Mar 14, 2015
I’m not one to take an affirmative action based approach to reviewing movies, so when I state that I think Bill Gunn’s black bloodsucker flick Ganja & Hess (1973)—a work made during the Blaxploitation era that is always lumped in with such celluloid swill, mainly because it was re-edited and promoted as a black exploitation film under the title Blood Couple—is one of the strangest, most idiosyncratic, atmospheric, phantasmagoric, artful, cultivated, literate, and creative negro films ever made, you can be rest assured that it is a film I actually appreciate and not something I'm giving unwarranted puffery-plagued credit to because it was created by and for so-called ‘people of color.’ Of course, when I learned that Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Summer of Sam)—a small and spiteful little spade who, for better or worse, is probably the greatest and most prolific negro filmmaker that has ever lived—was planning a remake of Gunn’s film, I was somewhat intrigued but even more surprised, as the last genre I would expect the filmmaker would ever work within is horror, especially considering the innately European nature of the genre. Of course, considering how absolutely dreadfully horrendous his Oldboy (2013) remake was (keep in mind I am not even a fan of Park Chan-wook's original 2003 film, so it was not like I went into the film already hating it), I set my expectations for his Ganja & Hess remake, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014) aka ‘The Newest Hottest Spike Lee Joint’ (as it was originally advertised in promotional material), considerably low, especially after learning it was a fairly low-budget work funded via Kickstarter and shot over a mere 16 day period despite being about two hours in length. Luckily, despite being hardly a horror flick in the tradition sense (it is somewhat misleadingly listed as a ‘comedy-romance-thriller’ on imdb.com, though it does have elements of all those genres), Lee’s film stays fairly true to the spirit of its source material (Lee even credited Gunn as the co-writer even though he died in 1989) in its extra ‘Afro chic’ updating of Ganja & Hess. Undoubtedly the most notable thing about Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is that it is probably the most thematically ambitious, esoteric, philosophical, subtextual, and ‘arthouse’ orientated film that Lee has ever made, even though it makes use of horror elements, including extra bloody murder scenes, so the fact that it was shot on such a low-budget is a blessing in disguise, as it enabled the auteur to do whatever they hell he wanted to. Indeed, for all his fiercely frivolous lowbrow race-hustling (for some reason, I seriously doubt Lee has read Fanon or studied the films of Ousmane Sembène), Lee has rarely transcended the sort of hate-charged lumpenprole ‘Guido vs. negro’ scenarios he is best known for, but in his remake of Gunn’s masterpiece he takes a look at opulent pseudo-aristocratic blacks, the deleterious effects of black assimilation, the dichotomy between ancient pagan and Christian negro spirituality, jigaboo lechery and sexual promiscuity, addiction, and even the highly controversial issue Afro-faggotry, among various other things. In other words, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is a film that most people will probably find somewhat inexplicable, including those individuals that love partaking in Spike Lee Joints. Notably, Lee has been fairly evasive in interviews when he is asked what the film is actually about aside from claiming that the film is about ‘addicts’ and not vampires, even though said ‘addicts’ are undead supernatural bloodsuckers who can turn other people into undead supernatural bloodsuckers by drinking their blood.
Centering around a completely deracinated rich negro intellectual who has nil real friends and no experience with ‘Da Hood’ yet has managed to establish a sort of contrived black identity by dedicating his life to studying ancient pre-Christian African culture and religions and collecting priceless art and artifacts, Lee’s film is ultimately a sympathetic assault against a seemingly imaginary and largely metaphorical ‘American negro aristocracy’ that has sold out its race for a life of personal wealth, luxury, and sophistication. Surely Lee’s most overtly ‘arthouse’ oriented work since his low-budget debut feature She's Gotta Have It (1986), as well as his most daring and sophisticated film since the brutal anti-anti-Semite-inciting satire Bamboozled (2000), Da Sweet Blood of Jesus also bleeds a sort of strange sensuality and cultivated style that hints that Lee tends to hide a huge part of his personality with his big budget works so as the appeal to the lowest common dominator as his most popular works reveal with their lowbrow humor, pedestrian race-baiting, juvenile rants, and stereotypically dumb characters. Featuring unnerving homoerotic overtones, black sister vampire lesbianism, a sort of quasi-Jungian look at the African(American) collective unconscious, spade sexuality sans twerking and including sadomasochism, pathological Kubrickian dead-center framing, and a black antihero hero with a blood addiction as opposed to a crack addiction whose brain actually overpowers his blue-veined porridge gun, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is not only Lee’s most idiosyncratic film to date, but also easily one of most preternatural American vampire flicks ever made, even if the director denies that the characters are actually vampires.
Dr. Hess Greene (played by Jamie Foxx clone Stephen Tyrone Williams, who is probably best known for his role in the gay Bahamian flick Children of God (2010) directed by Kareem Mortimer) is probably the most pedantic Afrocentric fellow in the entire world, as a reasonably powerful and influential sage of ancient Africa who seems to have no other interests in life, including love, sex, and romance. Indeed, despite his pathological obsession with his ancestral heritage, Hess is the complete opposite of the stereotypical American negro male. While Hess is obsessed with all-things-African (or as he states while hanging out with his rich white pseudo-friends, “Africa is my passion”), he has virtually no real exposure to any sort of real black American community, as he is independently wealthy as a result of his deceased parents being the first black family to own a firm on Wall Street. Indeed, the closest Hess ever gets to any real black community is when he sits in the very last row of a Brooklyn Baptist church and watches silently and unemotionally as the elderly vaudeville-like preacher gives ridiculous sermons where he screams things like, “pick up that Bible and put down that .22 […] put down that Uzi…you don’t need no AK47.” During one of these sermons at the beginning of the film, the preacher foreshadows Hess’ future life as a member of the dually dark undead by quoting a vampiric verse from John 6:56, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.” While Hess is a practicing Christian, his faith seems somewhat dubious. While he has a pad in Brooklyn where he likes to take pilgrimages when he gets bored with rural island life, Hess’ mostly resides at his large ’40 acre’ estate in Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts where he is the sole negro inhabitant and curiously lives the life of a ‘confirmed bachelor,’ with his only companion being an inordinately handsome and seemingly gay manservant with a sassy attitude. When Hess has a fellow negro nerd scholar named Lafayette Hightower (Elvis Nolasco of Lee’s Clockers (1995) and Steven Soderbergh’s Che (2008)) stay at his home after the rather wacky brother becomes his assistant, both his spirituality and sexuality will ultimately be tested.
A wealthy collector of ancient African art and artifacts who seriously believes, “Art is god’s ally…science [is] god’s natural foe,” Hess comes into contact with Lafayette upon purchasing an ancient Ashanti dagger that was used by an infamous negress queen who suffered from a blood disease and thus needed constant blood transfusions. Naturally, the queen used the blood of the healthiest members of her tribe for her blood transfusions, but she eventually began to use so much blood that her victims started to bleed to death and eventually a “pernicious anemia” plagued the Ashanti people, who inevitably became collectively addicted to blood and began waging violent ‘blood wars’ against neighboring tribes. It becomes immediately apparent that weirdo dork Lafayette—a rare negro who seems to suffer from Asperger syndrome—is more interested in Hess than the Ashanti tribe or Afrocentric. Indeed, Lafayette is a mental case who has been in and out of nutwards and his psychological affliction seems to be the result of being a sexually repressed latent homosexual as hinted at in bizarre remarks he makes to Hess like, “I suppose if I believed in desire, it wouldn’t frighten me so much.” During Lafayette’s first night at the protagonist’s home in Martha’s Vineyard, Hess is alarmed to hear loud unnerving crying from outside in the middle of the night and when he goes outside he finds his colleague squatting on a branch at the top of a large tree with an old school KKK-esque noose around his neck as if he is planning to kill himself. Lafayette is considerably intoxicated and when Hess tells him to get out of ‘his’ tree, he shouts like a mad megalomaniac drunk on Christ, “this is almighty god’s tree.” Ultimately, Lafayette eventually pussies out, accidentally falls from the tree, and subsequently confesses to Hess about his long history of mental illness. The next day, Hess awakens to find Lafayette running into his room and attempting to butcher him with an axe. During the struggle between the two negro pencil-pushers, Lafayette eventually stabs Hess in the heart with the Ashanti dagger and then subsequently begins crying after realizing what he has done. After expressing his repressed homosexuality by kissing seemingly dead Hess on the lips in a darkly erotic fashion, Lafayette ritualistically baths, brushes his teeth, and then proceeds to commit self-slaughter by blowing his brains out while still naked. The Ashanti dagger must still have its sinister mystical blood powers after thousands of years of lying dormant because Hess wakes up at the exact moment Lafayette fires a bullet into his skull and soon realizes that there is somehow no wound on his chest. When Hess finds Lafayette’s unclad corpse, his immediate reaction is to begin licking the blood from the floor. Indeed, like his ancient ancestors, Hess is now a savage black bloodsucker who will do anything to get his fix.
While Hess initially finds creative ways to get blood like starting a fire at a hospital and subsequently robbing the blood bank while the doctors and nurses are scrambling to prevent their building from burning down, he soon decides to take a more visceral approach to feeding and begins frequenting a seedy black bar where he finds his first victim. Of course, first Hess has to develop a charismatic mack daddy persona if he plans to glamor prospective negress victims into coming home with home, so he buys a new stylish wardrobe and develops a sort of super suave alter-ego. The first person Hess picks up is a dyke-like dame with an unflatteringly deep voice and ridiculous blonde wig with the ironical name ‘Lucky Mays’ (played by real-life dyke and convicted killer Felicia 'Snoop' Pearson of HBO’s hit show The Wire) under the pretense of buying her busted-up meta-ghetto booty, but instead of having sex with the trashy used-up hooker, the protagonist strangles her to death, pierces her throat with a corkscrew, and then proceeds to drink her blood, which makes him deathly ill since his victim is a pillpopper with contaminated blood (undoubtedly, Lee seems to pay unlikely homage to Paul Morrissey’s Blood for Dracula (1974) as reflected in the film's various darkly comedic scenes where Hess gets extremely sick from drinking despoiled vital fluids). While Hess is perfectly fine living a solitary vampire life that is not much different from his previous life as a human as it still revolves around taking rides in his vintage Rolls-Royce, briefly attending shallow local parties where hyper horny rich old white twats with jungle fever attempt to jump his bones, and having his racially ambiguous British accented lapsed twink manservant Seneschal Higginbottom (played by Egyptian-American actor Rami Malek, who is coincidentally best known for playing a gay character on the FOX comedy series The War at Home) do petty bitch work, he has a sort of sexual awakening when Lafayette’s ex-wife Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams) comes to Martha’s Vineyard looking for her dead hubby. Although a brazen mouthy bitch that gets a real kick out of figuratively breaking men’s balls, Ganja more or less causes Hess to fall in love with her at first sight, which seemed somewhat unlikely considering his dubious sexuality and seemingly emotionally impenetrable essence.
As her name surely hints, Ganja loves rolling big fat joints and smoking dope, though one would not assume so merely judging by her physical appearance and character as she is a high yellow black Brit with a posh accent and a razor sharp wit that constantly catches spade sage Hess off guard with her invasive questions and snide remarks. Naturally, when Ganja asks Hess if he is a homo, he gets pissed and complains, “Why does everyone think a man my age who isn’t married is homosexual?,” in a rather whiny fashion that seems a little bit too defensive, thus indicating that the protagonist is not very secure in his sexuality. When Ganja coerces Hess into smoking weed with her, the protagonist breaks down and confesses that Lafayette has committed suicide, but the little lady seems less upset about her late hubby’s death than the fact that her next prospective lover is a glaring weirdo and complains, “How come every rich man I meet is so fucked up? Why can’t you be sane? Normal? Anything but bonkers.” While Hess is initially shy about having sex with Ganja due to his blood addiction and tendency to kill people during coitus, he eventually manages to make passionate love with Ganja without murdering her and the two fall deeply in love with one another in what ultimately seems like an idyllic romance between two physical and intellectual equals who compliment one another perfectly. Of course, Hess has to maintain his blood addiction and, in an allegorical scene that seems to symbolize the exceedingly abusive and exploitative way black men treat black women, especially of the desperate single mother sort, the protagonist seduces a young mother and then proceeds to kill her and drink her blood right in front of her baby. Meanwhile, Ganja finds the frozen corpse of Lafayette in Hess’ basement freezer and begins to suspect that the protagonist murdered her ex-husband, but when she confronts him about it when he gets back from hunting single mothers in Brooklyn, the protagonist ‘reassures’ her that he did not kill her ex-spouse but merely drank his vital fluids, confessing, “I’m an addict…I drink blood.” Not surprisingly considering her rather thick skin and deep love for the protagonist, Ganja seems fairly happy with Hess’ explanation as to why her ex-husband’s corpse is in his freezer and she even helps him dump Lafayette’s corpse in a river; and if that is not true love then I don’t know what is.
Of course, Hess and Ganja eventually get married and have a small Afrocentric wedding that takes place on the protagonist’s beach and is attended merely by a black preacher in Kwanza garb and manservant Seneschal. On their honeymoon night, Hess decides to give Ganja immortal life by drinking her blood and turning her into a vamp, with the protagonist stating to his wife while she lays unclad and lifeless after he bites into her throat, “I want you to live forever.” When Ganja finally wakes up, she is terribly ill and immediately begins fiending for blood. In a somewhat shocking way to reveal to her that she is now an immortal vampire, Hess stabs Ganja in the gut repeatedly with a knife and then proceeds to point out to her that she has no wounds. Not surprisingly considering she is a more emotionally impenetrable individual with a strong sadistic side, Ganja begins to enjoy being a bloodsucker more than Hess does. When Hess invites an old high yellow mulatto ex-girlfriend named Tangier Chancellor (Naté Bova)—a woman who jokes regarding her exotic racial characteristics, “My mom’s black, my dad’s Irish. Black Irish, there you go”—over for a long awaited get together, Ganja uses Sapphic seduction tactics to make the blue-eyed negress her easy prey. After smoking a joint while watching Tangier taking a shower, Ganja initiates sex with her victim and when the masochistic mulatto asks her to choke her, she uses the opportunity to strangle her unwitting prey to death. After Ganja is finished killing Tangier, Hess joins his wifey in slurping the McBlack half-breed’s blood off the floor. Of course, Tangier also becomes a member of the darkie undead, which is important as she later becomes an imperative presence in Ganja’s life in the long-run. Although developing a visceral hatred for Christianity after becoming a vampire as expressed in remarks like, “The cross is only an implement of torture. Its shadow is the darkness it casts,” Hess eventually has a crisis of faith and decides to head to Brooklyn and attend a sermon at the Baptist church that he used to frequent. Ultimately, Hess is so deeply affected by the bodacious Baptist minstrel show that he is exposed to at the church that he realizes that he can no longer turn away from Christ, so he decides to kill himself by abstaining from blood while sitting under the shadow of the cross. While what little is left of her cold black heart is shattered when Hess commits undead suicide, Ganja, who ultimately becomes a symbol of black womanhood, is much stronger and more ruthless than her hubby and perseveres in the end. In a concluding scene straight out of a Jess Franco or Jean Rollin flick, undead unclad Tangier joins Ganja on the beach, thus symbolizing that the two are now full-blow lipstick lesbo vamps who no longer need weak and meek black man.
I must admit that Da Sweet Blood of Jesus has made me question Spike Lee’s sexuality, as the film has about just as much queer content as the average François Ozon flick, not to mention the fact the filmmaker oftentimes acts like a raging queen that is in desperate need of some midnight tearoom action, but I digress, as the film has something more important about it that is worthy of a public dialogue among both blacks and whites. Indeed, throughout its jigaboo vampire microcosm, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus highlights the dysfunction and deleterious chaos that has not only plagued the black family, but also American negroid gender, sexuality, and romantic relationships. Surely it is no coincidence that the male lead is a rich middle-aged mensch with no children who is, among other things, racially deracinated, spiritually sick, and possibly latently gay or bisexual, not to mention the fact that he is weaker than his lover. As for the female lead, she suffers from all the afflictions of a ‘modern’ woman—be it white or black—as a bitchy, frigid, and hyper-materialistic dame with no maternal instincts or empathy who ultimately converts to lesbianism. I hate to admit it but I have watched a number of videos from prominent black personalities on YouTube like Tommy Sotomayor and one thing that they seem to always bring up is that most ghetto black single mothers engage in a lesbo relationship after getting tired of black men. These same YouTube personalities also always complain about how more and more black men are becoming crypto-homo/bisexuals (or what they call being ‘on the down low’ aka ‘DL’). Of course, the way the protagonist of Lee's film ruthlessly drains the blood of a young single mother right in front of her baby is symbolic of both how black ‘simps’ treat women in the black community, as well as how young single mothers are so desperate for men that they will invite any strange man into their home (notably, it only takes a minute or so for Hess to coerce the woman to have ‘sex’ with him upon first meeting him). Of course, in its depiction of the protagonist being an addict and even taking a HIV test (which is administered by Lee's sister Joie Lee), Da Sweet Blood of Jesus ultimately uses a variety of creative methods to cram all the vices plaguing black America into one single film in an original way that Bill Gunn must be credited for pioneering, at least as far as the virtually nonexistent film style of ‘Afro-American arthouse’ cinema is concerned. As the film demonstrates, it is not the big bad and all-powerful white that has destroyed the American black community but the vicious circle of addiction. Indeed, not unlike white America, albeit to a more deleterious degree, blacks have become self-destructively addicted to mindless sex, money, fame, and drugs, which Da Sweet Blood of Jesus ultimately at least partly attributes to a loss of religion and true spirituality.
It should also be noted that, despite its damning critique of virtually every aspect of black American society and culture, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus has a semi-cryptic black power message that is expressed in its reference to the Ashanti tribe. Notably, out of all the countless tribes in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Ashanti people were arguably the strongest and most advanced as they were one of the only ‘kingdoms’ to put up any serious sort of resistance against European colonizers. In fact, during the so-called ‘Anglo-Ashanti Wars’ between 1823 and 1896, the Ashanti kings were able to hold their own against the British and it was not until 1901 that they were defeated and incorporated into the Gold Coast colony as a protectorate. Despite their nearly century long war with the British, the Ashanti also maintained strong interactions with Europeans and because of this they have the greatest amount of recorded historiography out of all the tribes in sub-Saharan Africa. Ironically, unlike most African tribes, contemporary Ashanti people have become increasingly irreligious and atheistic. Of course, as depicted in Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, spiritual degeneration leads to degeneration in every regard, though the film ultimately sends mixed messages in terms of what religion is most beneficial, but what is clear in the film is that people cannot go back to dead religions that were practiced by their ancient ancestors and expect positive results. After all, religions die for a reason and there is nothing more pathetic than a contemporary deracinated white American of dubious Germanic ancestry proclaiming to be an Odinist and committing the less than Odin-like act of trolling a Christian on an internet messageboard. Notably, the main characters in Lee’s film do not have all that hard of a time adopting the bloodsucking rites of their ancestors because they were already so debased and morally bankrupt before turning into vampires that their transformation more or less seems like the next logical step for them to take in life, thereupon highlighting the spiritual and cultural degeneracy and psychopathic essence of today's world. While many nonwhites, especially American blacks, tend to think of Europeans and European-Americans as innately evil, what they do not realize is that Nietzsche declared god was dead well over a century ago in Europe for a reason, as the white world became spiritually impoverished long ago, hence the decline of the Occident and why figures like C.G. Jung and movements like communism and National Socialism attempted to fill the void that the disappearance of religion left, just as the Jews today subscribe to Zionism as they no longer have true Judaism. Like with everything else, blacks are just now beginning to catch up with whites in terms of spiritual impoverishment. While Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is surely not up to par with its cinematic progenitor Ganja & Hess in terms of overall importance, aesthetic integrity, and providing a totally transcendence experience, it is indubitably much more relevant to the problems of today’s world.
Unquestionably one of the things I found most baffling about Lee’s film is that it lacks the surrealist dream-sequences and oneiric tone that made Gunn’s film so particularly potent and memorable. Indeed, Ganja & Hess feels like it is set in some sort of perpetual negro purgatory that falls somewhere in between heaven and hell. Instead, Lee took the easy way out by replacing the more arcane elements of the original film with Wilder-esque humor and ‘sassy’ dialogue as if to appeal to the lowest common denominator of audiences who would otherwise understand nothing else about the film. Negative qualities aside, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus ultimately makes for a great argument as to why serious contemporary auteur filmmakers should consider using Kickstarter instead of working with producers with last names like Goldberg and Roth, as crowdsourcing enabled Lee to make a striking, original, and seemingly highly personalized work where he did not have worry about being fucked in the ass by a shady producer or losing final cut. Whilst Lee has gone as far as to say that his work is not even a bloodsucker film (I guess vampires and vampire mythology are too European for him), Da Sweet Blood of Jesus still deserves credit for defiling classic vampire mythology to such a startling degree that it is comparable to what a band of a dozen or so Zulu warriors would do upon finding a bare big-assed colonial cracker bitch walking in the woods.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 9:33 PM
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