There are many radical things about Spike Lee's newest joint, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, but you might not get that from hearing him talk about it. As a remake of 1973's Ganja & Hess, Sweet Blood pays tribute to experimental black cinema of the past. It stars Stephen Tyrone Williams as Dr. Hess Green, an affluent archeologist who develops a craving for blood (though Lee has warned repeatedly that Sweet Blood is not a vampire movie). Bloodletting aside, the film's centerpiece is a monologue on the strength derived from the difficult of growing up female and black, delivered by British actor Zaraah Abrahams as Ganja Hightower, Hess's love interest. Several scenes feature a black Baptist church service (in the Lil' Peace of Heaven Baptist Church, where much of Lee's Red Hook Summer was set). These are things we rarely see on film.
Earlier this week, I had a breezy conversation with Lee and Abrahams about their film at Lee's Forty Acres & a Mule HQ in Fort Greene. I found Lee to be as matter-of-fact as Sweet Blood. A quasi-vampire movie is a strange place to find Lee seeming so relaxed, but then, he's always existed to confound expectations. What Lee wouldn't talk about (his alteration of the Ganja & Hess plot, Kanye's wild night at the Grammys) is as notable as what he would talk about (horror, addiction). Below is a condensed and edited version of our chat. (Note: A major spoiler that's only sort of discussed is offset by a bolded warning.)
Gawker: What was your relationship with Ganja & Hess like before making Da Sweet Blood of Jesus?
Spike Lee: I had seen the film when I was in film school at NYU.
Did you like it?
SL: Yeah, I like it a lot.
It's insane. Had you seen it, Zaraah?
Zaraah Abrahams: I hadn't seen it, and Spike had said, "Don't watch it!" But I took some sneaky clips because I wanted to make sure I captured the style of it. For me, I wanted it to be classic, I wanted there to be that old-school feel of the delivery and how they moved on the screen. I didn't watch it for storyline as much. It watched it for style.
Do you think Ganja & Hess's themes remain relevant, 32 years later?
SL: Oh yes. The major theme, which [director/writer/actor] Bill Gunn talked about often when she spoke of the film: addiction. And blood was a metaphor for addiction. People are addicted now more to many different things than in the '70s when the film came out.
SL: Social media. Video games. Porn, that's another one.
We don't have much to hold us back. Technology and society are engineered to give us unlimited access to these things.
ZA: I think that having the addiction to blood in the movie makes us realize how gross addictions can be. The sight of blood turns people's stomachs mostly, but it's something that these two people can't help.
SL: But, if I may piggyback on your astute assessment, if you saw Dr. Hess in the street, you would never think he's an addict. You think you know somebody, but behind closed doors, under the cover of darkness, you might find out some stuff that you would never thought (laughs).
The eating of the blood off the floor makes it particularly grotesque.
SL: That brought you back to a bad place?
SL: The floor was clean, though.
ZA: Yeah, Spike, it wasn't to do with the floor. The consistency of the fake blood was so real and the smell started to smell like it. It was just not nice to do. But it was great to film. It was a closed set and everybody was so respectful, but it was not nice.
SL: Drinking blood's not nice?
ZA: No. And I had just choked [Naté Bova who plays the character Tangier] as well, 'cause we did that in sync. It was a draining afternoon.
A lot was asked of you in this movie.
ZA: It was extremely difficult and there were highs and lows throughout the day. But I was in Martha's Vineyard and I'd look out and it was just so beautiful. To drag myself in and out of those places was very hard.
Was it difficult at all to do a same-sex love scene?
ZA: It was, yeah. (Laughs) I've never had to call upon those feelings and because in her head, [Tangier] was prey and I had to use the manipulation of a woman to gain that from another woman, that was difficult. And I've never experienced relations with a woman, but we hung out a lot and had a great connection. And I had no choice, so... But it was good.
***Spoiler discussion starts here***
I have a theory as to why Ganja and Hess's third, who eventually resurrects and joins Ganja at the end, is a woman as opposed to a man, as it was in Ganja & Hess. But I wonder what your reason is.
SL: Then I'd be giving away the end. I try to refrain from spoilers.
SL: But we did flip it. In the original film, she chose a man.
For my information, then, as someone who's seen it and wonders about this, I thought it was tied to Ganja's monologue about how she has two strikes against her as a black woman and how that made her learn to take care of herself. At the end of the movie, that's what she does. To have a man in there might suggest that he would take care of her. Ending the movie the way you did was a final salvo on black women's supremacy and being equipped to survive.
ZA: I think what's good about the ending is we've had so many people interpret that and that is a popular interpretation.
SL: You've heard that before?
ZA: Yeah, I've heard that before.
SL: Mmm mmm. (As in "No.")
ZA: Me and Spike haven't ever really discussed it because he's left it open for people to think about it what they will.
SL: But it was important that Ganja be the strongest black woman possible. That's why she has that magnificent five-minute monologue—I wouldn't even call it a monologue, it was like you pouring our your heart—that we did without a cut. There's no cut in that scene. You just go on about the traumas about growing up a black girl and how it affects you into adulthood. To be a woman, that's strike one, but to be a black woman, that's a double whammy.
***Spoiler discussion ends here***
You've said repeatedly that this is not a vampire movie.
SL: Right, I'll say it again.
Say it again.
SL: Why don't you say it?
ZA: It's not a vampire movie.
But tell me how you figure. I've seen some riffs on vampire movies where the legend isn't strictly upheld, and yet there's enough of it where it's recognizable. I would say that this is that, so I'd like to hear the counterpoint.
SL: You think this is a vampire film?
ZA: For me, it's not a vampire movie because I think there's something very fantastical about vampire characters, and in this movie, it's very apparent that [Hess is] a successful human being, and this is put upon him. Not through the traditional vampire rules, either. He's stabbed with a relic. That is not how vampires exist. So for me, that's what kicks off the conversation of this is not a vampire movie. And we don't follow the rules of vampires where you have to hide when the light comes out. They're not biting on the neck, they're killing people for their addiction.
Spike, you talked to the Daily Beast about the affluence of Hess and how people jump to reading it as a statement. People have always read racial implications into the story of Ganja & Hess, and Hess's status in particular. I wonder if you'd talk a little bit about that. Even if it's matter-of-factly stated, pop cultural representation being what it its means that it's still a political statement to have a black man on film living this way.
SL: Well, I see them on Martha's Vineyard. There are black people of wealth that drive Rolls, live on the Upper West Side, Martha's Vineyard, Sag Harbor, private jet...
ZA: ...That aren't rappers...
SL: Aren't rappers. Aren't running up the court dunking. Aren't running up the football field.
It's a radical act still to present it, I think.
SL: Yeah, but it's the truth. But I think there was more criticism when Ganja & Hess came out on that aspect of wealth than today. No one's really said to me that's not believable. I mean, I remember after Do the Right Thing, people said to me that the streets were too clean. That block was too clean. People want to see needles and crack pipes and broken bottles, and we weren't doing that.
SL: I said that?
Yes. You wrote, "I'm doing a semi-genre film about ADDICTION. These people are ADDICTED to BLOOD—"
SL: I was trying to get money! (Laughs) Come on, I was trying to get money! I was trying to get that million 250!
It made me wonder what your relationship to horror movies has been.
SL: I like 'em. It's not something that I ever really wanted to make. But I wouldn't consider this a horror film.
No, it has elements.
SL: Elements, yes.
In that case, "semi-genre" makes sense to me.
SL: Yeah, I was trying to get that money, though.
What is your favorite horror movie?
SL: Night of the Living Dead...I would say Alien. When that thing jumps out on that man's face...
You don't do horror movies?
ZA: I don't do horror movies.
SL: You know what else? You ever see Magic? With Anthony Hopkins, Burgess Meredith, Anne Margaret?
SL: Check it out.
I was reading the recent Hollywood Reporter interview you did, and you were talking about the outrage about Selma's Oscar snubs versus the recent protests for Eric Garner and Michael Brown. You said: "People are protesting about stuff that really matters, sir: the jury decision in Ferguson [and] Staten Island. That's why people are storming the streets — not because of what the Academy says. There are more serious matters in this country than how the Academy votes." In light of that, I wonder what you thought about Kanye at the Grammys.
SL: I don't watch the Grammys.
Well, he got upset. Did you hear that he got upset?
SL: I heard about it, but...that's my boy. That's Kanye. I'm not going to say anything about him. That's him.
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is in theaters and available on demand today.
[Image via Getty]