaguest of hints at its synopsis: “It’s about people

addicted to blood,” he said. “But they’re not vampires.” Over the months, some casting news,

film stills, and an intriguing title trickled out, sparking speculation that the movie might be a

remake of Spencer Williams’ 1941 race film “The Sweet Blood of Jesus,” or possibly

Bill Gunn’s underrated horror classic “Ganja & Hess.”

We now know of course that “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus,” which made its world

premiere at ABFF over the weekend, is indeed a reinterpretation of Gunn’s 1973 movie that

used vampirism as a metaphor for addiction. A genre-defying answer to blaxploitation films

like “Blacula,” “Ganja & Hess” premiered at Cannes to a standing ovation

and critical acclaim. But upon arrival in the States it did dismally at the box office, and was

eventually recut (without Gunn’s approval) into several watered down versions of itself with titles

like “Blood Couple,” “Black Evil,” and “Double Possession.”

Lee has attempted to pay homage to Gunn’s original vision with a film that at moments is

deeply engaging, but also muddled, meandering, and ultimately frustrating. His reinterpretation

borrows much of the plot of its predecessor: Dr. Hess Green (Stephen Tyrone Williams) is a rich

anthropologist who lives in a huge Martha’s Vineyard mansion filled with rare African artifacts.

After being attacked by his suicidal research assistant with an ancient Ashanti blade, he takes

on a sudden insatiable hunger for human blood. Later, he meets and seduces his assistant’s

wife Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams), a beautiful and dynamic young woman who he eventually

grants the gift and curse of immortality.

Set largely at Hess’s forty acre estate, at times shifting to a Red Hook housing project (where

he picks up his unassuming victims), “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus” is an anomaly and

a contradiction, not only to its source material but to much of Lee’s oeuvre. It has its strengths,

brief glimmers, largely thanks to lead actors Williams and Abrahams. Their chemistry and

conviction in the often spiraling narrative and clunky dialogue they’re given to work with, grounds

what is otherwise a thoroughly mystifying viewing experience.

It’s hard to know what kind of film Lee thinks he has made. It closely follows Gunn’s story, yet,

much like “Oldboy,” he refuses to call it a remake. It’s a heavily gorey movie about an

undead couple addicted to drinking human blood, but he refuses to call it a vampire film. Like

the original, it is certainly a more complicated take on genre, but it lacks the nuance and the

sophistication that elevated “Ganja & Hess.”

As part of Lee’s Brooklyn series, there are strong ties to his last joint “Red Hook Summer.” Many of the wrong choices that Lee made with that film turn up in this one – meandering

scenes and montages, stilted dialogue, a great but overbearing soundtrack that disrupts key

moments that would have been more powerful with silence. There’s also the return of the Lil’

Piece of Heaven Church, tying in themes of black identity, sexuality, class, religious guilt and

constraint that plague Hess, much in the way they plagued preacher Enoch. And, like “Red

Hook Summer,” the problem here is that so many interesting themes are addressed, but

vaguely and with so little consequence as to make the viewer wonder why they were introduced

at all.

The end of this month marks the 25th anniversary of Lee’s seminal moment as a director – the

movie he will always be remembered for, “Do the Right Thing.” It was with “Do

the Right Thing” that Lee hit his stride as a new, young director, calling on all his tools to

produce one of the most vibrant and important films of 1989. Perhaps then the most fascinating

thing about “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus,” the most fascinating thing about its many

weaknesses in narrative and style, is the puzzle work that must be done on the viewer’s part in

trying to find the threads that connect the director who made “Do the Right Thing” to

the director who made this one.

But the pitfalls in such an exercise, in trying to find the links from then to now, is that there

is often a desire to pick away at any and all potential moments of allegory or symbolism or

meaning, the way one would pick at a scab; even when there is no meaning. Because there’s

the question of how deliberate Lee’s choices are. In “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus,” some of his changes from the original seem more arbitrary than calculated, the experimental

flourishes of a storyteller who is making things up as he goes along. A character that was male

in “Ganja & Hess” is made female here, and while there is the potential for nuance in

this change, the lesbian sex scene that follows is simply overlong and exploitative.

One wonders if Lee has simply run out of things to say, or, more specifically, lost the tools with

which to say them.

There’s this needling desire to give Lee the benefit of the doubt, to consider that he has

somehow made a not-so-great film on purpose. That desire is easy to give in to with this joint

because, again, there are moments of vitaliy, the same kind of frenetic, palpable, sincere energy

that has made his earlier work so important. Unfortunately, and to the detriment of what could

have been a much better movie than it was, those moments are simply too few and far between.

Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a regular contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory, and co-hosts the podcast Two Brown Girls. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.

This Article is related to: Features


Comments

FREEDATHOUSAND

I agree with Introspective Man. At some point, we need to accept that there is a point or signature method to Lee’s approach. What is that method? What are its characteristics? Why insist on comparing it to the original, if he insists it’s not remake. Why not evaluate the film for what it is? Sounds like the reviewer wanted a linear narrative, but what do the breaks and riffs mean?

anon

can people just accept that spike is just one note director and not expect miracles from him?
why does he have to be shoe horned in to meet everyone's needs he is just the black version of woody allen and he really should have just stuck with the race movies of old. He is just not versatile.

Up In The Balcony

**As the sun rises and the dust settles on another brouhaha in the neighborhood of Shadow and Act, we hear the not so delightful voice of Mr. Black Waldorf singing Mr. Rodger's song "Won't You Be My Neighbor?**

"It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor. Would you be mine?Could you be mine?… It's a neighborly day in this beauty wood, a neighborly day for a beauty. Would you be mine? Could you be mine?… I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you. I've always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you.Would you be mine? Could you be mine? Please won't you be my neighbor?"

Statler: What the hell? What are you crowing about?

Waldolf: Wake up. It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

Statler: You big dummy, I know the song but what has you so giddy?

Waldorf: Well, have you noticed there's no more superspactaculous, magnificently espresso delicious rumbles down in the jungle?

Statler: Please Don King, it's too early for that.

Waldorf: DOWN GOES FRAZIER! DOWN GOES FRAZIER!…

Statler: ….and Howard Cosell you're not, but whatsup?

Waldorf: Well, I just think it's a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

Statler: Okay, I'll bite, why?

Waldorf: Well, in short, controversy cured all.

Statler: Okay Mr. Confucius, splain dat to me like I'm a 9 year old.

Waldorf: Well, I can sing another song that I know will hit your sweet spot.

Statler: Stop stop stop, no more songs, your singing is akin to a couple of skeletons throwin' a fit on a hot tin roof, so please, just the facts.

Waldorf: So you don't wanna hear "Controversy" by Prince?

Statler: NO!

Waldorf: Okay, so here's what I'm sayin', controversy is a good thang.

Statler: **shrugging shoulders**… "and?"

Waldorf: Well, I am sure you're heard of Frederick Douglas, right?

Statler: Come on man, don't disrespect me like that. Everybody knows he's the brother who put Afros on the map.

Waldorf: Okay… yeah… right. Anyway, he said, "Power concedes nothing without a demand". So all the cat fighting, mud slinging and high tempered debates we've grown accustom of seeing below our feet is a good thang.

Statler: Hmmm… I'll have to think about that. But tell me, is there any collateral damage?

Waldorf: Splain dat?

Statler: Well, even though controversy is a good thang, can't some folks get hurt?

Waldorf: Well, this is a gathering place for intelligent black folks who love to express their opinions. And, make no mistake about it, this is a discussion board. So I quote "If one can't stand the heat, I would suggest not going into the online kitchen." ~ The visitor/reader Carolyn Campbell

Statler: LOOK OUT NOW! That sounds like one has to bring some ass to get some and don't start no mess and there won't be none.

Waldorf: EXACTLY!

Statler: Oh lord, so tell me, did somebody's ass get spanked in this debate?

Waldorf: Well, some folks came by with pearls of wisdom (long detailed concise explanations of their overview of the film and Spike Lee) while others dropped a little… ahh… well… I guess I can say it, they dropped a little swine.

Statler: Come on now, PREACH!… "do not throw pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces." (Matthew 7:6).

Waldorf: I'm glad you understand. So check out some of the swine:

"Comments here seem to be 75% "This movie is typical Spike garbage" and 25% long-winded explanations explaining why it's not"

"You are clearly not a business person."

"[Spike] what the hell happened to you man? Your ass used to be beautiful"

"The title of this piece could be applied to every Spike Lee movie except "Do The Right Thing"

"Yet another awful Spike Lee joint that nobody will see"

Statler: Opps upside my head, I get it. Those porous one line (and unsubstantiated) opinions can be viewed as garbage (swine) and thus, a wise man would not throw his pearls before that mess.

Waldorf: Exacto my friend.

Statler: Hey, what ever happened to the collateral damaged ones?

Waldorf: I don't wanna be all silly and sh*t but they apparently channeled the 5 little pigs and cried "wee-wee-wee" all the way home.

Statler: lol… you mean they took their ass-whoopins too personally?

Waldorf: Well, that's hard to say. As you've noticed they're not ones who express themselves with much clarity. In this case, they came by and splashed a little mud of Spike (in 1 sentence burps) and then immediately exited stage left…. never to return. And while they were running for cover Random Commentary came by and put a cherry on top of this cake.

Statler: You know what man, you are my n*****. So, let's sing the song together.

**The two opinionated old men are last heard singing their favorite song "Won't You Be My Neighbor**

"It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor. Would you be mine?Could you be mine?…. won't you be my neighbor?… "

Jones

Comments here seem to be 75% "This movie is typical Spike garbage" and 25% long-winded explanations explaining why it's not.

RANDOM COMMENTARY

First disclaimer I haven't seen this movie, BUT I will.

All great artist go through an intermediary stage where the first time / original fans feel alienated by the non-secular body of work. Spike Lee has always had a New York frame of mind in the majority if his films. When Spike Lee breaks from that tradition the congregation ye of little faith are ready to cast him to the wolves.

Get on the Bus and Four Little Girls broke the streak of some variation of Mookie and the Spike Lee dolly shot. Spike was letting you know that he wasn't the black Woody Allen. He wasn't limited to a microcosm of 6 million stories in the naked city.

Spike came back with the Summer of Sam. It was a New York based story but it wasn't a 100% Spike Lee Joint either. This movie had cgi and for the most part revolved around John Leguizamo. This was Spike's major commercial contender. The year 1999 was a major year in films, just look at the top 100 films on IMDb for 1999. Spike had unbelievable competition that year and he had to prove he could run with the majors. I would compare 1999 to the year 1984 for the number of quality films produced.

The Original Kings of Comedy was Spike's attempt to capture the modern day versions of Pryor, Foxx, Cosby, and Witherspoon. It also showed Spike wasn't this "heavy" that always needed a social conscious point to exploit in his films.

What do Inside Man and Miracle at Saint Anna represent? They represent further versatility in the types of stories Spike is able to tell. A thriller and a war picture.

Red Hook Summer was an experimentation in color saturation and a twist ending. Spike is further preparing you for what's next.

Old Boy and Da Sweet Blood of Jesus reinterpretations of other artists works. Time will dictate whether these films become cult classics or misguided artistic forays.

Spike had to step outside the comforts of Brooklyn to grow as an artist. The question is will you appreciate a classic Spike Lee Joint when he returns with an extended palette and fresher perspective.

moon

Very solid critique. I must cosign @Introspective Man…Spike has NEVER been a MAINSTREAM American Filmmaker and any critique of his oeuvre must take than into consideration. Dude's strength has never been linear narrative storytelling of the type that most American audiences (of all ethnic backgrounds) are used to. The fact that is rise occurred at the same time as a resurgence in Afrocentricity in the late 80's was a coincidence that he initially benefited from, but now he's haunted by. I think that the lukewarm reception of some of his most interesting work (GIRL 6, SUMMER OF SAM, CLOCKERS…to name a few) is due to the inability of American audiences and critics to expand their aesthetic palette. Which is why many of us will continue to support his work, the beautiful and the ugly (Red Hook was damn sure "ugly.") Spike is doing SPIKE…I appreciate that.

.

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Stephanie

I saw the film and thought the acting, score and the different british accents were pretty good. However I thought the story was gory, disgusting, disturbing, different and disappointing. I say this because I think the film does not appeal to us as an african american audience. In other words, I think it was designed to appeal more to a non african american or american audience. And I think it was also designed to show Spike's artistic range and not for commercial appeal. It'll probably be more suitable for a European or French audience because they are into non mainstream artsy material considering Cannes gave "Ganja and Hess" a standing ovation back in 1973. Spike and the cast will probably get a lot of props for going against the grain. I would love to see how this film does overseas in festivals such as Cannes or Berlin.

Up In The Balcony

**The two disagreeable old men, Mr. Black Statler and Mr. Black Waldorf are awaken from their slumber by the tap-tap-tap of a few misguided armchair movie critics walking across their stage **

Statler: Hey Waldorf, wake up! Don't you smell that?

Waldorf: Don't make me have to cut you. I smell your old funky breath but what's up?

Statler: I smell mess and messy folks down there.

Waldorf: What's new, this IS Shadow and Act's comment section, so what has you all puffed up and your eyes twitchin' like Deebos'

Statler: Deebo my ass, he got knocked the fu*k out, and I have 20-20 vision. You need to wake the fu*k up.

Waldorf: Oh, I get it, now you're "WAKE THE FU*K UP" Samuel Jackson from that Obama commercial, huh?

Statler: See, that's exactly what I'm talking about, uniformed Negros talking out of their boo-boos. Listen, the young and restless (not the soap opera) folks might believe Samuel Jackson coined that phrase during the presidential election, but no-no-no, Spike Lee was the man behind that plan.

Waldorf: What's your point?

Statler: Well, look at all those fools and white folks down there.

Waldorf: And… what… now you're a racist with stinky breath?

Statler: Damn man, if the brain is one of our largest muscles – don't look into the light cuz your brain muscle is as soggy and limp as a wet tea bag. Have you prepared your will?

Waldorf: Funny-funny-funny Mr Black Red Skelton. But who you calling fools and ignorant white folks?

Statler: I ain't calling no names but only a fool or a white guy would say "The title of this piece could be applied to every Spike Lee movie except "Do The Right Thing"…. and dumber mess like "Yet another awful Spike Lee joint that nobody will see. What a surprise"

Waldorf: Yeah my brotha, I have to agree, that's some funky-ass sh*t. But why suspect that they're white guys?

Statler: Well, do you remember the movie Gloria (1980) starring Gena Rowlands?

Waldorf: Loved it!

Statler: Remember the little kid?

Waldorf: Do I, he stole the show.

S: Then you'll remember the scene in which he a Gloria Swanson (Gena Rowland) were trying to get a hotel room as a place to hide from the mobsters.

W: Do I? Hey, I think I know where you're going. Is it that little boy's line?

S: Bingo Baby! That little boy said a line I'll never forget. Let me set it up. They approach the desk clerk, he says, "Yes Miss?". The clerk had given her a questionable look (like she was a ho looking for a 3 hour hotel) so she replies "I'm with a kid". The clerk shoots back "I realize that, but we haven't any space". "We don't want space", snaps Gloria, "we want a damn room!". The clerk continues "Do you have a reservation? I'm sorry, there isn't any room". Then the little six year old kid breaks in "Lets get out of here now! Fu*k! He don't know the score. He's sees a dame like you and a guy like me, he don't know."

Waldorf: Great freakin' line. So, white folks act like 6 year old fools?

Stadler: No, not exactly. Basically, what I'm suggesting is most whites just don't know.

Waldorf: Know what?

Stadler: Well, you'd have to ask Andrea Seewood for a deeper explanation, but they simply can't get with anything "black"… and, have never walked in our shoes. So how in the hell can they remove their "whiteness" long enough to fairly judge a Spike Lee film?

Waldorf: Hmmm… I do believe you have a point.

Statler: And who in the right mind (or white mind) would imply that Malcolm X, Clockers, Inside Man, Get On The Bus, Jungle Fever, Mo' Better Blues, School Daze and Do The Right Thing were not quality films?

Waldorf: Well, I don't know who, but I loved all of them.

Statler: Exactly! You're a black man and those films resonated with your soul. But white folks don't know.

Waldorf: Pssst, Stat, don't look now but that hater mob down there includes a few black folks.

Statler: Please, spare me, I already know. There's always a few frustrated wannabe black filmmakers and garden variety haters who believes their stairway to heaven will be strengthened by mimicking the ways of white folks.

Waldorf: Hold up now, what wrong with critical feedback?

Statler: Critical feedback?!

Waldorf: Yeah, you know, they're analyzing Spike's films and offering their opinions on them.

Statler: Game-game-game, don't be nobodies fool, read their "opinions" and then tell me if you'd consider that hater juice – a critical analysis?

Waldorf: Damn Mr. Angry Black Man…

Statler: My name is Mr. Black Statler

Waldorf: Okay blackie, what's your take away from the chatter below?

Statler: Well, in short, I can appreciate the comments from Dave's Deluxe and Daryl. And especially Introspective Man, his comment showed the mind of a sensible and wise man.

Waldorf: Okay, I guess I'll leave it right there. But wait, what did you think about Steve McQueen's casting call. You know, that one in which he's looking for a brotha who doesn't look like a brotha.

Statler: WTF!?

Waldorf: I know, but what do you think about the ambiguous negro thang?

Statler: What do I think? I think you don't want me to go there and it's time for you to take another nap.

Waldorf: Wait, one more question. How ya liking the author of this post.

Statler: Who, Zeba? Oh, she's cool, she gave Spike respect. Now go to sleep.

Waldorf: Night-Night.

Statler: Good night and don't let the bed bugs bite.

** Mr. Black Statler and his buddy, Mr. Black Waldorf nod off once again**

Carl

"What the hell happened to you man? Your ass used to be beautiful!" — Sam Jackson (Jackie Brown)

Man-Over-Bored

(In my best elderly-man-voice) "Kids, I remember back when Spike Lee was a relevant filmmaker…"

Mark & Darla

Does anyone really know who Spike Lee is making movies for lately? Maybe the zombie in the chair in the corner might know.

Daryl

I can't wait to see the movie, especially reading a little bit of the reviews and hearing about people walking out on the movie the first hour. This means this is a very a personal movie even if it is a remake. Filmmakers making personal films are my favorite films because it means they are not trying to kiss the simple minded audience butt who only like bs formula studio movies. You look at the reviews even the people that don't like it says it can't be dismissed, it's going to be one of those movies that divides critics with strong opinions from both sides.

Dave's Deluxe

Spike is an exceptional producer; his documentaries are stellar. When he presents the reality and fact, he can do no wrong. He is a mover-shaker with a killer work ethic.

Spike is not, however, a very good visual narrative storyteller.

Introspective Man

Thank you for a very insightful, pointed and contextual film review. I think it has to be said that Spike Lee, at his core, has always been an art house filmmaker. This is both his strength and his weakness. He always creates unconventional and interesting work (even in his failures). He explores a lot of ideas within a single film, that are compelling and complex enough to be to inspire many different films. At the same time, he is not to be bothered with telling a clear narrative or making films easily accessible for a broad audience. Maybe he doesn't even care about that? The point is, we as an audience who were so invigorated and emboldened by Spike Lee's films of the past, may be placing an expectation on his work that doesn't align with the creative sensibility expressed in his work. Ultimately, we just want his films to be good. But when you go to see a Spike Lee movie, know this: you are going to see an arthouse film.

ALP

The title of this piece could be applied to every Spike Lee movie except "Do The Right Thing".

Turner

Spike can"t complain about studio interference on this one. His muse done packed up and left town.

chris

Yet another awful Spike Lee joint that nobody will see. What a surprise.

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