Earnest, unsubtle 'Da Sweet Blood of Jesus' updates 'Ganja & Hess' but can't recreate its force
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus Gravitas Ventures
Director: Spike Lee
Screenplay: Spike Lee and Bill Gunn, based on the 1973 film Ganja & Hess, written by Bill Gunn
Starring: Stephen Tyrone Williams, Zaraah Abrahams, Rami Malek, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Jeni Perillo and Elvis Nolasco
Not rated / 2 hours, 3 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)
There's something off-puttingly clean about the look of Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, Spike Lee's Kickstarter-funded reimagining of Bill Gunn's 1973 Ganja & Hess. The film is lurid and violent, erotic and primal, but looks and feels anything but. It's too pristine for any of that to really come across, at least not in the way its inherent carnality suggests it could or should.
The film has the sterilized brightness of a television commercial. It takes places mostly in and around a wealthy beachside estate, and involves two primary characters as one, and then the other, becomes addicted to blood, gaining all the immortal qualities that come with such an affliction. The movie resists the term "vampire," and indeed there's no mention of fangs or aversion to sunlight.
But perhaps the film should have resisted sunlight after all, because that is at the root of one of its most significant failings. So much use is made of daylight or otherwise natural lighting (in both the exteriors and the interiors of the house in which the story is set) - partly due to the ability of the digital camera's ability to capture that natural light, and partly, I'm sure, due to mere prudence considering the 16-day shoot and shoestring budget. But rather than evoking the complicated physical, emotional and philosophical elements that Lee and Gunn (who co-wrote the remake) are trying to get across, the images often wind up looking like something out of Better Homes and Gardens, or out of a commercial for Windex or paper towels. This kitchen sure does look sparkling clean!
In many scenes, the film is downright fluorescent, coming across as impersonal in the way a corporate office building might, or a Walmart. These are deliberate filmmaking choices being made by Lee and Patterson, and in theory they could be playing with something interesting - the chilly neutrality of the visuals both reflecting the characters' vampiric state (at one point they even discuss how perpetually cold they are) while contrasting the hot-bloodedness of the passion and craving by which Dr. Hess (Stephen Tyrone Williams) and his new lover Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams) are driven. But too often those visual choices undermine what should be viscerally forceful material. I found myself clamoring for Ernest Dickerson.
There are exceptions to this, mostly in the church scenes - heavy on yellows, purples and reds, the kinds of warm hues that Lee, one of our most wonderfully cinematic directors, has made such great use of throughout his career. (I also remember some of that same warmth in the color palette of his last low-budget effort, 2012's Red Hook Summer.)
In a sense, though, the straightforwardness of the photography (shot on Sony's 4K CineAlta PMW-F55) is fitting because the images are as conspicuously on-the-nose as much of the rest of the film, which is its other fatal flaw. Da Sweet Blood, like its predecessor, is entrenched in metaphor - among other things, the intersection of race, class and political power, the history of American violence, and the legacy of black assimilation in American society - but they're often written or presented as awkward, un-nuanced thoughts rather than fully formed concepts.
You can see this clunky obviousness pretty clearly in how Lee and Patterson reinterpret Ganja & Hess' signature shot. The setup is the same in both versions - Dr. Hess is hosting an acquaintance at his home, and finds him in the middle of the night in a tree, drunken and suicidal. The original scene's shot composition is astonishing. As an entire conversation plays out between the two men, we only see the houseguest (named George Meda in the 1973 film, changed to Lafayette Hightower this time around) from the waist down, his legs hanging down from the tree at the top left of the frame. Hanging in the foreground on the right side is a noose, and Gunn holds the shot for the length of the conversation. The rope is also hovering at about eye level, adding another expressive detail to the image when Hess is eventually framed directly in front of it as his guest remains in the tree behind him.
But in the remake, the shot is entirely straightforward. Not only do we see the man from head to toe in a wider composition, but the rope is tied (loosely) around his neck, as opposed to Gunn's more evocative choice. It's not a bad shot, but it is a much less interesting one. What's curious is that Blood re-uses many whole scenes from Ganja pretty much line-for-line and shot-for-shot, and yet it goes an entirely different direction when redoing arguably the original's best scene.
In any case, in modernizing Gunn's film, Lee takes some other liberties that are more interesting. His version is full of self-contained commentaries and references, like bringing HIV/AIDS into the equation - an issue that obviously wouldn't have been present in 1973. He also shifts around some of the sexual dynamics, including one key sequence characterized both by its elegant camerawork and its adolescent sexual attitudes. And most memorably, he opens the film with an isolated but lovely dance sequence by Charles "Lil Buck" Riley, shot at various locations around Brooklyn. Obviously it's similar in concept to the opening of Lee's Do the Right Thing, which was defiant and bombastic as opposed to the mellow, sorrowful tone this time around. Whatever my complaints about the rest of the film, the opening sequence is outstanding, and the kind of bold flourish few filmmakers would attempt.
Having Gunn's superior Ganja & Hess as a comparison point to Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is both illuminating and, yes, a little unfair. But it's instructive nonetheless. Most notable for me is the potency of the original's 16mm photography, from the textures of the grain structure to the dark and striking lighting choices. That, mixed with the freewheeling editing, resulted in a film that could simultaneously feel documentary-like and surreal or expressionistic. Lee is a great filmmaker, but many of his aesthetic choices here (and/or budget limitations) conspire to make his version strangely ineffectual.