Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For March, we celebrate the birthday (and the decades-long filmography) of one of America’s most pioneering Black filmmakers, Spike Lee. Read the rest of our coverage here.
From its beginnings, the vampire has been a creature of twinned extremes: dread and desire, ancestry and eternal progeny, cold flesh and warm blood. It opens up potential veins of discourse, from religiosity (particularly Christianity’s sanguine fixations) to the compulsions of addiction, recognizable from either side of the grave. It’s a set of ideas long circulating through horror as a genre, especially present in horror films.
Spike Lee’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is a film in conversation with film. There’s a banal sense in which that’s always true, but here, for Lee, it’s constitutive of the project. It’s impossible to conceive of this movie without its ancestors, and its author’s questing, prickly relationship to them.
For one thing, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is a strikingly faithful remake of Bill Gunn’s still underappreciated, wildly experimental 1973 vampiro-Blaxploitation classic Ganja & Hess. For another, Lee’s title — while emphatically centering Black vernacular — doesn’t reference Spencer Williams’ 1941 passion-play race film The Blood of Jesus so much as it dances around its cadences, like the film’s opening sequence dances us through a guided tour of signature “Spike Lee locales” (Knicks’ center court, the Red Hook waterfront).
That bit of table-setting might be the most out-and-out beautiful thing Lee has ever filmed. A short visual poem that, as Chuck Bowen notes, can’t help but invoke Rosie Perez’s very differently charged movements at the start of Do The Right Thing, it eventually ushers us into the same church that provided much of the setting for his previous autumnal outing Red Hook Summer.
These aren’t just fun callbacks. Together, they drop us into a liminal space, a “kingdom of shadows” somewhere along the shoreline of the Northeast US, between the fence posts of Lee’s filmography and the entirety of Black history in this stolen land. The film’s promotional materials promised a “funny, sexy and bloody” outing, the “newest hottest Spike Lee joint”, but Da Sweet Blood of Jesus announces itself instead as something reflexive, deeply personal, and kind of fucking weird.
And people hated it.
It certainly wasn’t his first film to meet with rejection, and his entire career has been an opportunity to test out synonyms for “divisive”. But, with its controversial inception as a Kickstarter-funded indie from a marquee name, its largely no-name cast and soundtrack sourced from internet submissions, and its rootedness in Black narratives of horror and salvation, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is unique: it courts that rejection and then races off on its own B-movie tangents, provoking from the ever-receding margins.
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is unique: it courts that rejection and then races off on its own B-movie tangents, provoking from the ever-receding margins.
In this way, Lee’s film echoes its inspiration Ganja & Hess. Writing on this site, in his examination of Lee’s incendiary She’s Gotta Have It, Robert Daniels notes, “In the ’70s, white directors began to take over Blaxploitation films from its Black originators, the form losing its boldness under the guise of stereotypes.”
Arriving on the early, less codified end of the genre’s trajectory, Bill Gunn’s take on vampire mythology represents a counter-tendency: it is about Blackness, about legacies of blood, about addiction and ritual, about the horrors and beauties of Black American life.
It’s not hard to see the appeal for Lee. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus recreates nearly every sequence of the original, though often infused with a visual elegance that Gunn studiously avoided, even subverted, in 1973. There are also some notable distinctions.
In a key, “turning” sequence early on in Gunn’s film, its themes converge. Dr. Hess Green (Duane Jones) is an anthropologist and African antiquities scholar who wakes in his bed to an ax-wielding assault from his house guest and admirer George Meda (Gunn). The two tumble to the ground, Meda plunges an Ashanti dagger into Green’s chest, and the camera cuts away — first, to a framed photo of free jazz pioneer Albert Ayler; second, to a wood engraving of Actaeon, a mythological figure who gazed on the goddess Artemis bathing and was turned into a stag, only to be hunted and killed by his own dogs.
We then cut to Meda at a typewriter, composing a philosophical treatise addressed to “the Black male children” — “For love is all there is,” he writes, “and you are cannon fodder in its defense.” — before taking a bath and shooting himself in the head. A mysteriously reincarnated Hess Green finds his own murderer naked and lifeless on the floor, drops down, and thirstily laps up his blood.
In Lee’s version, we lose the cutaways and letter but keep the central evocative action. This film is less buzzing with revolutionary fervor, though it’s got anger enough to spare — at the preening white society to which Green was an outsider long before he became addicted to blood; at the systems that compel wealthy Black America to feed on the people. (Scout Tafoya’s essential Unloved entry explores this.)
It’s ironic that Ayler should be omitted, though. His “energy music” — rooted in Black musical traditions, borrowed and transformed with gleeful abandon, with a frequent return to exuberant marches amid its tonal whiplashing — would fit right in, thematically and formally; a Pitchfork profile once described it as an “unusual mix of the cerebral and highly technical and the nakedly emotional.”
It’s hard to imagine a more apt description of Lee’s late-period filmmaking itself. Ayler drowned off the Congress Street pier three years before Ganja & Hess, not far from the Red Hook sign that opens its remake, so perhaps his spirit isn’t through with this material, either.
The closing shots of the films play very differently. Where Gunn’s film provocatively closed on a naked Black man running in slow-motion at the camera, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus concludes with the figures of two women at the waterline, seen from behind: the vampiric Ganja and the woman she turned, lovers staring at a sea in a narrative finally emptied of men.
There’s a strong “last (wo)man on earth” vibe here. Are they mourning all those lost to this world, or waiting for the new one to come? Has it arrived already? In a marketplace where art is too often expected to provide answers, Lee closes his strange, delirious meditation with questions instead: quietly posed, in Edenic nudity, to the endless ocean, by the undead.