Following a troubled production for 2013’s Oldboy that saw Lee’s cut of the film cut and edited to remove 35 minutes, resulting in the film being deemed a “Spike Lee Film” rather than his patented “Spike Lee Joint,” the famed director turned to Kickstarter to find funding for his next film, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus. Free from the typical studio workings, the film could have been exactly what Lee needed to express himself with full creative freedom. Instead, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is a mediocre film that shows Lee may not be able to re-capture the energy and excitement that jumpstarted his career.
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus
Director: Spike Lee
Release Date: February 13, 2015
Dr. Hess Green (Stephen Tyrone Williams) is a wealthy anthropologist researching the Ashanti Empire that comes across a fabled Ashanti dagger. During one strange night, Hess’s assistant, Lafayette Hightower (Elvis Nolasco), stabs Green multiple times in the chest. Guilt-ridden by the apparent murder, he commits suicide; however, Green awakens hours later, sensing something changing within him. As the days progress, Hess finds himself drawn to blood, convincing women to have sex with them, just to murder them right as intercourse is about to begin, drinking up their blood. When Hightower’s widow, Ganja Hightower (Zaraah Abrahams) arrives at Martha’s Vineyard to relocate her husband, both she and Hess are inexplicably drawn to one another, leading to her eventual discovery of Hess’s secret.
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is a reinterpretation/reimagining of the 1973 blaxploitation film, Ganja & Hess, which explored themes of addiction through the framework of a vampire film. While exploring the addiction element, Lee’s modern reimagining also centers on wealth and privilege. However, whereas the former film was praised for its thematic explorations through the lens of the vampire/horror genre, the latter loses focus and is never really clear about what it’s attempting to come across to its audience.
Central to the film is Hess’s undeniable wealth, buoyed by his large collection of African art and his residence on Martha’s Vineyard. However, beyond the flashes of wealth and status, nothing is ever really said about it. As someone who’s willing to analyze sociopolitical issues like wealth and poverty, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus feels like a missed opportunity to provide commentary on the subject, save for a brief party scene. Instead, the film focuses on the “Is he or isn’t he?” element of Hess’s transformation into a “vampire.” Without using the V-word, the film hones in on his newfound addiction to blood and pairs this together with his sexuality. As started earlier, Hess turns his victims by first seducing them, creating a parallel between his literal insatiable thirst for blood with the more figurative taste for sex, creating an extra layer of depth to the film that desperately needs it.
However, save for Abarahams’ presence and her humorous interactions with Rami Malek, who plays Hess’ live-in servant Seneschal Higginbottom, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus feels shallow, vapid, and lifeless. with no real sense of direction. In the 40 years since Ganja & Hess premiered, an endless number of films have tackled addiction, social issues, and genre alike in fresh and exciting ways. Lee’s attempt, however, just feels uninspired and lacking any true motivation. Whatever it is Lee wanted to say with Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is lost somewhere in the mix amongst ill-used modern songs and a soundtrack from Bruce Hornsby that further alienates the film’s focus.
A lot of criticism has been cast on established actors and filmmakers who turn to crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter to fund their films, as they’re targeting fans of their work who may not be able to afford the $20 or so donation, but would like to directly contribute to their favorite actors or directors. However, without the pressures of a studio, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus could have been the perfect opportunity for Lee to shake off 2013’s disastrous remake of Oldboy and to find his own voice. Instead, the film is more like a student film or Lifetime special that is never able to find itself.
That’s not to say Da Sweet Blood of Jesus doesn’t try to reach a level that will touch audiences on a deeper level; rather, it just never quite succeeds at it. Lee should be applauded for not only giving homage to a pivotal film, but for also spreading his wings and exploring new opportunities in film. However, I’m sure I speak for everyone when I say I wish he would focus on what he knows and has proven to be successful at.