Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is another attenuated remake from Spike Lee

Da-Sweet-Blood-of-JesusBill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess is a thrilling picture filled with heady ideas. It can be read as a mediation on African-American identity, on addiction, obsession, black assimilation and even as a savage critique of organised religion. But it is also a waking nightmare of a film, with Gunn delivering something that is as evocative visually and aurally as it is thematically.

Spike Lee has now remade Ganja & Hess, thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, and while it’s actually a very faithful copy in most respects, it is surprising quite how much of the original film’s vibrancy and excitement is missing.

Throughout the Kickstarter campaignLee was moved to assert that Da Sweet Blood had nothing to do with Blacula. What he didn’t mention, however, was that he was covertly remaking Ganja & Hess. Indeed, there were no obvious clues that this might be his plan.

And it’s not a loose remake. While Lee has updated the setting, with Da Sweet Blood of Jesus taking place in the present day and, for the most part in Martha’s Vineyard, he’s actually hemmed very close to the source material. This goes as far as lines from Ganja & Hess being repeated verbatim and even some sequences being recreated with similar framing and cutting.

When Lee does make changes, his alterations tend to add little and, unfortunately, often strip something important away. For example, in the early sequence where Hess (Stephen Tyrone Williams) finds his house guest Lafayette (Elvis Nolasco) sitting in a tree with a noose around his neck, Lee has kept much of the original dialogue intact but restaged the action and worked with cinematographer Daniel Patterson to create new framings.

Instead of the noose hanging menacingly from a branch, as it was in Ganja & Hess, Lee has it already in place around Lafayette’s neck. Lee and editor Victor Kanefsky then cut between the two men, whereas Gunn opted for an off-kilter, locked-off tableau that didn’t show Lafayette’s face. Lee’s Hess, becoming worried about the police showing up, talks about being “the only coloured on the block…”, a line borrowed from the original Ganja & Hess. But that vocabulary belongs more to the seventies than 2015, and the line’s implications have also been weakened somewhat by the Martha’s Vineyard setting.

In 1973, when Ganja & Hess first premiered, the possibility of Hess being mistaken for another black man and suffering negative consequences as a result was an obvious concern. Despite the character’s privileges of wealth, many would have defined him by his race to the extent that he would feel a real and present danger. 2015 provides a different context and creates the need for shifts in the action and dialogue that Lee has not established.

This is not to say America isn’t still a very dangerous place for its black citizens, but rather that Lee hasn’t addressed the changes in just how this danger is manifest, or modern attitudes to this deep vein of racism.

So this exchange between Hess and Lafayette feels out of time and silly, and a sequence that one punched to the heart of the story’s themes just comes across as a dopey misfire. Things aren’t helped by Williams’ very unconvincing performance, with his line-readings so stilted that they sometimes sound as if he is literally reading them, nor the dull and occasionally slapdash way in which Lee has shot the footage.

In its talkier scenes Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is reminiscent of a television soap opera, flatly lit and filled with overly theatrical performances. It’s miles away from Gunn’s experimental approach to Ganja & Hess, with ambitious visualisation in spite of – and maybe sometimes because of – his very limited budget.

And then there are Lee’s sex scenes, which out of context would seem exactly like material from a low budget softcore porn flick. One such sequence, in which Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams) has a sexual encounter with another woman, is rendered somewhat inertly, even despite Lee’s clear attempts to subvert the provocation that had capped off Gunn’s 1973 film. Instead, the scene feels as if Lee was less set on stimulating the mind than a whole other organ entirely. The soundtrack choice of All Night by Dana Hilliard is both rather middle of the road and on-the-nose, and assists with the flavour of easy, cheap exploitation.

Gunn and Lee’s musical tastes are telling, even when there’s no music playing. Ganja & Hess features a cut-away to an image of Albert Ayler, a daring avant-garde jazz saxophonist who took risks, experimented with traditional forms and reached for musical transcendence. This is actually one moment that Lee hasn’t lifted for Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, but if he did, he’d have to take out Ayler and replace him with another musician, somebody who grinds out a living playing the kind of tinny, smooth jazz-funk that you might hear in a lift.

Ganja & Hess is available now in a very fine package on Blu-ray and Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is now playing in US cinemas.