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Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (and a little on Ganja & Hess)

Here’s something for a limited audience: Spike Lee, following his guerilla-style, filmed-in-three-weeks, released-in-41-theaters RED HOOK SUMMER, and his universally rejected OLDBOY remake, wanted to do a faithful remake of Bill Gunn’s 1974 arthouse bloodsucker movie GANJA AND HESS. Even with a lower budget than RED HOOK SUMMER, he knew no studio was gonna give him money for something like that, so he raised the money on Kickstarter.

It’s not something the average person is gonna need to see, but it’s weird that it took me so long to see this particular Official Spike Lee Joint (as the credits label it). I love Spike Lee, and I think even the ones I don’t like as much (BAMBOOZLED when it came out – haven’t rewatched it though and could well be wrong) are interesting and worth analyzing. DO THE RIGHT THING is still my favorite, and around the time it came out I caught a double feature of SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT and SCHOOL DAZE, and since then his only theatrical releases I’ve missed were SHE HATE ME (still haven’t seen it), RED HOOK SUMMER (I’m not sure it played here) and this one. But yes, I saw GIRL 6, I saw MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA, I saw CHI-RAQ.

Still, I put this one off for several years because I kept meaning to watch GANJA & HESS again first. And that’s a bit of a challenge. I’d seen it twice before, didn’t really get it. Have you ever seen Melvin Van Peebles’ SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG? It’s a weird movie, pioneering in many ways, also very off-putting and hard for me to follow, and I initially saw it at an age where I didn’t know what to make of it at all. It took three viewings over a couple decades to get to the point where I felt semi-confident that I kind of liked it. Enough that I bought the soundtrack.

GANJA & HESS could be the quasi-horror version of that. Among the obvious points of interest: It’s one of the only movies besides NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD that stars Duane Jones. If you call it a horror movie (since it’s about undead blood drinkers), it’s one of the earliest by a black director. BLACULA came out the year before, and though both center around a regal, upper class African vampire, it would be scientifically impossible to make two films more opposite. BLACULA is an attempt to tell an entertaining exploitation horror story with a black perspective. GANJA & HESS has zero interest in – you could even say it has hostility toward – entertainment, horror, or story. I’m not saying it does a bad job of those things. It’s an intentional choice that seems to accomplish the filmmaker’s goals. But it happens to not work for me still on viewing #3. (It’s currently on Shudder if you haven’t tried for yourself.)

For reasons I’ve been unable to ascertain, the production company Kelly/Jordan Enterprises recruited playwright/novelist/screenwriter Gunn to direct a movie about a black vampire. That wasn’t his thing, but they gave him creative control and he wanted to use it as a metaphor for addiction. The company had distributed the great samurai movie GOYOKIN, but I doubt they were looking for something like this in their catalog. Their only other credits on IMDb are the blaxploitation movie HONEYBABY, HONEYBABY (1974) and BLACK VAMPIRE (1988), which I’m almost positive is an accidental double listing for the rescored, re-edited and disowned-by-Gunn version of GANJA & HESS that they tried to market on video.

There are beautiful things about GANJA & HESS: that raw 16mm film look that I love, ‘70s clothes and locations, interesting music (by Sam Waymon, roommate of Gunn, and brother of Nina Simone), some good acting at times. Every once in a while it picks up a little, like the very brief scene where Hess starts a fire in the doctor’s office as a distraction to steal blood packets, and the music gets funky for a minute.

When Ganja (Marlene Clark) arrives it definitely gets more lively – she’s very demanding in a funny way while still being likable, and Jones as Hess doesn’t talk or emote very much, so her presence is appreciated. Still, I have a hard time following what anyone is talking about, like I got drugged at a party and have to just sit and watch long conversations while I can’t concentrate. Many scenes feel like acting exercises, improvised monologues that I didn’t hear the beginnings of, have no context for, and don’t follow what they’re getting at or how this connects to any scene before or after. I’m lost.

Lee’s remake is so close to the original that Gunn (who died in 1989) is credited as co-writer. It’s at least an improvement in that I could understand more of it, though I still don’t grasp what it’s saying about addiction, or religion, or anything else. Once again it’s the story of Dr. Hess Green (Stephen Tyrone Williams, CHILDREN OF GOD, who when he was younger should’ve played DMC in a Run-DMC movie), a wealthy and respected anthropologist and African art collector who lives on an estate in Martha’s Vineyard. In this version he does talk quite a bit, usually in a very formal and scholarly sort of way.

At the beginning he gets an ancient dagger from the Ashanti Empire (as opposed to the original’s Myrthia). He has weird theories about the Ashanti being involved in “blood wars,” and when pressed by his museum colleague Lafayette (Elvis Nolasco, ROXANNE ROXANNE) he admits to believing “It’s less of a sacrilege to drink blood than to spill it.”

Lafayette comes to stay at Hess’s place, and is a poor house guest in that he climbs a tree at night, threatens to hang himself, and attacks Hess with the dagger. Hess seems to die, but wakes up in time to hear Lafayette shoot himself. And then Hess can’t help but go lick some of the blood off the floor. I like the title, but OH SHIT, I’M A VAMPIRE NOW would work too.

Now that he has an addiction (as he repeatedly describes it), he finds a couple different ways to get blood for himself, including the doctor’s office heist and some murders. Maybe the most effective scene in the movie is when he sits down next to a mother (Jeni Perillo, DA BRICK, two episodes of The Vampire Diaries) who’s sitting with her baby on a park bench, and starts up a conversation. At first it’s that familiar thing of a woman being more polite than she probly should be to a strange man she doesn’t owe a conversation to. I kind of thought she would get her fill and tell him to fuck off. But when he abruptly asks, “Are you going to ask me up?” she has a long, tortured hesitation. She knows she shouldn’t do it, but can’t hide that she’s very tempted, and finally does give in. She definitely has some kind of addiction of her own.

Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams, Coronation Street, Waterloo Road, The Knick) is Lafayette’s ex-wife who calls looking for him and sort of barges in on Hess’s life, at first rudely, but then they start to fall for each other. They eat dinner at a long table like Bruce Wayne and Vicki Vale’s date in BATMAN, but it doesn’t play as a joke. Not long after Ganja discovers Lafayette’s body in the downstairs meat freezer she marries Hess anyway. Like Clark in the original, Abrahams is good at making Ganja snooty in kind of an endearing way. And Williams gives Hess an upright, robotic quality that first reads as upper class academic, then as not human.

There are a couple long sex scenes (both straight and lesbian) and a couple disturbing, gory parts, but I don’t think Kelly-Jordan Enterprises would’ve been any happier with this one than the original. Most of Lee’s films have some small experimental element in them (even DA 5 BLOODS has that part where they cut to a photo of Aretha Franklin like it’s a documentary) – but this is more alienating than usual for him. I believe that’s largely due to a lack of humor. One of the very few laughs involves a prostitute (Felicia “Snoop” Pearson from The Wire) who talks funny, for example ordering “Kalula, Black Russian” instead of Kahlua. He bites her to death and the reveal that she’s become a vampire is when she sits up and says, “Motherfucker you killted me!”

I guess maybe there’s some humor intended in the weird scene where he’s pretending a glass of blood is wine and a rich white lady he’s entertaining grabs it and tastes it. But the characters themselves don’t laugh and say funny things like so many of Lee’s do, even in movies about war or racial unrest. I wouldn’t say this is joyless, though. I love that the opening credits are centered around dancing.

Mostly I think this was an opportunity for Lee to have fun restaging scenes from a movie he loves. Cinematographer Daniel Patterson (She’s Gotta Have It Netflix series) gets to shoot lots of nice scenery on the property, lots of long shots letting the eclectic soundtrack play out. The score, weirdly, is by Bruce Hornsby – mostly simple piano. The Range could not be reached for comment. There are a couple cool Brazilian songs, the rest are said to be unsigned, unknown artists who submitted to him online. I don’t know how they count Siedah Garrett as an unknown, since she sang with Michael Jackson and stuff. She has a cameo here, too.

There’s not much updating. An exception is the scene about getting tested for (and lectured about) HIV. In a pretty ridiculous touch, the nurse (Joie Lee) walks into the waiting room with a pregnancy-style test wand in her hand, squints at it, and says, “You are… HIV/AIDS…” (really drawing out the suspense) “…negative.” Man, figure that shit out before you walk into the room! Unprofessional, in my opinion.

But I appreciate that Spike gets some of his weird names in there. He keeps “Dr. Hess Green,” but changes Ganja & George Meda to Ganja & Lafayette Hightower. Gunn just called the butler Archie, so obviously Spike changed him to “Seneschal Higginbottom.” Hess’s victim with the baby is named Sahara Paysinger, Joie’s character is Nurse Colquitt, and there’s a Nurse Royster (Lauren Macklin, “Gorgeous Woman #2 on an episode of Are We There Yet?). He’s so adverse to normal names. I love that about him.

Seneschal (who is no Alfred Pennyworth, let me tell you) is played by Academy Award winner Rami Malek. I’m not gonna claim there’s anything legitimate about this, but I tend to find him annoying. But this is not putting in fake teeth and pretending to be a rock god, it’s mostly serving food and driving a limo, so I hoped it would be fine. Nope. I’m not a fan of the accent, but like, there’s a scene where he’s carrying four bags of groceries for Ganja, and we need to know that she’s asking alot of him, so he carries them all bunched up and crooked and acts like he’s really struggling to carry them. So much drama. Come on dude, any civilian could carry those without that much of a problem, if any, and you’re supposed to be a fucking professional. You’re worse than Nurse Colquitt.

Like in GANJA & HESS, there are some pretty long scenes of church services that seem barely connected to the rest of the movie. But it’s some good gospel music – they cheat and have Raphael Saadiq and Jon Batiste in the band – so it’s some of the best scenes. And the interesting thing is that it’s the same small church from RED HOOK SUMMER. Not just the same filming location, but the same fictional congregation, Li’l Peace of Heaven, with Stephen Henderson (FENCES) as Deacon Yancy, Quincy Tyler Bernstine as Sister Hazel, and Thomas Jefferson Byrd’s character Deacon Zee now promoted to Bishop Zee, which makes sense because of… well, something upsetting that happened in the other movie.

That DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS takes place in the same world as RED HOOK SUMMER is important, because RED HOOK SUMMER had an appearance by Mookie, still an employee of Sal’s Pizzeria. So this means that DO THE RIGHT THING takes place in a world where vampires exist. And that’s the truth, Ruth.

Note: Looks like DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS must be out of print already on disc, but I watched it on Hulu

This entry was posted on Tuesday, July 7th, 2020 at 11:15 am and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

11 Responses to “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (and a little on Ganja & Hess)”

  1. I’ve long felt bad about never having seen GANJA & HESS, and that got even worse when it was practically the only movie mentioned in HORROR NOIRE that nobody had to make any apologies for. But then they went and showed some clips that made it look like the most boring movie ever and suddenly I felt like getting around to it even less. It feels like a movie you gotta suffer through just to say you did.

    Speaking of HORROR NOIRE, was anybody else driven to the point of rage by the one talking head claiming that POLTERGEIST is racist because the house was built on an Indian burial ground? They specifically say in the movie that this isn’t true! Why you gotta drag POLTERGEIST into this mess? Does horror have a sad tradition of racism? Fuck yes it does! But when you fuck up something that’s so easily verifiable, you just make people doubt the veracity of your complaints. This so-called expert talked out the side of her mouth about something she didn’t understand, and now I gotta wonder whether anybody in the movie has any idea what they’re actually talking about. Everybody involved in the documentary who let that blunder go through put their whole thesis (Which I fucking agree with!) at risk for some half-remembered hot take bullshit. That’s how you push people away from the cause. I bet there’s at least one POLTERGEIST fan who decided right then and there that this was all just some SJW nonsense and shut it off. That’s why it’s so important that those of us who hope for change to get our facts straight. The assholes can’t rely on truth to tell their tale. They have only propaganda on their side. They have to twist reality around to make their arguments work. We don’t have to resort to that kind of bullshit when the facts alone speak plain.

  2. That POLTERGEIST misinformation bothered me too. I don’t remember noticing any other big mistakes like that, though. And I’m sure I’ve made worse in my reviews.

    Part of me feels bad if I scared you away from GANJA & HESS, but also I can’t imagine you liking it. Since I know you have Shudder, I recommend trying to watch a little bit to at least get the feel of it.

  3. You should revisit BAMBOOZLED, Vern. Admittedly, I haven’t seen it in about fifteen years, but I found it incredibly underrated when it came out. I always thought it made the best use of Lee’s occasional essay-style digressions in his dramatic films.

    Both the movies you reviewed today are on my Shudder watch list. I’ll get to them this month.

  4. Don’t worry, Vern. I figure one night will just be the night and I’ll pull the trigger on it. Just feels like something I should do.

    I didn’t notice any other glaring error in HORROR NOIRE either. I liked it a lot overall. I thought interviewing the black horror luminaries in pairs was a great touch. Just getting to see Keith David and Ken Foree hang out and shoot the shit was a real treat.

  5. Yeah, agreed @Palermo, Bamboozled is well worth a revisit. At first it will look like absolute shit on a visual level because 95% of it was shot on early DV, but I’d call that the price of admission.

  6. Why they haven’t made a Keith David/Ken Foree buddy picture yet is beyond me.

    I’m on Twitter a lot and the big thing I see a lot is that we should have more Black filmmakers and movies and yadda yadda yadda. But if anybody knows me knows I like genre pictures. Especially action. Anybody got any suggestions of current movies featuring Black filmmakers in the action genre that I should seek out. I thought John Henry was kinda good and I enjoyed Black and Blue but there has to be more Black action filmmakers out there that aren’t Michael Jai White.

  7. She Hate Me is Spike’s worst joint. For that reason I would be curious your take on it.

  8. For the record….

    I have always admired Spike Lee, but only saw he key joints for many years (Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X, a couple others….)

    It was your review of CHI-RAQ, VERN, that made me a lifelong fan and completist. I saw that one in the theater based on that review a day or two after reading it….and have seen every one that came out since. Been slowly catching up on the older ones that I missed over the last 4 or 5 years too! Always following up watching them with reading your reviews of them.

    I always saw Spike Lee as a political/activist filmmaker, as well as a “cinema buff’s” filmmaker like Martin Scorsesse. Which he is both of those. But that review of CHI-RAQ, really informed me….he’s kind of a weird, experimental filmmaker too. One taking some very strange risks, and making some very strange projects. Not all his movies are like this, but I think almost all of them have some version of an experiment going on. And that is a category I am very interested in!

    Saw this one and RED HOOK SUMMER early in that journey…my local library had both of them. I would say both were ok.

    And SHE HATE ME is definitely NOT the worst. Personally, I’d put it in the top third. I liked the weirdness of it. BAMBOOZELD is up there with me too. I like his oddballs more than his high profile joints I think.

    My least favorite has been MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA.

    My favorite is probably a tie between THE 25TH HOUR and the always classic DO THE RIGHT THING. After that probably SCHOOL DAZE and SHE HATE ME. Maybe one of the ones I haven’t seen will switch up that order.

  9. I was pretty excited for this one when it came out, but it turns out to be pretty much the only Spike Lee movie I dislike more than I like, and I actually think the problem is that, despite the designation of an “official Spike Lee Joint,” it’s not really a full-on Spike Lee movie. He so obviously reveres and wants to be respectful of GANJA AND HESS that he rarely puts his own stamp on the story. For maybe the majority of the runtime, it’s a direct scene-for-scene, and at times shot-for-shot, copy of its predecessor… but GANJA AND HESS is such a weird movie that I don’t think Lee entirely understands why it does the things it does any more than I do, and so he simply copies them, and as a result it seems a little more disjointed and listless than anything he’s ever done.

    Of vital significance, I think, is that although race is obviously a key part of GANJA AND HESS, it’s part of the stew in nebulous, indirect ways, which very much does not play to Lee’s strengths as a social commentator. He keeps trying to take Gunn’s mysterious, hallucinogenic art film and ground it in some kind of specific reality and metaphor, which really doesn’t work except in the few scenes where he significantly deviates from the original.

    Speaking of which, Screenwriter Gunn played the tormented originator of the curse in GANJA AND HESS –why in the everloving fuck didn’t Lee play the same character here? What a wasted opportunity!

    Anyway, I reviewed it back in 2015.

    Da Sweet Blood of Jesus

    Da Sw eet Blood of Jesus (2014) Dir. Spike Lee Written by Spike Lee & Bill Gunn Starring Stephen Tyrone Williams, Zaraah Abrahams, El...

  10. Ganja and Hess is insanely boring.

    Bamboozled is a good flick! He was really daring to actually show the blackface show AND make it super entertaining, I figured when they showed the show it wouldn’t be any good but no, there’s great dancing and it’s pretty funny…it’s just so dang wrong.

    Do The Right Thing is clearly the movie that goes on his gravestone, but for me the most entertaining flick he made, and my favorite, is Summer of Sam. It has the mob, crazy serial killer scenes, punks (and even a full song at CBGBs that’s catchy), and several musical sequences complete with dancing. It has everything I want in a movie.

  11. For whatever reason I’m endlessly entertained by Vern’s weird vendetta against Rami Malek. Maybe it’s not so weird. Maybe he truly is terrible. I’ve never actually seen him in anything, but he just seems so innocuous. Sometimes it seems like the two worst sins a movie can commit in Vernworld is include corny humor or star Rami Malek.

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