Sunday, March 08, 2015

Spike Lee's Da Sweet Blood of Jesus

Stephen Tyrone Williams, in
Spike Lee's Da Sweet Blood o
Bill Gunn's 1973 film Ganja and Hess is one of the treasures of black and 1970s cinema, and one of the most original and unforgettable films to appear during American film's last true heyday. In an era that also coincided with the rise of Blaxploitation movies, Ganja and Hess marked out new narrative and imaginative possibilities that have, unfortunately, only intermittently been fulfilled by subsequent filmmakers. In its original form, Ganja and Hess's visually arresting, philosophically profound narrative earned critical praise and a Cannes Film Festival Prize, but although it is now available on Netflix (in DVD form) and screens periodically across the country, it probably has been seen by far fewer people than it would have had it not had such a complicated release history, which involved its producers infamously butchering and renaming the film The Blood Couple (another version was titled Double Possession) so that it could be released as the less complex, exploitation-style genre film they had expected when they first brought Gunn, a noted writer, director, actor, and intellectual, on board to write and direct it.
Inside Hess Green's Martha's
Vineyard mansion
Among the directors Ganja and Hess has influenced, you can count accomplished veteran Spike Lee, who heavily anchored his most recent, controversially Kickstarter-funded 2014 film Da Sweet Blood of Jesus on the seabed of Gunn's masterpiece. (One benefit of Lee's film may be that it sends viewers back to Gunn's original.) Acording to Scott Foundas, chief film critic at Variety, who reviewed Lee's film, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is "in fact a remake--at times scene for scene and shot for shot--of Ganja and Hess...Bill Gunn’s landmark...indie that used vampirism as an ingenious metaphor for black assimilation, white cultural imperialism and the hypocrisies of organized religion." A remake, yes, and an homage, but also a revision, with some significant flaws. In the new film Gunn's use of vampirism's figurative possibilities remains, as do a number of the original film's plot's particulars, but Da Sweet Blood of Jesus also shifts things up enough such that he has created what I find to be one of the queerest films by a straight black male filmmaker I have seen in recent years.
An agonized Hess Green (Williams),
after a kill
As in the original, the plot turns on the research of stylish bachelor Dr. Hess Green (the striking Stephen Tyrone Williams, in a severely controlled performance). He is the sole heir to a Wall Street fortune, with a 40-acre estate (of course, because this is a Lee film, though there is no mule) on Martha's Vineyard, complete with a butler; and a Rolls-Royce and driver, as well as fabulous home in New York. He attends the local church but shows no enthusiasm for religion; in fact, as rendered here, he initially verges on being a cipher. Through his studies, Hess finds an ancient Ghanaian knife that unleashes a primeval bloodlust, which he shows to his assistant, Lafayatte Hightower (Elvis Nolasco), after which trouble ensues. Hightower grows increasingly unhinged under the accursed knife's influence, climbing a tree with a noose dangling beneath him, and then he eventually uses the knife to kill Hess before committing suicide, though the knife's spiritual and metaphysical power brings Hess back to life. From there, Hess's pattern is set. He must feed off blood, not by biting necks in the traditional sense, but by drinking blood however he can get it. Those he kills become undead too, though not blood-feeders, the film seems to say, unless the knife is used. (Or perhaps I misunderstood this.)
Hess (Williams) and Hightower
(Nolasco) struggle with the knife
As in the original film, once the Lafayette Hightower character--packed in a freezer downstairs--is out of the way, his wife, Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams, in a sparkling performance) arrives looking for him. Lee's Ganja is a Briton, no-nonsense, a bit of a diva. Although her husband was only a researcher and she complains about funds he owed her, she takes to Hess's lifestyle as if she had been born to it. We get brief glimpses of the social world Hess runs in, and the distinctly different, plainly working-class and poor world from which he draws his victims, on the Vineyard and in New York City. Eventually, Hess seduces her into his life, first as a lover and then as an accomplice, the symbolic murder initially wreaking havoc upon her, and after a particularly gruesome encounter with one of his childhood friends, Tangier Chancellor (Naté Bova), he realizes he can no longer bear the death-centered undead life much longer. There is a way out, involving Christianity and riffing on Spencer Williams's 1941 film Sweet Blood of Jesus, which he takes, but Ganja decides she will continue on the path of blood--though not alone.
Hess (Williams) and Ganja
(Abrahams) connecting
Frame to frame, image to image, Lee's composition and mise-en-scène are painterly, and Daniel Patterson's cinematography makes the screen hard to turn away from, even during the goriest moments. (There are several.) If only the screenplay matched the imagery! It is in the writing and editing, in part based on deeper conceptual conflicts that emerge the plot, that the film fails to find its footing. I wish Lee had found a stronger writer to build upon Gunn's original or to reconceptualize it completely, but instead, we get sometimes wildly inconsistent patches of dialogue and action juxtaposed that jar. For example, when Hess and Hightower first talk about the knife's powers, they engage in a conversation that not even robots would engage in, let alone academics. Yet when Tangier arrives and Hess and Ganja begin entertaining her, the exchange flows so authentically it rings utterly true. A musical scene at the church, starring singers Raphael Saadiq, formerly of Tony! Toni! Toné!, and Valerie Simpson, of Ashford and Simpson, runs too long, turning a resonant epiphany into a narrative annoyance. Then there are the usual Lee tics, like the tracking float of a character through space that add little. (His siblings Joie and Cinqué succeed in their brief appearances.) Instead of the unsubtle exposition and explanation, a more skillful hand, drawing upon the evocative images Lee assembled, would have sufficed.
Ganja (Abrahams), now
among the undead
Two deeper issues seem to be rending the story, class and religion. While Gunn's take on both felt novel at the time, for Lee too much remains unresolved, especially at period in our history when economic inequality is widening, the wealth gap between whites and black and brown people is vast, and, if recent studies are true, adherence to traditional religions is on the wane. Lee could have pushed any of these a bit, or a lot more, toward satire, or inward, with a great emphasis on Hess's psychological split, but he doesn't. Hess does not seem especially comfortable with the trappings of hyperwealth--this is not your usual doctor, PhD or MD--but he also does not fit in at the projects, where he grooms one victim, a young mother. He gains no succor from the power the African-based religion imparts, yet we get no sense that the local (black) church provides much comfort either.  Hess is figuratively lost and almost dead at the crossroads, with no way out except through an obvious approach that cannot result in real liberation, but a return to psychic, physical and spiritual death, and yet I had trouble believing he would take this route, since it felt too easy. Not even a willing partner in Ganja placates him; the disquiet roils at a level that the film doesn't articulate but makes legible from start to finish.
Hess (Williams), examining
the sacred/accursed knife
In a sense, the film suggests a deeper malaise not just at the heart of this story but for its anyone in the position of its director, a black man who currently has one home on the market for $20 million dollars, an unimaginable sum for the majority of Americans, especially black folks, when the housing crisis has devastated black communities across the US, and who has publicly denounced the very gentrification of his former Brooklyn neighborhood that he in part helped to bring about, meaning it will never again--short of a combined second global economic collapse and the election of the most progressive federal, state and city administrations in American history, which right now seems unlikely--return to anything close to the "Bed-Stuy Do or Die" world he depicted in his 1989 masterpiece Do the Right Thing or the later, less successful 1994 film Crooklyn. As with class, so with religion; the importance the black church is without question, but Lee's film appears to ask without answering what can it offer today, particularly for black people who find themselves at a distance from their familial and cultural pasts. Though great wealth does not have to lead to estrangement, but social, political and economic isolation can exacerbate the need for a spiritual lifeline. Ganja's choice, rejecting (black American) tradition, in favor of a queer life of undeath, appears, interestingly enough, the side on which the film falls.

I mention queerness because unlike Gunn's original--and Gunn was a queer man--Lee literalizes the ways in which the blood-cult's spirituality queers everyone and everything around it. I found this, alongside the cinematography, to be one of the most intriguing aspects of the film. There is full male (Williams, and Nolasco), as well as female frontal nudity, and open eroticism within and across gender lines. The voyeuristic tone about lesbianism that was evident in Lee's failed 2004 film She Hate Me has given way here to a depiction that is far less sensationalistic, though his male director's gaze persists. There is the openly queer butler, Seneschal Higginbotham (Rami Malek), who next to Ganja is Hess's closest associate. (There is also the ironic scene of Hess's reaction to blood with HIV, which occurs when he seduces, stabs and feeds on Lucky Mays (Felicia "Snoop" Pearson), a sex-worker he picks up, leading him to get a blood test and seronegative result.) There is the undercutting of heteronormativity, after a beautifully presented church-sanctioned wedding outdoors, when Tangier shows up, and the film cements this queer direction at the film end, with Ganja's putative partner. Where all this queerness takes the film is another matter; liberation for black or queer folks, especially if they are in the 99%, isn't part of the picture. Unspeakably rich, indescribably beautiful, and uncalculably undead, with a thirst for blood that will stretch on in perpetuity, may be one kind of queerness and also may be as perfect a metaphor for our current plutocratic moment as anyone could envision. It's where Da Sweet Blood of Jesus takes us, though it's an often bumpy ride to get there.

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