DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS (2015, Spike Lee)
Early on in Spike Lee’s visually sumptuous, frequently funny, graphic, smart, and intelligent new film, there’s an image of a black man in a tree with a noose around his neck. He’s preparing to jump and commit suicide, but the threat of seeing his dangling body obviously connotes the image of lynchings. This sequence is key to understanding what Lee is going for throughout his remake of GANJA & HESS. It’s about no less than the history of the black man in America.
Lee’s films have often explored the long roads traveled by blacks in the U.S.A., looking at where the culture is now compared to generations quite recent — key texts would include MALCOLM X, the Million Man March dramedy GET ON THE BUS, the staggering Katrina doc WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE, and of course his satire of minstrel shows, BAMBOOZLED. And now, with this updating of Bill Gunn’s 1973 horror film (which I haven’t seen), he’s using vampirism as a metaphor for how black-on-black violence is a consequence of heritage, as well as a function of being an outsider.
Richard Wright’s seminal 1953 novel THE OUTSIDER explored a black man’s reinvention of his identity (following an accidentally faked death in a train crash) through Communism, crime, and violence. When we’re on the fringes, it’s easier to crack. DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS is about an opposite kind of character, but no less an outsider. He’s a wealthy (that wealth is from inheritance — which is absolutely imperative to the text: this isn’t a self-made dude; he’s from old money) black man living in the whitest part of the Eastern Seaboard: some sort of Martha’s Vineyard/Hamptons-type community surrounded by whites, in a big house on the water with a private beach. But despite his assimilation, Dr. Greene is tied to black history, and has a giant image of an African warrior tribesman on his wall at the dinner table. There are spears conspicuously placed around his mansion, and the dagger which turns him into a vampire is ancient.
And as a vampire, he’s compelled to kill — he murders (and drinks the blood of) black female prostitutes, and the more he does this, the closer to death he gets. He starts to lose himself, and can only find solace in his love for Ganja, the London-accented high class widow who couldn’t be further from the prostitutes he’s killing. But Ganja too gets dragged down into Dr. Greene’s addiction to blood (and violence), and as soon as Lee throws an AIDS scare into the mix, the themes become quite clear: violence and assimilation (or loss of culture and tradition) are both diseases that spread, and have deadly consequences.
But there are also huge religious overtones here. The titular sweet blood of Jesus can be read as the wine Christians drink at church, but it’s Dr. Greene who always drinks his blood from a wine glass (at parties or in his bedroom or wherever). There may be some criticism of the Church with its cannibalistic rituals being compared to vampirism, but Lee also adores some of religion’s greatest contributions to culture, such as its gospel songs — relishing in a lengthy climactic sequence in a church (where the reverend is played by longtime cast member Thomas Jefferson Byrd in his 7th Spike Lee joint) set to a rollicking gospel tune. It’s all part of a complex pressure cooker from the 57 year-old Lee, just as intellectually provocative as ever. Now he’s just getting his hands bloodier.