Posted by David Kalat on July 23, 2016
I ran across the IMDB listing for Spike Lee’s 2014 film Da Sweet Blood of Jesus the other day and chuckled at its inept attempt at classification: the film was identified simultaneously as a comedy, thriller, and romance. And since that same set of classifications nicely describes His Girl Friday but fails to encapsulate the many other attributes of Sweet Blood, I couldn’t help but laugh. In case you didn’t know, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is Spike Lee’s lovingly faithful remake of Ganja & Hess. And, in case you also didn’t know, Ganja & Hess is an absolutely singular American independent film from 1972 that blended arthouse aesthetics, Blaxploitation horror, vampire themes, and experimental theater into a heady broth. I played a small but significant role in getting Ganja & Hess rescued from obscurity and back into circulation on DVD and later Blu-Ray; I also played a small role in getting the remake made, since I mailed a copy of Ganja & Hess to Spike Lee back in 2006. Of course, he’s a knowledgeable student of film who didn’t need me to tell him about this landmark work of American arthouse cinema, but at the very least I saved the man $25 and a trip to Tower Records (which still existed in those days).
It’s wrong to call Da Sweet Blood of Jesus a “shot for shot” remake of Ganja & Hess, but mostly because that term doesn’t really mean what it says. It is fair to say that Spike Lee stuck close to Bill Gunn’s original script, with many passages repeated word for word and the overall scope of the narrative left intact. The settings have been chosen to replicate the original locations; the actors look remarkably like their 1972 counterparts; oddball details of the original that may or may not have been intentional have been retained. Put simply, if you liked Ganja & Hess, you’re gonna find a lot to enjoy about Da Sweet Blood of Jesus. If you were left cold by the 1972 original, the 2014 remake isn’t likely to persuade you either. There will certainly be new audiences who find their way to a modern, accessible Netflix-streamable Spike Lee joint who wouldn’t have sat through a grainy 1972 artifact, but it’s not as if the new audiences are going to be fed anything new.
But it is in these shared spaces that something odd transpires—and to explain it, I need to back up a bit and fill in my part in the proceedings. You see, back in the early 1970s (when I was just a toddler) there was a burst of activity in films aimed at black audiences. These could be divided into three broadly defined categories. #1 are the outsider films like Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song that carved out a new niche without really paying much mind to what the white film industry wanted or expected; #2 are the attempts by major Hollywood studios to co-opt some of that burgeoning market with things like Shaft; and #3 are the low-budget exploitation films like Foxy Brown that outfits like AIP managed to grind out to cash in on the craze. Put another way, there were black filmmakers who worked entirely outside the mainstream industry and maybe or maybe didn’t find outlets into that industry; there were white filmmakers who made money making movies with black performers; and there was a weird middle zone of hustlers of all types who took advantage of the situation.
Into this environment came a pair of businessmen who hoped to jump on that exploitation bandwagon—their plan was to enlist some talented African-American artists of various disciplines and convince them to make low-budget movies, which would then be sold into the drive-in distribution circuit. It was an appallingly poorly-thought out plan that managed to completely underestimate every aspect of the film industry. They apparently thought film production was such a simple and undemanding profession that any creative person—A playwright! A novelist! A poet!—could handle the directing of a feature film. And why shouldn’t these two businessmen think that, since they also believed that they—having no prior experience in the film industry and no contacts within that world—would be able to sell their films as effectively as, say, the folks at AIP.
This wrongheaded business plan lasted all of a year, and only one of the half dozen films they’d planned to make even got made. It was Ganja & Hess, by writer-director Bill Gunn. Gunn had made only one film previously, and while the front office at Warner Brothers had decided it was unreleasable and it has remained shelved to this day, at least he actually had some experience in the real movie business, and enough savvy to realize that if these two fools were going to give him the financing to make another movie, after Hollywood had decided to give up on him, he was absolutely going to take that money and do what he wanted to.
The result was a dreamlike film that is difficult if not entirely impossible to effectively describe in relation to any other film. Well, other than Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, but describing something by comparing it to its own faithful remake is rather loopy. It played briefly in New York, and then made a minor splash at Cannes, before being withdrawn by its producers and sold off to a drive-in exploitation outfit that more or less tore it to shreds trying to shoehorn it into a familiar format.
Ganja & Hess survived at the Museum of Modern Art, but was generally all but impossible for the average enthusiast to see. I came along in 1998 and worked with the surviving filmmakers to restore a version for DVD release. I redid that DVD with various improvements in 2006 (which was the one I sent to Spike Lee), and later collaborated behind the scenes on Blu-Ray editions released by Kino in the US and Masters of Cinema ion the UK.
But here’s the thing of it: that experience meant that my primary mode of engaging with the film was through its backstory, its history, its accessibility or lack thereof. In the preceding 1000 words I’ve laid out a version of that story, one I’ve told in different media and different levels of detail many times in the last 18 years. I have occasionally presented the film at colleges like Tufts as a guest lecturer, and I invariably focus on this story of art and commerce colliding.
Seeing Spike Lee’s version took that away from me. I don’t mean that in a bad way, but let’s be clear about this: Ganja & Hess is for many of its creators the only film credit they have, or the only one anybody today has a chance of seeing. And even then, just seeing the movie involves seeking out an oddity, and engaging at least cursorily with that history of suppression and loss. By contrast, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is a work by one of America’s premiere, name-brand directors. There are legions who will watch it simply because of its pedigree, not in spite of it. It is a gorgeously appointed motion picture. You don’t have to look past anything, or make any excuses to watch it. The 1972 Ganja & Hess is full of off-putting and unusual characteristics, but those oddities are easy to confuse with the unusual history of its creation. Because there’s no such unusual history surrounding the remake, every off-putting detail has been re-included in Da Sweet Blood of Jesus very deliberately. As a result, as a viewer I find myself having to confront those estranging attributes in many ways for the first time. As I said above, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus serves exactly the same meal as Ganja & Hess, but I’d been so focused on the curiosities backstage I hadn’t spent much time thinking about what that meal actually was.
That neither film is a “horror movie” is not a new revelation—I knew from the backstory that Bill Gunn shuddered at the idea that his film would be perceived as a “black vampire” movie, and both versions studiously avoid the word “vampire.” (Nevertheless, I still think the IMDB ought to classify a movie about immortal bloodsuckers whose predations infect their victims with the same immortality and bloodthirst as a horror film, even if the actual experience of the film denies everything about that genre.)
A common line of analysis of Ganja & Hess holds that it is about addiction, generally, and drug addiction specifically. Certainly the ostentatious character names emphasize that line of thinking, and the plot deals with different responses to addiction, enabling, and rehabilitation. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus keeps all of these plot beats, and the suggestive character names, but there have been so many other films about addiction in the intervening years that this theme feels muted in the remake simply by virtue of not being more literal. Most people watching this film will have some degree of personal experience with an addict—gambling, alcohol, tobacco, illicit drugs, there’s lots to choose from. And since those addicts are unlikely to be emotionally distant scholars given to prolix discussions of philosophy, this film’s approach is probably not going to feel like a very direct statement about that human condition.
Which brings me to the real energy in both films, and what still feels fresh and innovative after more than 40 years. Both Ganja & Hess and Da Sweet Blood of Jesus revel in virtually unprecedented cinematic portrayals of black privilege. One of the two lead characters, Hess, is a famous professor with a mansion and a Manhattan penthouse, a fulltime butler, a vast collection of rare art, and some antique cars. The other lead, Ganja, is a pampered world traveler used to getting her way.
Meanwhile, the story spends a lot of its time ruminating on issues of cultural exploitation. Hess is a historian studying an ancient African tribe whose rich cultural history has been plundered and turned into artifacts for Westerners to enjoy in comfort. One of those artifacts carries an infection that starts the cycle of bloodlust—and in that way the representatives of Western empires find themselves corrupted and undone by contact with the Dark Continent. This is juxtaposed with scenes of Hess going to lower class communities to kill prostitutes and single mothers and drink their blood, while Ganja callously mistreats the butler. This movie, in either of its renditions, is fundamentally concerned with issues of power and exploitation, of culture clashes, of imperialism.
But these issues are not explored as issues of race relations—or at least, not as issues of white/black race relations. Both sides of this clash are depicted by black characters, and white characters intrude into the film only tangentially. There’s an oblivious 1%-er at Hess’ garden party who sees her host desperately quaffing a glass of blood, which she mistakes for a health drink. She insists on spiking it with vodka, which makes Hess sick. It’s a clever gag, but inessential to the story—but you could remove every white character from the film and the movie would remain intact and coherent.
There was a Saturday Night Live skit about Beyonce’s video for “Formation,” in which white characters collectively freak out that somehow Beyonce’s latest song wasn’t for them (“But everything usually is!” wails Vanessa Bayer). It’s a very apt joke, and it applies to Ganja & Hess and Da Sweet Blood of Jesus as well. Here are films that have essentially nothing whatsoever to do with a white perspective on their themes or ideas—and its rather shocking that 40-odd years after the first flourishing of a subculture of black film in the early 1970s this would still be unusual. Probably the best thing a fan of either film could hope for would be that come 2060 or so, they won’t seem quite so singular.
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