So, yeah, I backed this film on Kickstarter. If you think that will effect my opinion of the film then, whatevs. That’s up to you. I see backing something on Kickstarter as being no different to buying a DVD. I’m just paying for it early. Anywho, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is the latest Spike Lee joint, as he calls them… and so do many people. It’s a remake, of sorts, of Ganja & Hess. Which I’ve never seen because I can’t watch everything. Is the film any good though? Click below to find out.
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus opens with an interpretive dance in and around Brooklyn. This is an interesting way to start a vampire film… or any film for that matter. The first thing that struck me, other than how unusual it is to see such an open, is how well shot this was. I expect great shooting technique from Spike Lee but had the feeling that the restrictions of the budget would effect the quality of the film’s look. It really hasn’t thankfully. The film looks excellent. Composition and using the individual shots and transitions to relay the feeling of the scene or characters is certainly a strong point here. Some shots are showy, but never distractingly so. Certain shots are magical, such as the trademark dolly shot’s used late in the film. Editing is often timed to the music, which is a technique more directors need to employ, when appropriate.
But how is the story? Well, it’s a little flat. The essential premise is that archaeologist Hess Greene (Stephen Tyrone Williams) has come into possession of an ancient knife. His bipolar assistant Lafayette Hightower (Elvis Nolasco) attacks him, and kills him, with the knife. Shortly after Lafayette commits suicide and Hess wakes up with a new found addiction to blood. Which is handy cos Lafayette has left plenty of it lying around his bedroom. Whilst Hess adjusts to life reliant on the consumption of blood he meets Lafayette’s ex wife Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams). They soon fall in love and Hess shares his secrets and new addiction with her. This is less Vampire of Brooklyn or Blacula and more like a black cinema version of Park Chan-Wook’s Thirst. Which is a great film by the way.
What causes the film to feel a little flat is largely down to the deliberately slow and emotionless performances. There is emotion, but the scene to scene dialogue holds it at bay. Emotion is saved for the harder hitting scenes in order to maximise impact. Hess is becoming less human. Less empathetic. More self absorbed in his new found ideal of life at the beginning of death. When the reality of what he and Ganja have done hits, that is where the emotional performances come into play. This causes performances to feel wooden and slow to the point of testing a viewers patience at times. This doesn’t apply so much to Ganja though who is constantly portrayed as whirlwind of impulse and her demanding nature allows her to play up an easily dislikeable character at first. You’ll come around to her eventually though. The film lacks life in it’s performances for the most part though… which may actually be entirely apt. No performance is flat out bad. It’s just heavily stylised towards a certain form.
What the film has managed to succeed at is allowing Spike Lee to go back to making a smaller film that’s no doubt a passion project of his. I feel like in recent years he’s had to, occasionally, make films that he maybe doesn’t have the same passion for as his earlier works. Inside Man was decent enough but I feel as if 25th Hour was his last great film. There’s an energy missing from this film that was present in his pre-2000 works. You see flutterings of it here and there. The opening dance, Lafayette’s scenes of depression early on, the church scene towards the end. A few comedic moments, such as the ever suffering Seneschal (Rami Malek), Hess’ butler, help give the film a little life. A few more elements like that. A little more conflict portrayal earlier on with Hess to help build the final sequences upon. Elements such as those could have helped. Hess is rather selfish throughout, though, and it bleeds away any empathy we could have for him as he loses his empathy for others. Maybe the film should have followed Ganja as the lead as she certainly becomes the more relatable of the two.
I feel like I’ve been very harsh. The film isn’t by any means a bad film. It’s certainly above average in many respects. The cinematography alone elevates it to the sort of every frame a painting status that David Lean would strive for. But the pacing and purposefully stripped down performances stop the film just short of being as engaging as it could have been. There’s a few smaller characters that have bad things happen to them as a consequence of Hess’ vampirism. They’re well rounded out in the very short times they appear, giving you enough of a chance to grasp at who they are and feel sympathy for them in the repercussions they’ll soon suffer. Musically the film is superb too. We even get a performance from Raphael Saadiq which is always welcome.
Overall, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is too visually and aurally interesting to allow the film to be, what I would regard, as bad. There’s ideas at play regarding social status, alienation as person of colour surrounded by the white social elite, but when the characters are tough to engage with these ideas can begin to have less impact. The film is worth seeing if you’re a fan of technically excellent film making. But if you really need a strong story, and really, you should, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus may not be the film for you.