As a distinctive voice in American culture, Spike Lee remains a more vibrant presence than ever. His record behind the camera has been spotty of late, but made on a shoestring with Kickstarter funding, the supernatural quasi-vampire drama "Da Sweet Blood of Jesus" proves it’s worth sticking with Lee -- even when the final result isn’t as good as the energy fueling it.
Lee's last few narrative credits were disheartening in the context of his earlier successes. "Red Hook Summer" marked a messy attempt to resurrect the community of "Do the Right Thing," though it occasionally overcame its shortcomings as Lee’s mixture of sympathy and affection for life in the projects burst through the melodramatic exterior. His "Oldboy" remake, released last fall, suffered from the opposite problem: It was slick but soulless.
With "Da Sweet Blood of Jesus," Lee consolidates some of the best attributes of both recent efforts to make a mild return to form. A relatively faithful remake of the under-seen 1973 black horror classic "Ganja & Hess," it doesn’t match that movie’s rich treatment of African-American identity, and suffers from some distracting, amateurish qualities associated with the performances and script. But it successfully funnels some of its best ideas through a filter of New York attitude and rage against a society riddled by addiction and socioeconomic problems. In essence, no matter the source material, it's a Spike Lee joint.
Lee refuses to use the word "vampire" in reference to "Da Sweet Blood of Jesus," probably because it has a lot more on its mind. (The word comes up just once in the script when Hess rejects its usage.) Just as Lee's "Bamboozled" updated the premise of "Network" for a modern age of racial imbalance, "Da Sweet Blood of Jesus" upgrades the source material to modern day New York, though it matches the B-movie qualities of the Bill Gunn-directed original more often than its brilliantly textured exploration of African-American heritage. Both movies focus on mannered professor Dr. Hess Green, who’s studying the habits of a now-defunct African tribe addicted to blood and inadvertently inhabits its tendencies; in the process, his research partner winds up dead, leading Hess to seduce the deceased man’s widow, Ganja Hightower.
Dividing its time between Martha’s Vineyard and New York City, Lee’s movie lays out this scenario with many of the same beats, but with Off-Broadway actor Stephen Tyrone Williams in the lead role, his theatricality clashes with the on-the-nose dialogue and makes the material’s sillier aspects stand out.
It's only once Zaraah Abrahams surfaces as the British Ganja that “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus” manages to generate some heat from its performances, as the singleminded Ganja gradually figures out Hess’ bloodsucking tendencies and develops a peculiar romance with him. Mostly, the movie suffers from flat line-reading and on-the-nose dialogue throughout, but these same attributes allow a handful of utterly fantastic moments to shine in contrast.
Shifting between the affluent professor’s leisurely time on Martha’s Vineyard and his journeys into the low income housing projects as he searches for blood, Lee turns the material into a "Sullivan’s Travels"-style wake up call from a member of the 1 percent. Aside from assailing the alienating powers of inherited wealth -- Hess lives off money earned by his late parents -- "Da Sweet Blood of Jesus" explores various forms of addiction plaguing contemporary African-American society (his target might be broader than racial identity, but there aren't many white faces populating the cast).
Unfortunately, Lee's rudimentary script can’t keep pace with the deep themes. "We exist in a blood society," Hess announces early on. "The United State of America is the most violent country in the world." (Insert forehead slap here.) Later, Ganja and Hess engage in a conversation about contemporary addiction that reads like a thesis on the movie’s ideas, rather than a discussion elegantly sublimated into the plot. And Hess’ laughably old-fashioned British butler, played by Rami Malek, is best left forgotten in the annals of Lee’s filmography.
But the movie’s irredeemable flaws mainly stand out because as a whole, “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus” shows just enough sophistication to justify its presence in Lee’s filmography. Thanks to "Newlyweeds" cinematographer Daniel Patterson (whose work in that strong debut last year also probed the struggles of an urban black man), the movie maintains a beautifully textured look. But while the setting shifts from the tranquility of Martha’s Vineyard to grittier scenes set in New York, it's the latter setting where the director’s true vision kicks into high gear.
Whenever Lee ventures away from the outrageous particulars of the plot, "Da Sweet Blood of Jesus" transforms into a stylish means of exploring contemporary struggles in urban black America by depicting it as a ballet of navigating personal and practical conflicts alike: The marvelous credits sequence finds a dancer elegantly unfolding his body at the center of the Knicks’ courtroom, Battery Park City and elsewhere. A jazzy piano score by Bruce Hornsby routinely suggests a bigger picture than the specifics of the story. Similarly, when Hess pays a visit to a clinic for an HIV/AIDS test following one particularly gruesome experience with a prostitute, the scene's inherent suspense transcends the movie's supernatural framework.
But Lee reaches the apex of his intentions during a climactic church sequence featuring a Brooklyn group's vibrant rendition of "You’ve Got to Learn" as the main character confronts his sins. (Beat for beat, certain shots here mirror those found in "Red Hook Summer" during its own standout moment.)
While "Ganja & Hess" continues to find new fans on DVD, Lee’s movie lacks the same dynamic blend of shock and intelligence that gives its inspiration such lasting value. But it’s a sufficient reflection of the way his tendency toward irritation comes from a place of gentler reflection than implied by his occasional public rants. The movie's final, evocative image ventures away from outright anger to find two figures standing on a vacant beach, gazing out a distant horizon.
It's here that Lee, working far beyond the restrictions of commercial filmmaking, show his true colors by looking ahead to an uncertain tomorrow. That underlying optimism lies at the heart of Lee’s best work, and the Kickstarter financing for this movie’s ultra-secret production suggests a support for that vision, no matter how he chooses to express it. Lee's movies always possess serious convictions coursing through their veins; in this case, they burst into a bloody mess on par with the scattered topics in play. But Lee manages to mop them up for the finale.
"Da Sweet of Blood of Jesus" premiered last weekend at the American Black Film Festival. It does not currently have U.S. distribution.