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Da Sweet Blood of Jesus

(2015) *** Unrated
123 min. Gravitas Ventures. Director: Spike Lee. Cast: Rami Malek, Stephen Tyrone Williams, Zaraah Abrahams.

/content/films/4795/1.jpgThis is my body. This is my blood. The Christian Eucharist hovers in the background (and in the title) of Spike Lee's Kickstarter-backed not-a-vampire movie Da Sweet Blood of Jesus. A remake of Bill Gunn's 1973 film Ganja & Hess (generally characterized as a meeting of "blaxploitation" and indie horror), Da Sweet Blood of Jesus arrives as "An Official Spike Lee Joint" in contrast to the pointedly self-dubbed "Spike Lee Film" that was his other recent remake, Oldboy. Indeed, this film is distinctly personal for Lee, both as carefully selected material and in its self-referential flourishes, from its opening-credits dance sequence (an intriguing tonal revision of the opening of Do the Right Thing) to its floaty dolly-shot-close-up pre-climax, with Joie Lee and Cinque Lee cameos along the way.

Body and blood are the recurrent symbolic motifs of Lee's new joint, in the fearlessly graphic or, put another way, matter-of-fact depictions of sex and violence. Early and late scenes take place in the Lil' Peace of Heaven Baptist Church of Red Hook (and of Lee's Red Hook Summer), where gospel-infused Christianity provides a contrast to the intellectual, upper-class remove of Dr. Hess Greene (Stephen Tyrone Williams). At his (cough cough) forty acres on Martha's Vineyard, Hess fatefully plays host to art curator Lafayette Hightower (Elvis Nolasco), the two discussing the ancient Ashanti culture while surrounded by Hess's collection of tribal African art. One struggle over a ceremonial knife later, Hightower lies dead, and Hess discovers he's inherited, among other complexities, an addiction to blood. Then, Lafayette’s wife, Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams) shows up, and Da Sweet Blood of Jesus becomes a cracked mad-love story, between two people who deserve each other for the worst of reasons: because they're both self-serving elitists.

So, yes, there is bone-dry comedy to be found here (and in the shenanigans of Hess' manservant Seneschal Higginbottom, played by Rami Malek of Oldboy and Short Term 12) amongst the poker-faced murders and self-pitying anguish of the protagonists. Perhaps the unlikeability of the characters is entirely the point, but so is redemption; given that, perhaps Williams would have been more effective were he not playing Hess so professorial and cool to the point of narcotized. But the film is also coolly directed by Lee, in a way that suggests the ideas are more important to him this time than any emotions he could conjure.

And Da Sweet Blood of Jesus certainly has ideas, about our basic instincts for all-costs survival and selfish ambition versus the guilty burden of moral responsibility (as typically oriented by religion) and/or suicidal abandon. "People have many addictions," Hess rationalizes to Ganja. "Sex, drugs, alcohol, food, power, money, nicotine." And our American addiction (in this case, an African-American addiction) is to bloodsucking from humanity in order to maintain the lifestyle to which we are accustomed. By the time Hess wearily muses, "I'm tired of this existence," it's more or less clear he means a spiritually empty capitalist existence, and in this, Lee isn't letting himself off the hook.

That Lee has gone to crowdfunding site Kickstarter—and included a gospel number built on the lyric "You've got to learn to let it go. You've got to know when it's all over"—suggests that, assuming neither retirement nor suicide is on Lee's mind, it's going to be a helluva lot harder to get Lee to sell his soul behind the camera of a studio picture from now on, though only time will tell. Meantime, Lee again proves capable of inspiring startling imagery (shot by Daniel Patterson) and poignant music (this time, the piano-based score of Bruce Hornsby), as well as penning intriguing intellectual discussions (in a screenplay co-credited to Lee and the late Gunn). Da Sweet Blood of Jesus isn't an easy film, but it's worth the "wait" of a dreamlike tone and stylized acting taken at a deliberate pace. Despite any anxiousness about African-American assimilation, Lee proves he's not going to go gently into that dark night of cultural imperialism. He can still bloody well bring in da funk.

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Aspect ratios: 2.35:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1

Street date: 5/26/2015

Distributor: Anchor Bay Entertainment

Anchor Bay packages Da Sweet Blood of Jesus in a bonus-featureless but sharp Blu-ray edition that flaunts excellent hi-def picture quality and surround sound. Attention has been paid to color and contrast, which are vital to the mood of the film, and textured detail and deep black level are likewise strong in this digital-to-digital transfer. No noticeable compression artifacts blot the presentation, which also benefits from a simple but effective Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix that really only leaps to life when music—whether it be the rich jazz score or the source hip-hop—comes to the fore. Dialogue rises above with nicely prioritized clarity, and there's some ambience to engage the surrounds, though this is mostly a straightforward, intimate talk-and-music mix with a couple of horrific jolts to the nervous system.


Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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