Spike Lee is such a skilled filmmaker, I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus” was made on a budget of $40 million or more. Lee’s latest film is a well-photographed, creatively framed, good-looking movie that looks like it was lensed over a period of a couple of months.
The reality is Lee shot the film in only 16 days on a budget of $1.4 million, raised via Kickstarter. “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus” may be seen both in theaters and video on demand, a popular trend for relatively low-budget films. Instead of opening in a few dozen or a few hundred theaters and getting crushed by the big boys, why not give viewers another platform from day one?
All well and good — and innovative. But regardless of the delivery system, “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus” is a bold but wildly uneven, bloody mess of a film, sunk in large part by the subpar performances by nearly every major character in nearly every major role.
“Da Sweet Blood of Jesus” is an update of “Ganja & Hess,” Bill Gunn’s legendary indie horror film from 1973 about an esteemed archaeologist who becomes addicted to blood after he’s stabbed with an ancient and cursed dagger. Maybe Lee’s version would fare better if drive-in theaters were still in vogue and it were playing as the second half of a bloody double feature, but as a stand-alone film in 2015, it’s heavy-handed and preachy, almost devoid of some much-needed comedic relief, and curiously sexless for a film featuring so many beautiful people getting so naked so often.
The opening credits are gorgeous and poetic. Dancer Charles “Lil Buck” Riley performs the street dance style known as jookin’ in a variety of locales in Lee’s beloved Brooklyn, and I’ll freely admit I don’t know what this sequence has to do with what follows, but I loved it anyway.
Stephen Tyrone Williams is Hess Green, an anthropologist specializing in African art history who lives on an expansive estate in Martha’s Vineyard thanks to an inheritance from his parents. (Hess’ beautifully appointed home is overflowing with art — paintings, sculptures and artifacts. Lee often frames his shots so a particular work is prominently displayed behind a character at a key dramatic moment.) The discovery of an ancient Ashanti dagger leads to bloodshed, which leads to Hess developing an unquenchable thirst for blood.
Not that we would call Hess a vampire. He doesn’t sleep during the day and prowl the streets at night looking for unsuspecting victims to bite on the neck. But he DOES rack up the body count, often seducing and then killing women when his bloodlust takes over. Williams’ performance is so one-note, it’s hard to tell if Hess is ever troubled by conscience or if he’s become something of a dapper, intellectual zombie. His reaction to killing innocent human beings is to lap up their blood and stare off into space.
The gorgeous Zaraah Abrahams plays Ganja Hightower, who storms into Hess’ home looking for her missing husband (ahem) and quickly falls into bed with Hess, who introduces her to his blood-drinking lifestyle. Nate Bova plays Hess’ ex-girlfriend, who shows up as an excuse for Lee to film an explicit lesbian love scene between Hess’ current and former lovers.
“Da Sweet Blood of Jesus” is crammed with religious symbolism and commentary about class warfare among African-Americans, none of it particularly subtle or new. For a film with so much gore, it’s almost never frightening.
Bruce Hornsby — yes, that Bruce Hornsby — contributes a sometimes gorgeous score, and I loved Lee’s eclectic choices for the soundtrack. But all too often, the music was nothing but a temporary distraction, as the wandering and increasingly pointless material engulfed overwhelmed actors.