‘Da Sweet Blood of Jesus’
Director: Spike Lee
Stars: Stephen Tyrone Williams, Zaraah Abrahams
3 (out of 5) Globes
Spike Lee’s “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus” opens with a credit sequence in which a dancer gyrates over New York sites, many of them tagged with beautiful graffiti. It recalls the blistering opening of “Do the Right Thing,” only instead of Rosie Perez shadowboxing to Public Enemy, it’s an elegant ballet to a mournful Bruce Hornsby score. A lot has changed in 26 years, and a lot has stayed the same, or gone back to what it once was. The gentrification of Brooklyn seen in its infancy then runs rampant now; racial profiling by police is still at extremes. And yet “Do the Right Thing” was made with studio money and given a wide release. “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus” was crowdfunded and is given the usual anonymous indie release: a week (at least) of token theatrical in New York and Los Angeles; VOD for everyone else.
“Jesus” has some of the same issues on its mind, but it’s not an issue film. Its ideas are buried in its plot —a vampire tale about a bougie black scientist, Hess (Stephen Tyrone Williams) stabbed with an African relic, which makes him lust for blood. Hess finds himself deigning to leave his Martha’s Vineyard manse —which he notes is 40 acres, though there’s no mule —to prey on the last vestiges of Brooklyn’s black lower class. Soon he winds up with Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams), the pert (and casually toking) widow of the man who turned him. He turns her and they wrestle with their newfound extra-affluence.
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Lee is looking forward but also backwards. In fact, “Jesus” is a remake of “Ganja & Hess,” the landmark 1973 indie vampire opus, which used bloodlust as a metaphor for black assimilation into white society. (Lee is so faithful that he awards a screenplay credit to its maker, Bill Gunn, who died in 1989.) Lee’s version is angrier but also funnier and more scattershot. It’s a Spike Lee joint, and Lee has never let nervous execs not make films that were unmistakably by Spike Lee. (“Inside Man” may work as a solid — extremely, atypically super-solid — entertainment, but it oozes his personality.) But with no one breathing down his neck, it’s free to zoom all over the place —from seriousness to high comedy to weird comedy to quietly anxious set pieces. (The film’s most hypnotic scene is a seduction so drawn-out the actors seem to be one-upping each other on who can hold the longest before the next line of dialogue.)
“Jesus” can also go too far. Few go to Spike Lee films for the story, but it’s semi-coherent as a tall tale, and the ideas tend to feel rushed-over. Like Damon Wayans’ Pierre Delacroix in “Bamboozled,” Hess lives among white society, smugly thinking self-awareness —in his case, collecting African art —will be his saving grace. But once he hungers for blood, he heads to the projects. And yet this idea is abandoned halfway through en route to a rushed ending. But neither does one watch a Spike Lee joint for the restraint. You watch him wrestle with issues —not only society’s but his own. (Lee still has a weird revulsion-attraction to lesbians.) For better and sometimes worse, “Jesus” is undiluted Lee —a half-committed attempt at a twisted genre film that freely gets lost down unexplored alleyways.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge