Blu-ray Review: Da Sweet Blood of Jesus

By , Contributor
The story of how Spike Lee’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus came to exist is actually more interesting than the film itself. Courting mild (and unjustified) controversy, the legendary director took to the crowd-funding site Kickstarter to put together the film’s $1.4 million budget. Fans around the world (including none other than Steven Soderbergh) jumped at the chance to take part in bankrolling Lee’s latest joint. With a filmography containing some of the greatest movies of the past 30 years, Lee had plenty of tantalizing backer rewards (mementoes and such collected throughout his career) to share with those generous enough to donate to the project.

Now the finished result is available on Blu-ray (via Anchor Bay Entertainment) and it’s simply confounding. It’s hard not to wonder if Lee simply wasn’t even trying, given that Da Sweet Blood was crowd funded rather than studio financed. Was this intended as a carefree experiment? It’s something of a vampire film, but far from anything remotely traditional in terms of the horror genre. The low budget resulted in a scrappy, 16-day shooting schedule. But the film is a ponderous, pretentious, and generally aimless mess that pisses around for just over two hours without really saying anything (if it did, I somehow missed it). If it had simply been entertaining at the very least, it could’ve been worth a look. Some of Lee’s slighter works, like Girl 6, meet that criteria. But apparently Lee was trying to draw a thoughtful link between addiction and religion (and who knows what else) that didn’t come together.

It should be emphatically stated that Spike Lee is one of the most important, most daring, and most accomplished filmmakers working in this (or any) era. I firmly believe that everything he does is worth checking out, not just the frequently (and justifiably) mentioned touchstones like Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X. Lee is, if anything, criminally underrated. Some of his very best films, including Clockers and Bamboozled, aren’t even available on Blu-ray (the latter, an overlooked film with plenty to say, is out of print on DVD and hard to come by). He Got Game is often ignored when publications compile “best sports movies” lists, despite it being one of the greatest basketball movies ever. Lee is also an accomplished documentarian, dating back to 4 Little Girls in 1997 (with his 2006 HBO doc When the Levees Broke being possibly his best non-fiction work).

da sweet blood still (380x214).jpgSo again, one has to wonder what the exact intent was where Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is concerned. I’ve not seen the 1973 original upon which it was based, Bill Gunn’s Ganja and Hess (the late Gunn is co-credited as screenwriter here). At the story’s outset, Dr. Hess Greene (Stephen Tyrone Williams) is studying an ancient African culture in tandem with research partner Dr. Lafayette Hightower (Elvis Nolasco). Dr. Hightower is teetering on the brink of suicide and even though Dr. Greene thwarts an initial attempt, Hightower winds up succeeding in ending his life. Before doing so, however, he attempts to murder Greene by stabbing him with an ancient dagger. Greene becomes a vampire (more or less) and feeds his thirst, at first, by licking up Hightower’s blood from the floor upon discovering the body.

As Greene continues to feed his newly acquired blood addiction, he develops a relationship with Hightower’s widow, Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams). Da Sweet Blood meanders around fairly ploddingly from that point on. The setup is intriguing enough, but Lee doesn’t develop any of the ideas beyond the already-sketchy first act. The acting seems intentionally flat. Rami Malek seems unsure what to do with the underwritten role of Dr. Greene’s personal assistant/servant. Bruce Hornsby contributes a piano score (his second score for Lee, following Red Hook Summer). While undeniably moody and atmospheric, Hornsby’s work doesn’t sound like it was written to particularly enhance this film. It’s just one additional way in which the film feels disjointed.

Anchor Bay’s Blu-ray looks and sounds fine, offering Daniel Patterson’s cinematography as a crisp and clean 1080p presentation. Bruce Hornsby’s music, along with songs by a variety of known and unknown artists, has a strong, balanced presence in the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack.

Strangely enough, the Blu-ray contains absolutely nothing in the way of special features, so don’t expect any insights into Da Sweet Blood of Jesus from Lee or anyone else. This one is recommended only for serious Spike Lee completists.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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