Spike Lee’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus offers an intense and startling act of self-analysis that kicks right off with the opening credits, which are seen over a graceful sequence with a dancer on the streets of New York who’s moving to the despairing, almost ecstatic strains of Bruce Hornsby’s score. Watching this, it’s impossible not to recall Rosie Perez furiously punching and pounding the pavement alongside the opening credits of Lee’s defining film, Do the Right Thing. Perez’s movements were sexy, enraged, almost literally overheated, while the dancer of the new film moves in a fashion that’s decidedly slower and resigned. This dancer embodies a perfection of technique, as well as an acknowledgement of almost ineffable sadness. The street tableaus that serve as the dancer’s stage abound in the bold contrasting neon colors that often comprise the cinematography of Lee’s films, and there are references to characteristic Lee obsessions: the New York Knicks, Red Hook, and, perhaps most tellingly, a credit that identifies this as “an official Spike Lee joint,” which is probably intended to establish a contrast between something personal like this project and a reportedly compromised for-hire assignment like Oldboy, which, in the director’s eyes, is merely a “Spike Lee film.”
Lee isn’t simply working down a checklist of tropes in this opening; there’s a profound sense of him looking back over his work, as there was in the similarly forceful and hermetic Red Hook Summer. This is an autumnal film—marked by an amazingly restless frenetic energy—that appears to represent the self-implicating gesture of a rich and successful artist who has, perhaps autobiographically, chosen to remake a film that’s famously about the assimilation of African-Americans into white upper-echelon society. This film is a parable of the parasitic divide between the haves and the have-nots, between men and women, between blacks and whites. It’s also about the loneliness and the social estrangement that characterizes life on any portion of this wide variety of social spectrums, uniting us, though it’s just as knowingly occupied with the cathartic pleasure of the rarefied life that’s enabled by mass suffering.
The source material is Bill Gunn’s cult classic Ganja & Hess, and its great limitation was Gunn’s inability to fashion a convincing portrait of the wealth he distrusted, because he made the movie on the fly for peanuts and because he was either technically inept or indifferent to the basic conventionalities of film grammar. Gunn’s film is contemptuously incoherent (as if an explicit three-act story might represent, in itself, a corrupt luxury indulgence), and that spitefulness gives it a heat and tension of its own that’s honest and hard to shake, but one never really buys the notion that Duane Jones is playing a sell-out divorced from the black American experience. Wandering around a crumbling Victorian mansion, the actor maintains a distance from the proceedings that testifies to his soulful bona fides; the idea of him as a pretentious art doctor is a joke and an ultimately stiff conceit.
Lee sticks surprisingly close to the narrative particulars of Gunn’s film (even according the deceased legend a co-writing credit), but he fills the scenario out formally, and he renders the plot decipherable so as to effectively get it out of the way early on. Lee paints a vivid portrait of wealth that starts with the principal setting. The, ahem, 40-acre Martha’s Vineyard estate that serves as the center of much of the action, complete with a beach-side view that occasionally evokes The Great Gatsby, represents an inviting and damning testament to living in a cocoon spun from obscenely vast amounts of money. The place is one of those sprawling marvels that appears to have no walls, and is fashioned mostly out of glass so as to seemingly filter magic-hour sunset into all parts of the house at all times. The colors are rich and woody and enviable, and the bathroom could serve as a public spa. Tying all of this together is the over-compensating African art that comically, ironically festoons every nook and cranny. Complementing this paradise are servants and a Rolls Royce and a MG convertible, which is blood red to coincidentally go with the color favored by the eventual über-hot lady of the house. When Duane Jones’s Dr. Hess Greene said that money didn’t matter to him, you might’ve shrugged it off, but when the owner of this joint says it, you want to slap him.
Lee also considerably ratchets up the sex and violence from the relatively chaste Ganja & Hess, ultimately dwelling on them, as is his wont, as mutating transmissions of power, which are further altered, evaded, or surrogated by vices (blood, booze, drugs) that nurture cyclical addictions that are hypocritically and alternately enabled and punished through all institutions: work, hospital, and even church, the last of which is evoked by scenes that feature characters from Red Hook Summer. These intensified exaggerations poignantly dwarf this Dr. Hess Greene (Stephen Tyrone Williams), an outwardly milder, aloof man who lacks the working-class masculine grandeur that Jones brought to the role—a revision that deliberately plays into Lee’s obsession with success as a potential emasculator. Lee satirizes, and indulges, that preoccupation in Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, which follows Greene as an African curse literally empowers/imprisons him as a destroyer of pointedly lower class women.
Every image is informed with hypnotic, symbolic, often self-conflicting multiple meanings. The film, one of Lee’s most erotic, is hepped up on its own command of style and on its propensity for depersonalization and objectification, which it also rues. The hothouse colors of the opening pervade the film, particularly reds and yellows, which are often used as code hues for the fatal sating of hunger, particularly in an extraordinary and disturbing sexual murder scene that likens the slicing of a woman’s throat to a grotesque “money” shot. Hornsby’s score is often just underneath the images, jacking up the emotions of even comparatively subdued scenes, and when it isn’t, there are ribald songs in its place that play over top the image, dominating, literalizing the killings and the couplings as acts of desperate annihilation. In an astounding shot, the director has a killer essentially mount the camera as if it were a person in coitus, embodying the sexually overpowering black woman as black widow. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is a dizzying hall-of-mirrors stunt, a horror remake as autobiographical X-ray, and a work of fantasy that serves as a decadently cleansing creative exorcism.