Back in 1973, sandwiched between blaxsploitation classics Blacula and its sequel, Scream Blacula Scream, Philadelphia playwright Bill Gunn quietly released his own Africa-rooted vampire tale, Ganja and Hess. Critically acclaimed yet virtually unseen at the time, the film has been lovingly reanimated by Spike Lee.
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus follows wealthy academic Dr. Hess Green (Stephen Tyrone Williams) through a very life-altering couple of weeks.
As in G&H, Hess suffers an addition to blood after being attacked with one of the ancient African artifacts he collects. He soon falls for his attacker’s brassy ex-wife Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams).
Though Lee’s film is nearly a shot for shot remake of Gunn’s, he wisely cuts and tweaks certain scenes to effectively update themes and improve pacing.
Vampire tales are always metaphorical, and Lee certainly keeps with this tradition. While Gunn’s original used the traditional vampire movie tropes to examine the era’s racial and cultural tensions, Lee’s film grounds the same examination with more modern concerns.
The object of Gunn’s wrath was, among other things, the cultural imperialism of the white majority. Lee puts this on the back burner in favor of more parasitic epidemics. Lee likens the spread of vampirism to irresponsible sex, leaving its own form of neglected children and disease in its wake.
Lee’s version also has a little more sly fun with race relations, injecting the picture with welcome comic relief now and again. Rami Malek, for instance, is an understated hoot as Hess’s uptight, formal butler.
Lee has less luck with the rest of his cast, though.
Gunn’s titular characters – Duane Jones (Night of the Living Dead) and the stunning Marlene Clark – were charismatic romantic leads. Abrahamson has all the swagger but none of the smolder, while Williams lacks the passion and gravitas Jones wielded so naturally.
Williams is the larger problem. The film opens with breathtaking footage of the actor dancing across NYC – his fluidity and grace are gorgeous. His acting, on the other hand, is as rigid and unbreathing as anything you’ll ever see.
There are also simple storyline problems that Lee neglected to address, and without the compelling romantic relationship to distract you, they are more glaring now than they were in ’73.
It’s not Lee’s first or worst misstep with a remake, and Sweet Blood certainly holds up better than his 2013 remake debacle of Chan-wook Park’s classic Oldboy. That film may have suffered from Hollywood entanglements, a problem Lee sidestepped this time around by crowd funding. But his limited budget likely led to actors who were not quite up to the task.