America is awakening from the fantasy of living in a post-racial society despite the leadership of a black president. This current racial landscape is crucial to understanding the attitudes and addictions in Da Sweet Blood of Jesus. Many African Americans are angry, thirsty for blood, or have coped with hardships through destructive habits. The pastor’s message in a black Baptist church is timely and resonates emotionally. “Put down that 22, put down the 38, put down your 45! Oh, glory to God lift up your Bible and put down that oozie! You don’t need no AK 47, you need Romans 8:21,” he howls.
It feels cold: an exhausting insatiable desire; like a vampire’s thirst for blood, addiction is unsatisfying. No amount of sex, drugs or violence can kill the inner beast and satisfy the need for redemption. For all the gruesome blood on display in the blaxploitation vampire flick, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, none of it satisfies the characters more than Christ’s blood.
Dr. Hess Greene (Stephen Tyrone Williams), an archaeologist studying the old Asante culture, suddenly has a thirst for blood after an art vendor sells him an ancient artefact, a red dagger. He begins to have vampire-like tendencies including a diet made up of human blood. This thirst is passed onto a widowed woman, Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams), who moves onto his 40 acre estate after becoming his wife. Hess fetches blood in various ways: dressing up as a thug and stealing from an AIDS clinic, killing prostitutes, and assaulting acquaintances. The weird thing is that whenever Hess kills people of colour, some return to life. Consequently, it seems more likely that his blood lust is more of a metaphorical yearning than a physical need.
The plot is interesting but dull because it doesn’t really have a primary conflict and by consequence, much of the action happens without contributing to any payoff. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is concerned with images and ideas more than following genre conventions. The problem is that the film can’t be taken as campy entertainment or serious art-house storytelling; some themes are underdeveloped and the B-movie thrills are too few.
The aesthetic is mostly uninteresting and blandly theatrical (excluding the climactic scene which is a blind-siding work of genius), the lead actors are often stiff, the camerawork is static and plainly composed and the overall production feels cheap like a film school project. However, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus acts contra to societal and aesthetic norms for no apparent reason other than to be different. There are provocative depictions of a nude black couple, a rare visual in mainstream movies. Additionally, the soundtrack that features submissions from unsigned artists feels tonally unfitting and adverse to the action on-screen.
The director of the film, Spike Lee, whose career has been divided by mainstream and art-house efforts, has focused most of his work with black culture in America. Lee’s masterpiece, Do The Right Thing, chronicled the rising racial tension that eventually led to a tragedy on the hottest summer day in Brooklyn. His later films include Malcolm X, a biopic on the activist, and Get on the Bus, which follows a group of black men to the Million Man March. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is no departure for the director.
Cheap B-movie trademarks melded with serious drama, a score that is often in direct opposition to the action on-screen, of all the contradictions in Spike Lee’s fascinating remake of the cult classic Ganja and Hess, none is more off than the movie’s message, which seems to be unabashedly Christian despite the vulgar tone. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus weaves through different social issues affecting the black community and shows that the vices of addiction are overcome “in the shadow” of the cross. The essential difference between Lee and most contemporary Christian filmmakers is that his message is delivered through visual metaphors and genre conventions, not ham-fisted preaching. Red permeates almost every frame of the movie: church benches, red wine, a woman’s dress, lipstick, a Rolls Royce, a rare roast and most importantly, blood. Don’t believe me? How else can this figurative film be explained?
In the first scene, the pastor of a local black church in Brooklyn paraphrases John 6:56. “For whosoever eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood shall abide in me and I in him,” he says. Hess sits in the back pew observing the theatrical sermon that preaches the gospel’s message. His conversion, which is his arc as a character, consolidates this meaning.
This opening is immediately paralleled by the blood and red objects that surround Hess in the following scenes. A red dagger is used for murder, red blood is stolen from an HIV/Aids clinic, and the bar where Hess picks up a prostitute is lit in neon red. The connection between these events is conveyed through a monologue to Hess’ wife after she discovers his bloody secret. “People have many addictions: sex, food, drugs, nicotine, alcohol, money, power,” Hess says. The way to read the red images is to understand that they either symbolically correlate to the Gospel message or the addictions that Lee sees in American culture. The material blood shows the deeper need for the spiritual blood.
The parallel drawn between different reds also seems to point to a contrast in society which reflects on the assimilation of blacks in America’s cultural melting pot. On one hand, there is the old Asante culture with which Hess aligns himself despite living in modern America. His extravagant abode is decorated with old African art and perhaps most notably, a giant painting of Prempeh I- the Asante king that fought the British in a war for independence. It’s also evident that Hess’ vampire tendencies are a reference to the myth made by Westerners that old African tribes were cannibals. If one of Hess’ arcs is that he is able to break his addictions through conversion to Christianity, the other development seems to be that he has fully assimilated into modern black culture. The image of the cross and the corresponding red colors become indicative of modern black society’s progress from their ancestral roots to a life grounded in the Christian faith.
The synthesis of the two layers appears to assert that Christianity is the only way for modern culture to break free from the bondage of addictions to violence, alcoholism and sex (to name a few).
Spike Lee’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is an enigmatic, perplexing film that is difficult to analyze. There are parallels that appear to fit and an odd message that arises naturally from the material without forced preaching. The problem is that Lee uses symbols and references without actually deeply exploring their significance. For example, Hess tells us that a major theme of the film is addiction, yet none of the characters seem to be heavily addicted to anything other than blood, which is the metaphor for addiction. We are told that it’s difficult for blacks to live in modern America, but there is hardly any racial tension in the film other than enigmatic dialogue and mild implication; the subtext of issues in African American culture are assumed not explored.
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is about a man satisfying his cravings through Christianity, yet it leaves much to be desired. Ultimately, it’s a cold film about cold people. Spike Lee’s perplexing movie might reward multiple viewings, but it isn’t engaging enough to make that viable.
Spike Lee’s low budget Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is a film about redemption that also needs its sins to be forgiven, despite some fascinating parallels.