“Da Return of Da Sweet Cinema of Spike Lee”
Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012) devolves into the sleazy violence of the exploitation films he loves too much. Indeed, the disease of not knowing when enough is enough infects the work of many contemporary American filmmakers. Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2000) also suffers as a film with a great premise, only to end with a whimper because all of its energies have been directed toward an orgy of violence, the gushing of blood diluting the thematic message to the point of illegibility.
In his latest film, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014), Spike Lee finally finds the control to overcome this problem, if by nothing else than subsuming himself to the tight focus required to re-make Bill Gunn’s masterpiece, Ganja and Hess (1973). If Tarantino is interested in wild postmodern referencing, Lee embodies a great deal of humility when confronted with Gunn’s script. Consider the way Lee re-works the Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) dining room sequence from Ganja and Hess.
In Gunn’s original film, Ganja and Hess have dinner, sitting on opposite sides of a long table with many burning candles in between them. The set-up invokes the breakfast sequence in Citizen Kane, as Kane and his first wife’s marriage crumbles, depicted without words, as the couple grows farther apart from one another at the breakfast table.
Gunn uses the distance between his two lovers to express the conflict Ganja has over her having slept with her husband’s murderer. She declares simply, “I know that you killed my husband.” In response, Dr. Green quietly asks his butler to clear the dinner plates, as Ganja storms away from the table. Employing the deep focus for which Citizen Kane is famous, across two rooms deep into Hess’s mansion, we see Ganja storming back and forth, tossing papers around the room, with Hess immobile in the foreground of the image.
In Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, by contrast, the butler Seneschal (Rami Malek) cuts their roast beef and offers Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams) some red wine. It is not until a number of shots later that we come to learn Dr. Green (Stephen Tyrone Williams) is seated at the same table, many feet away. Ganja abruptly asks Dr. Green why he killed her husband. Dr. Green replies, “I wouldn’t do anything to hurt you.” In an addition to the script, Lee adds Ganja telling a story about having been beaten up by her brothers when she was young. After these traumatic events, her father came to help her see the cruelty of the world. He told her: “This world is a harsh place, especially for a black woman. You’ll have to deal with the double whammy, being a woman and black…. Life is as hard as steel. Ganja has got to learn to take care of Ganja.”
As opposed to Gunn’s film, where Ganja retreats into the deep focus of the frame, Lee has his Dr. Green break the logic of Citizen Kane. In response to Ganja’s emotional story, he moves to sit right next to her at her end of the table. He explains that he drank the blood of Hightower (her husband, no longer played by the filmmaker, but instead by Elvis Nolasco). Ganja declares Green to be a “freak.” When he disputes this characterization, Ganja asks what he is. “I’m an addict,” he explains simply. This closeness, the undoing of the marital separation of Citizen Kane, allows Ganja and Hess to unite. They drag Hightower’s body out onto his dock, throwing his dead body into the ocean surrounding Green’s home on Martha’s Vineyard (changed from the ritzy Westchester suburb of New York City in Gunn’s film).
Lee powerfully transforms Ganja and Hess. Gunn situated Hess within a high culture of white wealth. Lee’s film imagines Dr. Green as almost purely Afrocentric. The only artwork he has in his home on Martha’s Vineyard is African-American. And, even though he has retreated to the swank island off the coast of Massachusetts, the film still finds Green returning to Brooklyn frequently. Lee’s film begins with a beautiful dance sequence of African-American men moving their bodies to a melancholy piano score on the streets of Red Hook. As in Gunn’s original, Hess atones for his sins in a gospel church, accompanied in both films by 1970s composer Sam Weymon’s beautiful gospel song, “Too Late.”
The return of Blaxploitation in both Da Sweet Blood of Jesus and Django Unchained, for all of their differences, indicates that African-American themed films from the early 1970s continue to hold our imaginations for their ability to invent a new America that is tangibly different than the one we’ve been bequeathed. To appreciate the full range of Lee’s and Tarantino’s approaches to that history, we need a less reductive understanding of the Blaxploitation period of filmmaking. If we use the rubric of the Hollywood Renaissance more expansively, we can see that a wider range of cinema, from the Blaxploitation of Blacula (William Crain, 1972) to the art cinema of Ganja and Hess is the fecund soil from which springs the films of Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino.