Spike Lee: Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
18Jan/150

Spike Lee: Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2015)

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Dr. Greene's anthropological pursuits have given him possession of a priceless knife used in a culture that consumed blood.  When the man who brought him this weapon has a sudden and violent breakdown, Dr. Greene finds himself in possession of an invulnerable body and a blood addiction.  Spike Lee writes and directs his latest, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus.

Note: as this was released during Kyle and Andrew's ongoing look at all of Spike Lee's films, it is part of the series instead of a standalone review.

Rendezvous at twilightAt some point in Spike Lee's career I started feeling conflicted about everything I was watching onscreen.  Sometimes it's for good reasons, like the questions of race representation and media in Summer of Sam, and other times it's because I'm bewildered to the point of anger.  For most of Da Sweet Blood of Jesus' run-time I was just perplexed at the simultaneously elliptical yet somehow direct dialogue and extremely conservative framing of the characters.  Then, with one twist of the R&B knob, I went from confused if interested to wanting it all to be over right now.

My intellect was engaged by the implications of Spike's narrative.  Dr. Greene (Stephen Tyrone Williams) is living in a bourgeois, mostly white world that treats him as a curiosity.  Once he is made functionally invincible after he becomes Da Sweet Blood of Jesus's version of a vampire I thought his obnoxious coworkers would be his first target.  Instead he targets other working class black women, prostitutes mostly, for the blood he needs to stay alive.  Artifacts of the past loom over Dr. Greene as he begins his killing spree, reminding us of the powerful community he could be building with his new strength if he wasn't targeting the people who need it most.

I enjoyed Da Sweet Blood of Jesus best before the proper narrative started and Spike was playing with the ghost of a strong community.  In a gorgeous opening sequence filmed in crisp and brightly lit urban areas, a dancer travels along parks, basketball courts and sidewalks in fluid motions.  It's like the opening of a musical, but the amount of empty space around the dancer becomes more noticeable with each cut, then when we realize he's alone we hear the sounds of basketballs and people at play.  Throughout much of Da Sweet Blood of Jesus we get reminders of this lost community, and this opening scene sets a high bar that had me anticipating the next scenes.

The positive experience continued with the next scene and its visuals with the striking colors of church parishioners where Dr. Greene goes for forgiveness.  They're the modern reminder of the past he decided to remove himself from, give or take a wedding day fashion accessory.  Spike also subtly recalls vampire films of the past, particularly the mysterious Vampyr, by draping the surroundings in a dusty film and abandoning the use of technology.  The climax takes place in a room that could have existed for hundreds of years, and is an appropriate location for an immortal to decide his fate.

Gonna do it right this timeBut those intellectual curiosities do not outweigh the sheer displeasure I felt with the full experience of Da Sweet Blood of Jesus.  I've had issues with the way Spike overwhelms his visuals with the soundtrack before, but the force of which each song intrudes on the narrative is terrible.  When Dr. Greene takes his first victim, the prostitute Lucky Mays (Felicia Pearson), all we hear on the soundtrack is, "Lookin' at my Gucci it's about that time."  She sells her sex and has dialogue that expresses this as well - so do we really need to have the soundtrack as yet another reminder of the transaction?  Trying to view it as camp dismisses the aggression present in both Lucky and Dr. Greene, and as straight drama the song is so on-point the inevitable violence loses much of its impact.  Too many moments get lost in a tonal labyrinth because of the tinkering between score, dialogue, and performance, and I grew more frustrated with each scene.

The most excruciating moment of Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is when it turns into a soft core porn and the the heavy tones of R&B plaster over the sight of two women pleasuring each other.  Spike's treatment of women in his stories has been criticized extensively over the years, and these moments don't redirect his issues to something positive.  Equally frustrating is that this is exactly the kind of overblown "sexy" nonsense Spike lampooned in his own School Daze, and it's really disappointing to see and hear in action.

Less painful, but still difficult to digest, is the dialogue.  Each character has a habit of delivering the lines as though there is a question mark on the end, even straightforward expressions like, "The United States of America is the most violent nation on earth."  Not much gray area in that statement, but it trails off all the same.  I puzzled over the intended effect, thinking that the narrative might have everyone second guessing themselves with each action.  But save Dr. Greene's crisis of spirit at the end there's little ambiguity, more events receive blunt explanations, and the soundtrack continues its assault on any tone the narrative took.  Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is memorably troubled, a dubious distinction in a field where so many settle for mediocrity.  I'll gladly donate to Spike's next project, if only to think my way through a master director's beguiling work.

This will be my salvationWe are in full agreement that Da Sweet Blood of Jesus provides a bizarre, sometimes baffling experience. Described vaguely pre-release as a movie “about people addicted to blood,” it was hard to get a line on exactly what to expect with Lee's latest (Kickstarter-funded) effort. Having now seen it, it's no easier. It is, I guess, a movie about people who are addicted to blood. To try to get a solid grounding on which to talk about everything that happens, just as a fun experiment, I'm going to try to think through the basic premise out loud.

In what seems in retrospect like an unnecessarily protracted opening segment, Dr. Hess Green meets with a fellow researcher—Dr. Greene occupies that familiar and necessarily vague position of an Esteemed Movie Academic—who has just acquired an important artifact from an ancient African civilization. We learn that this civilization first pioneered the use of blood transfusions, before they collectively became obsessed with the consumption of human blood and pioneered themselves straight out of existence. Greene and his colleague have dimly lit conversations about the point and spiritual/moral ramifications of these practices in grave, deadly serious tones indicating either A) we're not supposed to take all of this too seriously, or B) Spike Lee has lost his goddamned mind.

Eventually a series of events—kicked off by the colleague abruptly and hilariously trying to hang himself from a tree on Greene's property—leads to a struggle, and Greene is stabbed, seemingly to death, with the aforementioned relic. He wakes up hours later with a sudden and unexplained craving for blood. As he tells a character later in the film, “I'm not a vampire. We all have addictions... I'm addicted to blood.” That's fair I guess.

I liked some of the baffling production choices more than you did. I actually really like Lee's willingness to dwell on Greene's absurd condition with a kind of campy gravitas—visually the movie vacillates between grainy and claustrophobic domestic horror and brightly lit, airy shots that seem like they're groping at Malick—all while denying the audience even an attempt at explanation. The dialogue also contributes to this sense that the characters occupy some kind of half-formed, almost liminal space, speaking as you mentioned in insistent, declarative lines that often sound one half-step outside of a normal conversation. When Lee's working in this vein, simultaneously camp and abstract horror, he comes up with some great moments.

It's after this first act where the story becomes a problem the movie can't escape from. In order to support his new “habit,” Greene jumps immediately and without any apparent transformation of character from stealing from blood banks to murdering random women (mostly prostitutes, as you mentioned, but also whose bodies are unfailingly lingered upon afterward, nude and blood-covered). Ganja Hightower (Zaraah Abrahams), the wife of Green's colleague, arrives at his home and they quickly begin a relationship, developed in a series of scenes that dutifully indicate they are going to fall in Movie Love at the demands of the plot.

Jealous heartsLee isn't doing his historically bad representation of women any favors here. Most of the women in the film are either shallow opportunists or one-dimensional sexual objects, and they all exist to serve Green's nefarious ends. Consider how one character is eventually turned (or “not turned” or whatever this-isn't-a-vampire-movie-guys language the movie wants to use), in an event Lee casually glosses over because it essentially amounts to rape. (See also: Andrew's comments on a much better, actually thoughtful use of this move in Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark.)

As the film progresses, these moments start to undermine the small successes, becoming more and more exploitative, leading up to that hilariously unnecessary, unannounced, and narratively dissonant lesbian sex scene (now with murder!). This is a movie that could have worked really well as a slight horror oddity, an experiment that utilizes cult genre conventions while sidestepping and underplaying them. And yet, we get scenes like the one late in the film where Green tells another character, “I'm tired. I'm tired of this existence.”—this could be meant as a parody of the standard weary vampire cliché, as the characters have only been in their “new existence” for like two weeks at this point, but Lee's screenplay is so sloppy and unaware, so disjointed from itself, that this scene comes off as just the cliché itself. Green has no conveyed reason to be tired of his newfound immortality yet (though this is reminiscent of earlier scenes in which his colleague falls into a sudden deep, yet unexplained, depression—it occurs to me now that the men of Da Sweet Blood of Jesus seem stuck perpetually in mopey-sad-time).

Even so, there are some moments that work so strongly and have such a distinct and lingering impact that I can't write the movie off. When it's working in a space somewhere between outright culty exploitation and unhinged impressionism, Lee hits some incredibly high notes. The climactic scene you mention, a take on the lonely-vampire-in-his-castle image, both shamelessly invokes genre tropes and twists them into something unique. Somehow he manages to cram the pain of a struggling addict, the weariness of immortality, desperation for salvation and forgiveness, and some Gothic-horror lighting into an image the centerpiece of which is a giant shadow of a cross—and it's one of the best images in the entire movie.

The more I think about Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, the more I kind of like it in spite of itself. Don't get me wrong, this is an awful movie for a number of reasons—but Lee busted loose some inspired (and creepy and dreamlike) cinematic moments here that seem unlike much of what he's done before and yet, when they work, are such a unique confluence of bizarre and unexpected soundtrack choices, visuals, and dialogue that they must have been brewing for some time now. (Though I'm with you on song choice and general poor judgment extending to everything else, especially during the hooker-murder #1 scene).

One last note—this is apparently a remake of Bill Gunn's 1973 film Ganja & Hess. IMDB notes that Gunn also helped Lee in writing the script for Da Sweet Blood of Jesus. Bill Gunn died in 1989, so either Lee has in fact been thinking about this movie for something like 25 years (which could help explain Hess' seemingly sudden weariness over his new lifestyle), or Gunn himself is still around, lurking in a mansion somewhere, also “not a vampire.”

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Spike Film Selection

Posted by Andrew

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