Sunday’s much anticipated closing film of the American Black Film Festival, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, premiered at New York’s SVA Theater to a packed house. Many in attendance wondered two things: 1) Can Spike Lee rebound from his last stinker, Old Boy. And 2) What type of movie can he make after a Kickstarter funded campaign?
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, a remake of Bill Gunn’s 1973 film Ganga and Hess, stars a cast of largely unknown actors like Stephen Tyrone Williams (Dr. Hess Greene) and Zaraah Abrahams (Ganga).
The story centers on Dr. Hess Greene, a wealthy professor who collects rare African artwork and artifacts. Researching people addicted to blood, the film opens with explanations on an ancient Ashanti Queen’s need for blood transfusions due to a rare disease. Coming into possession of a beautiful Ashanti blade, Greene’s deranged colleague later loses his grip on reality and uses the blade to stab the doctor to death. The result is Greene's subsequent transformation into a man with a thirst for blood.
British actress Zaraah Abrahams stars as Ganga, a spoiled rotten, mean spirited beauty who arrives at Dr. Greene’s estate in search of her missing husband. Their eventual love affair leads to a husband and wife co-dependent need to feed on those who bleed.
The graphic violence and explicit sexual nature of Da Sweet Blood of Jesus caused several audience members to exit before the film’s conclusion. Arguably Spike’s bloodiest film ever, Lee insists it is not a vampire movie. Despite stating this passionately on multiple press occasions, one cannot avoid the fact that there are many similarities between Dr. Greene’s character and the vampires of horror film lore that moviegoers know. Dr. Greene and Ganga both drink blood. They're both immortal and thus cannot be harmed by normal, human means. Although they are weakened by the shadow of the crucifix, unlike traditional vampires, they can walk in daylight with no effect, have no fangs, and have no problem entering a church and worshipping.
Several sociological jewels seemed apparent in this movie. Primary among them were Dr. Hess Greene’s victims; one of which was a prostitute played by Felicia “Snoop” Pearson (The Wire), and a second hooker he met at a Fort Green Brooklyn housing project. Initially, these encounters seemed random. However, when we see Greene returning to the very same place to seek and “turn” victims of his blood lust, we realize that the hood is his key hunting grounds. The idea seems pragmatic for Dr. Hess. Where else could one go for a readily available supply of victims that few will miss among a demographic of people known for being unlikely to call and cooperate with police? People of color go missing regularly with little to no uproar and recognition ever made. One could easily draw a line between this fact and how the rich feed on the poor, economically, in real life as well.
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is an aesthetically beautiful film. The cinematography makes it a joy to see thanks to being shot on location in Martha’s Vineyard, with an exquisitely decorated seaside beach house adding art and character to its scenes. And though the dialogue is sweet to the ear, there was a bit too much, drawing moments out longer than needed.
More of a science fiction movie, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus cannot be considered a traditional horror film, because it lacks scare tactics in lieu of tiny bits of suspense. There are no special effects. No one turns into a bat. It’s instead a smart take that forces intellectual viewers to use their ears and minds instead of simply the eyes.
The scariest thing about this film is our fear that Da Sweet Blood of Jesus may be difficult to market. It’s a vampire movie that’s not a vampire movie. It’s a horror film that’s not a horror film. Described as a romantic, horror, thriller, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is a unique, and at times, socially progressive drama that’s a refreshing remake in a world where everything is a half-ass, half-clone of something else.
The Shadow League gives Da Sweet Blood of Jesus a solid B.