As Spike Lee’s Kickstarter-funded 2014 outing Da Sweet Blood of Jesus begins, its lead rattles off a full minute of arcane, uninterrupted exposition about the Ashanti culture, ancient blood transfusions, the collapse of their civilization thanks to addiction, and how this ties into the present day. Clunky, over-determined, and full of an intense ambition to draw connections between lurid exploitation and sociopolitical commentary, it’s the film in a nutshell. The fact that it also swings between boring and unintentionally campy fits right in, too.
Lee’s weird, ill-considered updating of the 1976 cult classic Ganja & Hess makes one thing clear – no one really needed an updating of the 1976 cult classic Ganja & Hess. Yet there’s a single-minded fixation evident here – from the opening call-back to earlier Lee films in the form of a street dancer in gritty locations to the sometimes gorgeous framing of bodies to the heavy-handed blood metaphors and their relation to the African diaspora – that makes it hard to simply write the film off. If nothing else, Lee was determined to bring this to the screen, for reasons maybe only he knows. As an auteur gesture, it’s undeniably interesting. What it isn’t is any good.
Our protagonist is Dr. Hess Green, an expert on African art and the Ashanti culture in particular. After being run through with an ancient, newly discovered blade, he finds himself returned to life, but with an insatiable bloodlust. He learns to satiate in different ways, as vampires are wont to do, and in one inspired scene has an HIV-scare related to an ill-chosen victim. (This is one of the few updates of the original that really works.)
After a time, he falls in love and then marries Ganja Hightower, the Dominican-born ex-wife of a colleague. The two of them then settle into what should be a life of leisure on Hess’ palatial estate – he is so wealthy, we learn, because he was the only child of the first Black family-owned company on Wall St., a typically on-the-nose touch – but instead revert to ennui broken up by lurid sex, weed-smoking, and casual violence. It’s not too different in some regards from Jim Jarmusch’s recent vampiric outing Only Lovers Left Alive, but, while Jarmusch basically made his standard hang-out movie with bloodsucking hipsters instead of regular hipsters, Lee wants Da Sweet Blood of Jesus to say something big.
But what does it say? The details – the role of blood in Christianity, the Black church as a place of reconciliation with God and community, the notion of violence transmitted through generations, discourses on addiction and frailty, the close tie between sex and violence – pile up, but they don’t form anything besides a tableau that is, despite its lurid flourishes, ultimately dull. It’s a shame, because with that many themes bumping around, a filmmaker as talented as Lee should’ve been able to pull off something exciting.
Some of the blame has to fall on Stephen Tyrone Williams who, as Hess, reads every line in a wooden tone implying he just received the script for each scene 15 minutes before shooting. Zaraah Abrahams fares better as Ganja, bringing a sensuality to the part that’s sorely missing from a movie that needs to be way sexier than it is. But the lion’s share of it has to stay with Spike Lee himself – none of the pieces fit, whole segments are unintentionally comic, the pacing is resolutely off, and no one alive (or dead) could make some of this dialog sound anything but rushed and expository.
All that said, you have to hand it to Lee, at least somewhat. He was determined to make this movie, he collected the funds independently, and he made it. There are flashes of brilliance, as there always are in his films, and no one can knock the ambition that drives it. But sometimes ambition is not nearly enough to salvage material that should’ve been left buried in the cult canon or the Ashanti excavation site.