Spike Lee’s crowd-funded erotic vampire blaxploitation film remake (and how glad am I to be able to type those words) is a sanguine, sultry, swaggering, sensuous smorgasbord of film history, chilled-over-icy Euro cinema cool, and simmering, low-key empathy. It is also slightly confused, off-handedly comic, and unusually bizarre in the mode of mid-’90s Spike Lee. For his part, Lee has always been a confused director, a director whose aspirations have almost always exceeded his grasp, and his ode to African American cinema is no different.
But Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (a name almost as wonderful to type as the film’s genre) is the right kind of mess, a kind of filmmaking in free fall. It’s like a Spike Lee joint right after a bar-room brawl, and that’s a ticket anyone should want in on. It opens on a recollection of the seminal opening to Do the Right Thing, where Rosie Perez flailed with fire and lust over the confrontational, brimstone-flinging “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy and Lee’s chalked-up street pop-art. In Da Sweet Blood, however, the tone and tempo are the polar opposite of Do the Right Thing. Charles “Lil Buck” Riley dances, surely, but he doesn’t flagellate. He shimmers and quavers. He pursues dance as interpretive surrealism, marking the film as something less pop-art sermon and more art-house eulogy.
From there, we meet Dr. Hess Greene (Stephen Tyrone Williams) who attends a church sermon on the implicit vampirism and magic in the Bible, hinting at the connections between Christianity and African animism. Hess, who doesn’t much believe in any of it himself, is a scholar of African art, and his assistant is Dr. Hightower (Elvis Nolasco), who is depressed and suicidal. They come across a mythical, mystical Ashanti blade, renowned as a marker of the long-lost Ashanti tribe of Africa, which had become collectively addicted to blood before it died out on the back of its astounding artistic and medical achievements. Things go from mysterious to worse, and Hess wakes up a vampire with a thirst for blood he quenches with Hightower’s wife Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams) and a cadre of African-Americans who reside and hide in looked-over lower-class neighborhoods of America.
Lee’s film is a remake of Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess, a blood-infused parable about religion, race, class, sex, and mortality, and Lee shies away from none of these themes, yet for as much as the film is a tribute to African American cinema, it is distinctly a Spike Lee joint. Lee cheekily drips sensuality from his film in out-of-the-way places, like a shot of a mouth thermometer framed like a phallus right before Hess is to be tested for HIV. Lee finds an approximate for the slimy grain of an old exploitation film dealing with the grimy, workaday aspects of forgotten African American life, but his film doesn’t pulse with life. Rather, it is of the European school of decidedly detached eroticism, where the characters are always framed and boxed-in by squares that swallow them in their acts of debauchery.
Lee debates with these lustful actions from the inside. The bursts of unhinged horror-movie desire poking out through the chilly formalist exterior imply the film’s larger theme of unstable, impolite impulse and sheltered domesticity. Lee finds the tension point between holding back with a facade of content cool and letting loose with flair and animalistic id. Once he finds the point, he presses on the wound, always threatening to break through the ice with a shot of smoldering fire.
Blood is also a work about distance within the black community. Hess, whose parents owned a firm on Wall Street, is a black scholar of African American art who seems to pay no never mind to the demonic predatory role he becomes to the American black community throughout the film. Lee’s film emerges as a parable about bourgeois African Americans turning their backs on their culture and their people for self-serving acceptance into the aristocratic culture of upper-class American society. Hess initially denies the spiritual aspects of African art in favor of Western scholarly appreciation, and he comes to use black people not as respectful companions but as prey. His position in the community is as distanced purveyor of intellectual fancies, mingling with whites and championing the history of African culture without actually ever bothering to connect it to his people in the present day. Near the beginning, one wealthy black man pining for wealth stabs another, and this act leads to Hess’ vampirism, as clear-cut a critique as you could find of wealthy African Americans fighting each other for individual success and then turning to the oppression of the majority of modern blacks. Throughout, Lee is careful to frame Hess in contrast to the myriad of working class blacks he interacts with but pays no never-mind to. It is as if he is himself debating with his own privileged position in the black community.
Lee’s film isn’t the most astute cultural critique. As he often does, he focuses on trouble within the black community and avoids the pressing question of how this difficulty is conditioned on larger white society making play with black bodies, turning some African Americans into bourgeois types and coercing them to work against one another. But Lee’s film isn’t primarily interested in social commentary so much as it is interested in cinematic commentary. For all that he is a purveyor of polemics, Lee is also a scholar of African American visual styles, and his best material comes when he is marinating social commentary in pay-it-forward aesthetic cinema. Da Sweet Blood is first and foremost an exercise in simmering style and paying vivid homage to film history, and it works in spades.
At one point, a character tells Hess that he discovers everything through his senses. The character might have been speaking about Lee himself, and if so, the film is implicitly an exploration of Lee, like Hess, coming to terms with his own views of African art in all its forms. That is a lot for film to take on, but if Lee hasn’t fully unearthed his discovery by the time the end credits roll, Da Sweet Blood is a worthwhile expedition because it is always committed to putting its senses ahead of its ideas.