First off, let me start by admitting that I’ve never seen “Ganja and Hess,” the 1973 blaxploitation landmark from which Spike Lee’s newly released “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus” is derived. That said, I’ll take as gospel all the press releases asserting that this remake sticks close to the original’s script (Lee includes writer-director Bill Gunn in the credits for this latest effort).
As in the original, the protagonist, affluent Dr. Hess Green (Stephen Tyrone Williams), is an anthropologist investigating a faction of the African Ashanti tribe who were among the first to perform blood transfusions. A scholar with inherited wealth, he pursues his studies from a Martha’s Vineyard estate, tastefully appointed in upscale Afro-centric style, with ethnic sculptures related to his scholastic interests.
In short order, he adds an ancient dagger to his collection, and acquires a capable research assistant (Elvis Nolasco) who alas brings with him unresolved emotional issues (“I just spent two months in Bellevue,” he laments) along with his academic prowess.
While the film most assuredly centers on the consumption of blood, it is not a vampire movie per se, as Hess becomes infected when his unbalanced assistant stabs him with the dagger before committing suicide. Thusly tainted, the good doctor embarks upon his quest for plasma in a tale Lee apparently intends to be a parable on the place of addiction and class oppression in contemporary life.
The film deviates from the East European tradition of undead blood sucking, as no neck biting is evident, and these connoisseurs of the red elixir seem to harbor no phobias for direct sunlight. Be-that-as-it-may, red is most definitely an adjunct to its production design, if not its plot, as it accents the doctor’s palatial estate as the dominant color of women’s gowns, copious glasses of wine, and the vintage crimson open-air MG sports car Hess uses as transport to reach his victims in Lee’s beloved borough of Brooklyn.
Hess appears to favor society’s unfortunates in satisfying his hunger. Among them are a prostitute, played by “The Wire’s” Felicia “Snoop” Pearson (almost unrecognizable here), and the hapless single mother of an infant. In perhaps the most emotionally charged scene, Hess pacifies the child with cooing baby talk as its mother’s corpse rests lifelessly in a blood-soaked bed a few feet away.
Arriving to add spice to the milieu is the assistant’s comely widow, Ganja (Zaraah Abraham, who provides her character with an appropriately haughty English accent), who quickly eases her grief by getting cozy with her dead husband’s (the research assistant) employer. One thing leads to another, and the two are soon united in their eternal quest for scarlet sustenance.
“Da Sweet Blood of Jesus” is by no means a flawless motion picture, but like all of Spike Lee’s efforts, it is interesting for the things he is trying to say, even when he is not successful. Among the stereotypes he does retain from the vampire tradition is the utilization of religion, not as a weapon against the undead, but more of a refuge, as illuminated when Hess beacons for Ganja to “step into the shadow of the cross with Jesus.”
Religion proves some of the livelier episodes (as opposed to the scenes in Martha’s Vineyard which tend to be static and stiffly acted) as well, as regular Spike Lee collaborator Thomas Jefferson Byrd (“Clockers,” “He got Game,” and “Red Hook Summer”) leads an inner-city church congregation with musical accompaniment by Raphael Saadiq and Valerie Simpson.
Among the more interesting components of the film, and possibly worth the ticket price alone, is the sound track. Centering on an original score by Bruce Hornsby, it is augmented by an eclectic hodgepodge of R&B and hip hop selections, some of them by unsigned musicians apparently found by Lee himself.
Always controversial and oppositional to Hollywood power brokers, he financed his latest “joint” through the novel “crowdfunding” platform called “Kickstarter.”
“Da Sweet Blood of Jesus” is the second straight remake of an original work by Spike Lee, following the his rendition of the South Korean cult film “Old Boy” in 2013. It marks a departure from his traditional approach in terms of financing as well as distribution, as it is released in only two theaters locally, but may be seen via the Internet on Video on Demand (VOD).
“Da Sweet Blood of Jesus,” is unrated, and is currently screening at the Sundance Sunset Cinemas, 8000 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles; and at Laemmle’s Playhouse 7, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena.