In 1973, the production company Kelly-Jordan Enterprises sought to fund a group of relatively inexpensive features, one being a blaxploitation vampire film in an attempt to reproduce the success of the previous year’s Blacula. When playwright Bill Gunn was initially pitched the idea, he balked, but later grew intrigued by the potential for using vampirism as a metaphor for addiction. Gunn’s film, Ganja & Hess, bore a uniquely elegiac dream structure, with its hypnotic images, arthouse sensibility, and cyclical music cues resembling something worlds away from William Marshall’s broadly comic take on Dracula. Concerned with themes of desire, self-destruction, and the tensions between cultural history and assimilation, Gunn created an image of black vampirism that refused to be a novelty or gimmick, manifested in a style of filmmaking that rejected token categorization.
Baffled, the production company didn’t know what to do with Gunn’s film despite its positive reception at Cannes. Kelly-Jordan sold Ganja & Hess to a smaller distributor who cut it by more than half an hour, advertised its sex scenes, and rescored/redubbed its audio track until finally releasing the film on the grindhouse circuit under the title Blood Couple.
The original cut was restored twenty-five years later through a combination of prints, and with new restorations, upgrades, and repertory screenings since, Gunn’s film has slowly gained a reputation as a truly singular work of African American filmmaking.
Spike Lee’s remake, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, is a manifest tribute to a still-underseen film – another important “upgrade” that serves as a widely publicized means to bring an essential work of film history out of obscurity and into contemporary relevance. But remaking Ganja & Hess also affords Lee himself new opportunities, as retooling such a defiant work of filmmaking should.
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus maintains Ganja & Hess’s central conceit, following academic Dr. Hess Greene (Stephen Tyrone Williams) who transforms into a vampire after infection by his assistant (Elvis Nolasco), who then kills himself. Hess subsequently encounters the assistant’s widow, Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams), with whom he falls in love and, inevitably, subjects to vampirism as well.
Beyond their shared plot, Lee’s film is both faithfully dedicated to and wildly divergent from Gunn’s work (Gunn is credited as co-screenwriter). Certain scenes mimic, if not re-create, the exact dialogue of Ganja & Hess, while entire subplots, characterizations, and episodes are invented within the film’s original framework. More strikingly, the tone of Lee’s film stands in sharp contrast with Gunn’s. Where Ganja & Hess put aside narrative logic in favor of a flowing, free associative, raw, and seemingly improvisational aesthetic, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is markedly lucid and polished, even calculated, in its impeccably composed but often cold presentation of Hess’s life.
All of it is meticulously realized and framed by the impressive collaborations of production designer Kay Lee, costume designer Ruth E. Carter, set decorator Philippa Culpepper, and cinematographer Daniel Patterson.
As a remake, Oldboy this isn’t.
While the results are sometimes uneven and clumsy, Lee’s use of Ganja & Hess as his film’s source material is hardly a cash-in on a gradually en vogue cult property. Instead, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus builds upon Ganja & Hess, producing a text that is decidedly distinct from its source material while still utilizing the metaphorical power of its central conceit in order to explore new thematic possibilities.
Certain retoolings fall flat – namely, Lee turns the layered and empathetic Ganja originally portrayed by Marlene Clark into a more generic, sensationalized and even exploited vamp – far from the anti-generic spirit of the original. Other rich threads go underexplored, like an all-too-quickly abandoned subplot about how vampires deal with the threat of HIV.
But Lee’s extraordinary reimagining of Hess emphasizes the character’s distinguished membership in the leisure class. Lee’s Hess is the heir of a Wall Street firm, throws cocktail parties for white aristocrats on his “forty-acre” property in Martha’s Vineyard, and fills his multiple residences with decontextualized pieces of African art – not only an ever-present sign of his scholarly work, but a signal that he can use black cultural objects as ornaments of distinction better than any white would-be neo-colonialist.
After becoming a vampire, Hess makes regular journeys into New York City to pursue its more vulnerable residents as prey for blood – a single mother in a Ft. Greene housing project, a prostitute. Because his victims always become vampires, Hess justifies his behavior as relieving lives from “God’s eventual gift of death.”
But the fact that Hess, a descendant of Wall Street, never pursues the residents of Martha’s Vineyard for satisfaction is clear: where Gunn saw in vampirism a rich metaphor for addiction, Lee sees a timely metaphor for how access to consumption and privilege for some is built upon the invisible suffering of others. This gives new meaning to Lee’s version of Hess’s climactic come-to-Jesus moment, and what happens to him after.
Yet more important than any of Lee’s particular re-imaginings of Gunn’s work is what the very act of remaking Ganja & Hess affords Lee as a filmmaker.
Since Inside Man, Lee’s filmmaking has endured an oscillating tension between two seemingly contradictory paths for his work: Spike Lee the blockbuster Hollywood filmmaker, and Spike Lee the acerbic witness to contemporary racism, the latter of which he’s been most widely known for since Do the Right Thing. Do the Right Thing’s unfortunately enduring relevance made his latest foray into contemporary Brooklyn, the meandering Red Hook Summer, feel like a directionless afterthought, and after Oldboy was re-cut and given an unsupported release by its distributor, Lee’s potential days within Hollywood genre work seemed numbered despite the director’s notably keen eye and technical precision.
Ganja & Hess defied categorization in the early 1970s, refusing to be either an exploitative farce or a didactic commentary on contemporary politics. While its release suffered from its defiance, it’s this same refusal of categorization that explains the film’s enduring interest. By using such a singular piece of filmmaking as its platform, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus finds Lee as free a filmmaker as he’s been since his early career, no longer bound by the strictures of Hollywood, dwindling resources for independent filmmaking, or even his own pigeonholed identity as a director and a public personality. This Kickstarter-funded work is genuinely, as its opening titles state, “an official Spike Lee joint,” an unencumbered vision crowdsourced to liberate Lee from the threats that compromised Lee’s previous film and his new film’s source material.
While far from a perfectly cohesive work, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus feels positively alien in the best possible ways. Its soundtrack, collected through the contributions of unsigned artists, feels like a glimpse into popular music in an alternate universe, integrated within a film unbound by conventions of narrative, genre, and tone. It might sound like a paradox to find originality through a remake, but by retooling Ganja & Hess, Lee imbues Da Sweet Blood of Jesus with the inspired spirit of a filmmaker working worlds outside of expectation.
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is now available to stream via Vimeo before a limited theatrical and iTunes release February 13th.
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