Da Sweet Blood of Jesus Dir. Spike Lee

[Gravitas Ventures; 2014]

Styles: remake, vampire film, fever dream
Others: Ganja & Hess, Oldboy, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

It’s interesting to me that Spike Lee would follow up his failed 2013 remake of Oldboy with yet another remake of a cult classic. After all, Ganja & Hess — Bill Gunn’s 1973 masterpiece upon which Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is based — isn’t some low-budget 50s drive-in movie that should be updated or an Asian horror favorite needing translation for American audiences. And you can’t even argue that it was an attempt at a cash grab, since Lee’s film was funded through Kickstarter and released on VOD.

Though it’s discussed less than Shaft or Sweet Sweetbacks’ Baadassss Song, Ganja & Hess is an important film in Black cinema. While it’s often mistakenly referred to as blaxploitation, this is likely the result of lazy critics lumping all black films under one banner. In Ganja & Hess, anthropologist Hess Green (Duane Jones) is stabbed by his depressed assistant George Meda (played by Gunn) with an ancient African blade, turning him into a vampire. After Meda kills himself, Hess finds he must adjust to his newfound need for blood. When Meda’s estranged wife Ganja returns looking for him, Hess falls in love with her. The rest of the film explores immortality, spirituality, and sexuality — typical themes of the vampire genre — but with a focus on their relation to black culture.

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is mostly a shot-for-shot remake of Ganja & Hess, but at times Lee does pause to expound upon and expand on scenes, adding his own messages regarding black culture. The problem with most shot-for-shot remakes (see Haneke’s 2007 version of Funny Games, or anytime a comic book is adapted panel-for-panel) is that it has very little to offer. With little to nothing new brought to the table, the audience is left to pick apart the minor changes and slight nuances, because what else is there? Luckily for Lee, nearly all of the themes of Gunn’s original are still relevant and important today: addiction, assimilation, and African culture as something mysterious, magical, and above all, powerful.

Of the few scenes Lee adds that are worthy of note, one deals with perhaps the most important post-70s issue to face the black community: the terror of HIV. In one scene, after consuming the blood of several victims, Hess (Stephen Tyrone Williams) nervously goes to a health clinic to get tested. In the original, Hess sleeps with a single mother before murdering her. In Lee’s version, he adds a scene later in the film in which Hess returns to find the undead mother clinging tightly to her now-dead child. This is a thinly veiled attack on the notion of the black absentee father, and the horrific consequences this has on the mother and child. Perhaps the most affecting addition is when Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams), Hess and his old girlfriend Tangier (played by Naté Bova) are discussing the power of eternal life. Tangier says that if given the formula, she would teach it to the children, “Because in today’s world our children need to be indestructible.” In light of the recent deaths of Freddie Gray, Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, it’s abundantly clear what Lee means with this line. But of course Lee is also an aging man and his horniness gets the better of him — so we also get the addition of a sultry lesbian scene that adds nothing, but expands the legacy of the vampiric seduction mythos.

One of the more striking elements of Gunn’s film is its use of music. From the children’s chant that accompanies Hess’ vampiric outbursts to the use of Sam Waymon’s gospel choirs, the music is always affecting and atmospheric. Lee’s soundtrack choices are more modern, utilizing a dozen songs by unsigned artists. As a reflection of black culture, the hip-hop and R&B choices make sense, but the specific choices made here lack the yearning and sadness that made Waymon’s compositions effective. Additionally, Lee’s use of a Bruce Hornsby score often has the opposite effect of its intention. Seeking gravitas, his piano lines add a laughably heavy-handed seriousness to some of the scenes. Fortunately, the powerful salvation song used for the climactic scene in which Hess returns to church, seeking the restorative powers of (Christ’s) blood and the redeeming power of faith, is retained from the original.

While Lee has added a few worthwhile moments to his version of Ganja & Hess, it isn’t enough to justify the film’s existence. Although Stephen Tyrone Williams’ stony demeanor as Hess draws on the original film’s ambiguity, he still can’t match Duane Jones’ quiet pensiveness. The same goes for Zaraah Abrahams’ performance as Ganja, which is less naturalistic than Marlene Clark’s. In the end, I believe Spike Lee decided to remake Ganja & Hess because he loves it. Who wouldn’t want to remake one of their favorite movies and put their own unique voice to it? While I can imagine how personally rewarding this would be, the problem is that it’s rarely rewarding to anyone else.

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