Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014)
Directed by Spike Lee
Written by Spike Lee and Bill Gunn
Starring Stephen Tyrone Williams, Zaarah Abrahams, Rami Malek, Elvis Nolasco, Felicia Pearson, Katherine Borowitz, Joie Lee, and Naté Bova
For a long time, it wasn’t easy to see Ganja & Hess, especially not as originally released. The distributors pulled it from theaters, recut it (removing around a half an hour from its run time), and re-released it as Blood Couple. A complete print was donated to MoMA and has had a few releases, most recently though Kino Lorber. I mention this because because by doing a remake of the film as Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, Spike Lee essentially brought Bill Gunn’s version to a wider audience.
Lee’s film hits the same major beats throughout, with some small differences that are more significant toward the end. Ganja Meda is now Ganja Hightower (Zaarah Abrahams), and her husband is Lafayette (Elvis Nolasco) instead of George. All of the victims of Hess (Stephen Tyrone Williams) are now explicitly shown to become vampires, which clears up a plot hole in the original film while introducing some threads to dangle. Most significantly, the “present” for Ganja is a woman. This changes the dynamic in an interesting way that I want to explore a little.
In both films, Ganja is from a lower social strata than Hess, who was born into wealth. This plays into various aspects of the films, one of which being that Ganja is tougher than either George/Lafayette or Hess. The men have depression and existential crises, while she tries to find ways to survive and overcome. In Gunn’s film, this can make her seem like a misogynist stereotype: the grasping social climber, cold of heart and quick to change allegiance. The fact that she recoils from Hess’s self-destruction doesn’t help with that impression.
Lee takes the seeds of her character and draws it out more explicitly. She does the same things and has the same reactions, but the story she shares with Hess about her past is different. Instead of her father telling her that he can’t always protect her, it’s her mother who advises her to always look out for herself. Hess meanwhile preys exclusively on poor black women (I may be mistaken, but I believe in Gunn’s film his victims included a man and a white woman), making his actions even more those of assimilation into white culture. In contrast, Ganja comes off more relatable. She has passion that Hess lacks, even if she knows that the way forward requires her to accept awful things. Every woman that Hess kills has to find a way to continue after what he’s done; Ganja’s journey is the one we see most thoroughly.
I mentioned that changing the gender of Hess’s “present” to Ganja alters the story. In the original film, Ganja ends up with the house, money, and a new boy toy. It fits her capacity for survival, but it almost seems calculating. The remake leaves her in the same way, but it feels more like an acknowledgement of sisterhood and solidarity. Yes, it is clear that the women are lovers, but the symbolism of the reunion is much stronger. Ganja and Tangier (Naté Bova) can find stability, because they both have almost had to make the best of things. At least now they can rely on each other instead of only on themselves.
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is a rewarding and thought-provoking film. It speaks of cultural addiction and the struggle between practicality, philosophy, and religion. Remakes are always a dicey proposition, often feeling like a callous cash grab riding the coattails of previous success. This one breathed respectful life into a well-regarded but little known film, honoring it’s importance in film history and as social commentary. It’s lovely when that works out.
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