The latest, greatest Spike Lee joint is, in fact, based on an old, obscure (but beloved) film.
“Da Sweet Blood of Jesus” finds Lee reaching both into the future and the past, as he used a highly publicized (and semi-criticized) Kickstarter campaign to finance a semi-remake of Bill Gunn’s 1973 blaxploitation film “Ganja & Hess.” Starring two little-known actors (Broadway star Stephen Tyrone Williams and Zaraah Abrahams) and splitting its time between Martha’s Vineyard and New York City, the movie is about a lonely, rich African-American scholar who becomes addicted to blood when he is stabbed with a sword used by the ancient, bloodthirsty Ashanti people.
It is a departure for the director, half art film and half social commentary. Lee says that the movie acts in part as a metaphor for addictions of all kinds, which he posits are at an all-time high in America, but was clear about which he thought was the country’s greatest addiction: violence.
“This country was founded on violence,” Lee told TheWrap. “Africans were brought here, to this land, and then the genocide of Native Americans, that’s the foundation upon which this country was built. It’s simple, not taught in schools. We’re taught some other stuff, and particularly, how we’re taught is through the media. And as African Americans, we were taught how barbaric Africa was, with the Tarzan movies and whatnot, and the savages of the Native Americans in the many, many John Ford, John Wayne films.”
Lee also thinks it’s only getting worse.
“And the NRA is responsible for it,” he said. “These video games are not helping either.”
The filmmaker spoke with TheWrap from his office in an editing suite filled with Michael Jackson portraits, for a discussion that touched on violence, addiction, film and Brooklyn, among other things.
TheWrap: What made you want to remake “Ganja & Hess” now?
Spike Lee: I think there was a release of the Blu-ray and I got to see it, I hadn’t seen it in years, probably not since film school. (Cinematographer) Ernest Dickerson and I — the film came out in ’72, we went to film school in ’79-’82. And then I learned about crowdfunding from my students — IndieGoGo, Kickstarter, and how they were financing their films. I said, you know what? I could do this. And then I began to think about what we could do, because I knew a lot of times, when you do independent cinema you have to work backwards — how much money you have to make the film, and then you make the film. I knew we weren’t going to do “Malcolm X” on Kickstarter, it wasn’t going to happen.
Were you surprised there was a backlash?
Lee: No, because Yancey Strickler and Perry Chen, who are the co-founders of Kickstarter, they told me about what happened with “Veronica Mars” and Zach Braff before me. They gave me a tutorial on it, because a lot of people go on this Kickstarter thinking it’s simple, but it’s no joke, and I’m very grateful that they — without their advice, it would not have been successful.
Would you do it again?
I don’t know, I can’t really answer that question now, but Kickstarter was responsible for getting this film made.
In the press notes, when you spoke about addiction, you also say that the Internet makes people envious, which leads to being in a bad place emotionally.
My son is 17, my daughter is 19 — they know now what i knew at 25. Just all the stuff that young people are exposed to. Here in New York, we had channel 2, 4, 5, 9, 11, and maybe 13. That was it! We’ve got 900 channels on DirecTV, then the Internet. As a parent, I’m trying to get my kids to study.
They’ve got the headphones on, the TV is on, the computer is on, the phone, and they’re trying to do their homework! They don’t turn their phone off when they go to sleep. I say who the fuck is going to call you at 4 in the morning! And look, I’m guilty of this too, sometimes you’ve got to turn shit off. You’ve got to turn it off!
Before I walked in, I was writing a story about “Transformers” salvaging a business agreement in China.
How much is that supposed to make?
At least a billion dollars, right?
Lee: Just a billion [laughs]. But that’s a different type of filmmaker. Tentpole!
Is it difficult to work in the industry now?
Well, what did Steven Soderbergh say? He’s not going to work in the studio system anymore. But what I hope you write is that many people misinterpreted this film as a middle finger to Hollywood, and that’s not the case at all.
Next week is the 25th anniversary of “Do the Right Thing.” You’re still in Brooklyn, been here the whole time. What are biggest changes in the neighborhood you’ve seen since making that movie?
The complexion … That’s the most obvious. Which, is fine, but I just think that, I hope that, when somebody moves into historical neighborhoods, you just have to come with some humility. I’ve been quoted as saying “Christopher Columbus Syndrome,” where it’s we discovered this and now we’re running shit. You can’t do that, that’s not being a good neighbor, in my opinion.
What is the future of this movie? You financed it online, would you release it online, like a VOD situation?
I understand that the game has changed. My wife and I had this running discussion, she does not like the fact that I watch stuff on DVD. She wants me to do Netflix, where you, what do you call it, stream it! “Why are you still buying CDs?!” She watches everything streaming. I just want something in my hand.
As a filmmaker, I don’t want my film to be seen on an iPhone. I understand the convenience. Even a TV [is fine], but this? It hurts me. Nowadays, there are very few repertory theaters that show old stuff like there was when I was in film school. We’d always go see stuff. So a lot of the stuff, you’re never gonna see it the way it was meant to be seen, projected. So I’m glad people are watching “Malcolm X,” but the first time you see it, it’s on your iPhone? Ernest Dickerson and I, we modeled those films on the epic films by David Lean, we wanted to have that size and scope, like “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Bridge Over the River Kwai,” “Doctor Zhivago.”