Is it too late for a reevaluation and revaluation of a six-year-old movie?
What if the movie’s fallen by the collective wayside of our pop-culture consciousness?
Does that make such revisitations even more imperative?
Fuck it, in quarantine-light (or, as I’ve dubbed it, quarantiny), all we have is time.
In 2014, Spike Lee’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (is Da 5 Bloods the second in his unannounced ‘Da Blood’ series?) left me dumbstruck…and that wasn’t a compliment. In hindsight, the movie didn’t strike me dumb; I walked in that way, if dumbness can be considered an offshoot of ignorance. You see, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is a remake of Bill Gunn’s 1973 Ganja & Hess, which I hadn’t yet seen in 2014 (hey, I wasn’t writing about movies back then! Don’t worry, the critical-duties bar I need to clear to espouse valid opinions now has since been raised).
To recognize how deeply Spike’s version is in conversation with Bill Gunn’s, one need only look at the former’s screenwriting credits; Gunn is listed as a co-writer, despite dying decades prior to its release, which goes to show how much of the text Lee lifted for his.
Despite hewing so closely, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is a lot more — or less, depending on your perspective — than a mere remake. Coincidentally (or not, depending on how much agency Spike had over the course of his career at that juncture), his previous movie was also a remake, and a traditional one at that; it’s simply an (but not a simple) Americanized version of Chan-wook Park’s 2003 Oldboy. Even though it’s technically advertised as an adaptation of the manga source-material, Spike’s references Park’s throughout, including the infamous oner.
The back-to-back positioning in Spike’s filmography of Oldboy and Da Sweet Blood of Jesus juxtaposes two ways to approach Hollywood’s historically-beloved remake game. If the ten-years-apart Oldboys are more conventionally connected, then Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is more of a remake doubling as an interpretation of the original…or more of an interpretation doubling as a remake.
So much so that watching Spike’s on its own — AKA: my experience in 2014! — feels like eavesdropping on half of a phone call and trying to understand it like a standalone monologue. Bill Gunn’s is hypnotically enigmatic, evocatively beguiling in such a manner that, if ten people sit down to (hopefully) enjoy it, you’ll get ten radically different answers as to not only what the the movie might be saying, but even what it’s about, and what actually happens in it.
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus seems to offer Spike’s thoughts on these queries. It attempts to explicate its ancestor’s ambiguity by literalizing Spike’s interpretations on screen. Based on the personal preference of my taste (which should be a redundant clause, but some don’t equate the two), these clarifications make for an inferior artistic experience, but there’s still ample resonance to be gleaned by unpacking the relationship between the two, even on a scene-by-scene level.
Take the lead guy’s (Stephen Tyrone Williams’) performance, for example. While the original’s protagonist (erm, antagonist? Played by Duane Jones) exudes a prototypical all-Americanness, Spike’s is more nebbishy and awkward. The former looks and sounds like an adonis; the latter’s damn-near clumsy. Now, did Spike deliberately cast an uncomfortable fit for the role as a commentary on its progenitor’s more-standardized masculinity…or is it just bad acting? Maybe both? Are they mutually exclusive?
Such are the sort of open-ended, unresolvable questions raised by this double feature. Needless to specify, watching them in tandem is almost essential for Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, unless you’re already intimately familiar with Ganja & Hess.
Which means you would’ve been a better choice than moi to write this piece in 2014.