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.
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