When Spike Lee turned to Kickstarter to fund his new movie, his pitch was simple, if short on detail: “Human beings who are addicted to Blood. Funny, Sexy and Bloody. A new kind of love story (and not a remake of Blacula).” Lee fans who turned out for the movie’s world premiere Sunday night at the American Black Film Festival were in for a surprise. Though the new Spike Lee joint is, technically, all of the things he said it would be, the Kickstarter description also something of a bait and switch. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is not a remake of Blacula, but it is a remake of the cult film Ganja & Hess, a Blaxploitation film with art-house aspirations that came out one year after Blacula’s release.
Lee’s decision to withhold this crucial bit of information until Sunday night’s premiere was perhaps misleading, but the maneuver was true to the spirit of the writer-director of the original film. Hired to make a genre vampire flick that would deliver sex and blood on a budget, Bill Gunn instead took the money and made something much stranger than any horror movie would have been: a non-linear film that used addiction to blood as a metaphor for all kinds of addiction. Some critics praised it after it screened at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival, and in 1979 movie critic and author James Monaco called it “the most complicated, intriguing, subtle, sophisticated, and passionate Black film of the Seventies.” But the movie was a commercial flop: It closed after less than one week, and was eventually re-edited and re-released under titles like Black Vampire, Vampires of Harlem, and Blood Couple.
In making and promoting Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, Lee seems to have become possessed with Gunn’s spirit. While he was upfront with his insistence that his movie’s characters “are not VAMPIRES,” again and again he emphasized that his movie would be “SEXY, HUMOROUS, and BLOODY” with lots of “butt-naked black people,” while hiding the fact that he, like Gunn, was planning to use his budget to make something un-commercial and densely symbolic. “The reason I have not disclosed more info on the story is because: It’s a THRILLER,” he explained on his Kickstarter, in response to critics who demanded more. But the movie’s unconventional style and confounding allegorical feints are more surprising than any twist of plot.
Responses at the premiere were mixed. The audience greeted the closing credits with polite applause, but many spectators had walked out of the theater before the end of the movie’s first hour. Perhaps those walkouts had expected something more like Spike Lee’s True Blood: A sexy, if somewhat campy take on the old vampire tropes starring a predominantly black cast. That’s what they got, but Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is also Spike Lee at his absolute weirdest, with a mix of (apparently fictionalized) Ashanti mythology, an overbearing crowd-sourced score, frequent vomiting, and a set of main characters whose scene-to-scene motivations remain mostly opaque.
The movie’s best and most accessible stretch is its opening credits, in which virtuosic street dancer Lil Buck does interpretive jook moves across Red Hook backdrops to the tune of Bruce Hornsby’s mournful score. The gorgeous sequence brings to mind several Lee movies at once: slow-motion basketball players practicing to Aaron Copland during the opening titles of He Got Game, Rosie Pérez dancing to Public Enemy in the opening titles for Do the Right Thing, and the neighborhood locales of Red Hook Summer, Lee’s last independent feature, with which Da Sweet Blood of Jesus shares a congregation of characters.
It’s in the church from Red Hook Summer that we first meet Dr. Hess Greene (Stephen Tyrone Williams), who is listening to a sermon from the church’s new bishop (Thomas Jefferson Byrd, reprising his role from Red Hook Summer). A cultural anthropologist, Hess acquires an ancient Ashanti knife and takes it home to his second home in Martha’s Vineyard to place with the rest of his impressive collection of African relics, which he is studying with the help of an assistant, Lafayette Hightower (Elvis Nolasco). Hightower, however, is mentally unstable, and inexplicably stabs Hess with the knife, which turns him into a creature we might as well call a vampire—he’s invulnerable to everything but the crucifix as long as he can satisfy his lust for blood. (At a Q&A following the movie, Lee explained his objection to the vampire label, noting that “vampires can’t go to the Fort Greene projects in daytime,” which, fair point.) To get his fix, Hess finds himself feeding on a number of victims who may or may not represent various ills suffered by the black community, including an AIDS-afflicted prostitute (played by Felicia Pearson—Snoop from The Wire) and a single mother, before teaming up with the sexy and coldhearted Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams) to lure more unsuspecting victims.
Veering wildly between pulpy exploitation (there’s even a long, porn-y lesbian sex scene) and art-house filmmaking (complete with jump cuts, unusual camera angles, and some heavy philosophizing), Da Sweet Blood of Jesus never finds a consistent tone, an easy-to-grasp message, or a recognizable structure. Lee refused in the Q&A to shed any light on the film’s message, but the most intriguing allegorical possibility might be that it’s an American Psycho-esque satire of the rich, who prey on the lower classes in order to maintain their own luxurious lifestyles. (“We’re all addicted to society,” a socialite, one of the movie’s only white characters, says early on. “Especially the upper middle class,” who have mainlined “society” in “high doses.”) But if the upper class that feeds on the less fortunate is Lee’s target, it’s a bit puzzling that the camera lavishes so much loving attention on its stunning costumes and vintage cars (an impressive collection on such a small budget), lingering on them at least as fondly as the movie’s well-to-do main characters.
I’m still not sure whether I liked Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (and I expect the people who walked out Sunday night are harbingers of more walk-outs to come), but I don’t regret my own small donation to Lee’s odd venture—and not just because I got an autographed poster of Crooklyn out of the deal. Lee remains one of the most important voices in American filmmaking, and a thrilling (if uneven) stylist, and it’s encouraging to see him able to operate with the freedom Kickstarter provided him, even if that includes the freedom to take on projects that will confound audiences: I’d much rather see a Spike Lee with the resources to fail on his own terms than a Spike Lee limited to making sequels and unnecessary remakes. Lee says he’s not opposed to working in the studio system again. “Malcolm X was a studio film. Do the Right Thing was a studio film,” he reminded attendees, “but there are some films no studio wants to make.”