Your appreciation of Spike Lee’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus will likely depend on whether you’re familiar with the movie Lee is remaking, Bill Gunn’s low-budget cult classic Ganja & Hess (1973). If you are, Lee’s remake is a must-see; if not, you should probably skip it. Lee follows the original so closely that Gunn, who died in 1989, gets cowriting credit. Jesus is so faithful to Ganja that Lee even replicates some of the original movie’s more amateurish qualities; the pacing goes slack on occasion, the sets are noticeably underdressed, and the acting is all over the map. This isn’t just a tribute to Gunn but a commentary on independent filmmaking today, though watching it without knowing its source material might feel like listening to one end of a conversation.
Ganja & Hess tells the story of a wealthy black archaeologist, Dr. Hess Green, who becomes a blood-drinking immortal after his assistant stabs him with an ancient magical dagger from Africa. The assistant commits suicide, and his nouveau-riche wife, Ganja, comes looking for him at Hess’s estate in Martha’s Vineyard. She and Hess fall in love and marry, and he passes on to her the gift of immortality. During this time he occasionally goes off on his own to satisfy his ever-growing thirst for blood by preying on lower-class women. Soon enough Ganja becomes desperate for blood herself and also turns to murder, though in contrast to the guilt-ridden Hess, she exhibits no remorse.
This might sound like a typical horror item, but it hardly plays like one. Gunn tells the story elliptically; he never explains, for instance, when exactly Hess becomes immortal or what prompts Ganja’s sudden devotion to him. Moreover the film is marked by unpredictable changes in tone. Some scenes are blatant satire, some are psychodrama, and some display the influence of contemporaneous avant-garde cinema, trading in symbolic imagery and associative editing. (There are also forays into soft-core pornography.) On one level Ganja is an allegory about black assimilation into upper-class America, the wealthy, unsympathetic Hess maintaining his lifestyle by murdering underprivileged blacks. Yet Gunn’s open-ended symbolism hints at other themes that aren’t so easy to parse. Consumed by remorse, Hess becomes obsessed with Christianity, though one can hardly tell whether the depiction of religious epiphany is satirical or sincere.
The remake is more straightforward as narrative, though Lee preserves most of the original’s ambiguities, not to mention its overstated social satire and certain aspects of the story that seem dated today. Hess (Stephen Tyrone Williams) still refers to himself as “the only colored man on the block” in Martha’s Vineyard, and, in classic exploitation-movie fashion, some scenes run a few minutes too long to accommodate songs on the soundtrack. Lee, known for his flamboyant imagery and jazzy editing, copies Gunn’s drab visual style so reverently that viewers unfamiliar with early-70s underground filmmaking might think that Lee is simply phoning this one in. (There are relatively few winks to the audience, as there were in Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse.)
The impoverished style is no affectation, but rather a show of respect to Gunn, who had to make Ganja & Hess quickly and with minimal resources. The film was financed by Kelly/Jordan Enterprises, a low-rent production outfit that hoped to cash in on the recent success of Blacula (1972) by making another vampire movie for inner-city audiences. The project needed a writer and director, so producer Chiz Schultz suggested his friend Gunn, an accomplished stage and TV actor who’d recently won acclaim for writing Hal Ashby’s The Landlord (1970). Gunn balked at the offer initially, but after some consideration he began to view the project as a challenge; while delivering the lurid sex and violence the financiers expected, he would craft a personal art movie on the themes of religion and race relations.
Gunn presented the money men with a conventional horror-movie script before shooting, only to throw away most of it on set. He encouraged improvisation among his actors and in postproduction tried out a range of experimental techniques with editor Victor Kanefsky. Ganja & Hess won an international critics’ prize at Cannes, though the executives at Kelly/Jordan were livid that Gunn had made something so arty and recut the movie to make it more like the trashy genre item they’d expected, renaming it Blood Couple. (Over the years it would play the exploitation circuit under no less than five other titles.) Gunn wouldn’t live to see the film restored to its original form in 1998, though tales of its production became the stuff of legend and made Gunn a hero to the next generation of black independent filmmakers.
The most prominent of those filmmakers is Lee, who graduated from independent production to a successful career in the mainstream. Ganja anticipates Lee’s work in its tonal shifts and blunt consideration of racial issues, and Lee modestly presents himself as Gunn’s protege by refusing to top the original. He also acknowledges how far black independent filmmaking has come in the last 40 years by drawing attention to Ganja‘s impoverished aesthetic. In 1973 Gunn had to work in exploitation cinema to make an experimental film about black assimilation; nowadays any enterprising director can make whatever movie he wants for a lot less. (Even a cheapo production like Ganja cost $350,000; today one can make a much slicker-looking movie for one-tenth as much.)
Indeed Jesus is Lee’s most hardscrabble production since the 1980s. He raised the budget with a Kickstarter campaign and a number of product placement deals, then partnered with a small distribution company to release the film. This process reflects the growing difficulty Lee encounters in getting his projects financed, but it also suggests a show of solidarity with filmmakers starting out now. Like such other groundbreaking independents as George A. Romero and Stephanie Rothman, Gunn took advantage of his independence to make radical political statements. Lee might replicate Gunn’s dialogue and visual style, but what he really wants to hold up as a model is Gunn’s audacity.