Spike Lee premieres his Kickstarter-funded ‘Da Sweet Blood of Jesus’

Stephen Tyrone Williams examines the ancient artifact that will turn him into a "blood addict" in Spike Lee's "Da Sweet Blood of Jesus." Credit: Cinque Lee
Stephen Tyrone Williams examines the ancient artifact that will turn him into a “blood addict” in Spike Lee’s “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus.”
Credit: Cinque Lee

Last night Spike Lee presented the world premiere of his latest film, “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus,” which closed out the American Black Film Festival in New York City. It’s a vampire film, even though Lee adamantly says it isn’t. (His anti-heroes are referred to as being “addicted to blood.”) But the spookiest thing was the opening credits, in which a male dancer is seen elegantly cavorting about various parts of Lee’s home center, New York City.

Dancing was how “Do the Right Thing” — still Lee’s most famous, probably most brilliant film — kicked off 25 years ago. But note the contrasts: Rosie Perez, dressed alternately in summer wear and boxing gear, was angry, propelled by Public Enemy’s propulsive “Fight the Power.” Here, the movements are graceful, matching the mournful, contemplative piano score by Bruce Hornsby.

It goes deeper than that: “Do the Right Thing” was a studio picture, backing an edgy young filmmaker who was furious at the world. Twenty-five years later, Lee, at 57, is still livid, but to make his latest he had to (in)famously crowdsource for funds. (Among his benefactors are Steven Soderbergh, who gave him $10,000.) Speaking afterwards, Lee says he hasn’t given up on Hollywood, even if FilmDistrict hacked up and dumped his last film, the underrated and still extremely personable remake of “Oldboy.” He’s just showing he can work no matter what. “I’m adaptable,” Lee boasted. “I’m flexible.”

Perhaps few studios would have touched “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus,” even with its tenuous connection to the vampire genre. Lee has been cheerfully pointing out this is not “Blacula.” Instead it’s a loose remake of another ’70s black vampire film, 1973’s “Ganja & Hess.” (Lee actually credits that film’s maker, Bill Gunn, with a screenplay credit, even though Gunn died in 1989 — the year of “Do the Right Thing.”)

Stage actor Stephen Tyrone Williams plays Hess, an archaeologist who is stabbed with an ancient dagger, making him lust for blood. But in Lee’s mind he was cursed long before. The son of Wall Street tycoons, he spends most of his time on his Martha’s Vineyard estate, which he cheekily points out is 40 acres. (There’s no mule, though.) But despite decking his home out in African art, he’s completely disconnected from his culture.

Hess winds up with Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams), the beautiful widow of the man who stabbed him, and together they hole up on his tony estate, occasionally feasting on those of lesser value. Hess occasionally drops in on Fort Green and Red Hook, including the church from Lee’s last full-on indie production, “Red Hook Summer.” There, he exploits those from the projects, treating his fellow African Americans with a cavalier disdain that can only lead to salvation.

Zaraah Abraham plays the woman who winds up sharing blood-soaked eternity with the lead of "Da Sweet Blood of Jesus." Credit: Cinque Lee
Zaraah Abraham plays the woman who winds up sharing blood-soaked eternity with the lead of “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus.”
Credit: Cinque Lee

This may make “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus” sound more streamlined than it is. Freed of any boss lording orders over his head, Lee is free to get his freak on. And besides, Spike Lee doesn’t do controlled. You don’t see a Spike Lee film for its cleanliness but for the chaos of clashing tones and clashing voices. (Not that he can’t do controlled; “Inside Man” proves he can play safe — but still eccentric — if he wanted to.) There are less voices in this one; it’s often a chamber piece, sticking us with the unpleasant and remote Hess and the increasingly guilt-ridden Ganja, who can’t go as cold-blooded as her partner.

But the Spike craziness remains, be it him tacking goofy music over what look like somber scenes or the stunt casting of “The Wire”’s Felicia “Snoop” Pearson as a hottie Hess picks up at a club. The wildness doesn’t always work for the better. Lee doesn’t delve as much into his ideas as he could, while the ending comes too abruptly. But it’s mesmerizing anyway. It’s not the easiest film to get into, but if you, getting lost in its snaky paths and digressions and mood swings can be thrilling. You’re never sure where it’s going to go, even as it’s told with a steely confidence.

It’s good-looking too. “Red Hook Summer” often looked and felt amateurish, even if agreeably so. (That said, no one in “Jesus” comes close to Clarke Peters’ towering performance in “Red Hook,” though Abrahams excels in a tricky role.) This is handsome, with sharp cinematography from newcomer Daniel Patterson that often bathes this dark vampire tale in blinding bright light. It’s a mess but it’s alternately funny, scathing and sexy — a reminder that Lee, among other things, is one of the last major filmmakers who knows how to shoot naked bodies writhing without blushing.

As it stands, “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus” has yet to land a distributor. Hop to that.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge



News
Entertainment
Sports
Lifestyle
National

Mutant worms stay sober, even on alcohol

U.S. researchers have developed "mutant worms" that do not get drunk by alcohol, a breakthrough that could lead to new treatment for people trying to quit drinking

Local

K-9 nose helps capture $150K in cocaine at…

A furry, four-legged security agent helped authorities stop an illegal cocaine shipment from sneaking past JFK customs.

National

Minnesota man asked to leave Southwest flight after…

A man and his two sons were asked to leave a Southwest Airlines flight after the man sent a tweet complaining about being treated rudely by a gate agent.

National

Man sues hospital after surprise penis amputation

An Alabama man who went in to a hospital last month for a circumcision awoke after surgery to find his penis had been amputated, his lawyer said on Thursday.

Movies

Review: Brett Ratner's big 'Hercules' movie is small…

The latest "Hercules," starring Dwayne Johnson as the half-god beefcake of Greek myth, strips its hero and tale of most of its fantastical elements.

Arts

Scientists recreate world's smallest Monet copy

Scientists have reproduced a famous Impressionist painting using nano-printing, to create what has been described as the world's smallest work of art. Reworked at the…

Television

Jerry Seinfeld is ambidextrous, and other Reddit AMA…

See some of the weirder highlights of Jerry Seinfeld's recent Reddit AMA.

Going Out

Grab a pedestrian and start dancing at What…

As a New Yorker, I’ve mastered the art of focusing my gaze straight ahead. Though it occasionally piques my interest, the absurdities that play out…

U.S. Soccer

Orlando City takes shot at NYCFC over Frank…

Orlando City reminded the world how big a signing Brazilian star Kaka earlier this month with a photo of Kaka mobbed by fans juxtaposed against Lampard.

NBA

Jeremy Lin says 'Linsanity' is over as he…

Jeremy Lin lit up the NBA two years ago with his play for the Knicks but he has no desire to recreate "Linsanity" in his new career with the Lakers.

NFL

2014 NFL Fantasy Football Top 100 overall player…

2014 NFL Fantasy Football Top 100 overall player rankings

U.S. Soccer

NYCFC announce signing of Frank Lampard

The tease of a big signing Thursday by new MLS side NYCFC ended up being one rumored for weeks. England midfielder Frank Lampard agreed to…

Tech

Forget Wi-Fi: Li-Fi could be the future

Li-Fi technology – developed by Mexican company Sisoft – is wireless internet connectivity using specialized LED light.

Tech

Weather app Climendo might be the most accurate…

The wait for a truly accurate weather forecast could finally be over thanks to a nifty new app called Climendo.

Tech

Napkin Table puts focus off the phone and…

Michael Jan, a design student at Tunghai University in Taiwan, has invented a serviette-picnic blanket hybrid called the Napkin Table.

Style

Essie's new Color Boutique

Essie launches high-tech kiosks at major airports and malls across the country.