Spike Lee still summons miracles — but sometimes you gotta dig for them. I can't exactly recommend Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, his remake/cover/jazz-variation on Bill Gunn's epochal indie lulu Ganja and Hess, but I can recommend Ganja and Hess, so elusive and bloody and challenging a picture that it's every bit as overwhelming now as it must have been when it won the critics' prize at Cannes in '73. Jesus, meanwhile, exhibits all of Lee's weaknesses — clashing tones, careless pacing, the straightest dude's hand-in-pants idea of lesbianism — but also just enough of his might and madness that the Lee-minded shouldn't miss it.
Used to be that any Spike Lee release had stuffed in it every single thing that Lee thought about the year he made it. In the case of Jesus he throws in a reality-breaking joke about Red Sox bros, but mostly, as in Oldboy, Lee works within the parameters of the film he's adapting. His take preserves Gunn's plot, which was loose and elliptical, without improving on the original's daring allusiveness: Here, in much more conventional scenes, is Gunn's vision of a black, boundlessly wealthy professor of anthropology getting chauffeured around in a vintage Rolls while subsisting on a diet of human blood — and eventually turning to the church to help fight his addiction. But mysteries suggested in Gunn get hammered by Lee.
Like Gunn, Lee lingers over the professor's collection of African art, over the trappings of his fortune, over the bodies in his bedroom. And, since this is a Spike Lee Joint, each exquisite shot looks like a million bucks, stretched somehow from the $1.4 million he racked up in the Kickstarter campaign to fund it. Also wonderful: The credits sequence of Lil Buck jookin' in far-flung Brooklyn locales, which Lee leaves to viewers to connect to the narrative to come. Many of Lee's greatest strengths come through here: his marvelous framing; his deftness at the documentation of performance; his ability to find majesty in everyday places. That also goes for a centerpiece choir barnstormer, set at Lil' Piece of Heaven Baptist Church, last seen in Red Hook Summer, the best — and least seen — of Lee's recent films. (He packed a lot of thoughts in that year.)
Stephen Tyrone Williams is stiffly mysterious as Professor Hess Green, while Zaraah Abrahams digs more out of Ganja than Lee's script bothers to put in. Ganja's husband, you see, has been blood-harvested by Dr. Green, but that doesn't stop her from moving in, loving the prof up, and becoming a blood-addict herself. When she's first invited to Hess's estate, in Martha's Vineyard by way of East Egg, she announces that she needs to take a shower; when the next woman to visit promptly declares the same thing, setting off a goofy all-woman softcore scene, you might wonder if that's some new power in the vampire toolbox: Women come near Green, and — just like on Cinemax — they just must shower.
Gunn's film is unnerving, surprising, a thrill to wonder at — what is he after with that final shot of Ganja watching a fully nude man sprint toward her, penis flapping? The naked men in Lee's take have their crotches demurely shadowed over. But his women: When their clothes come off, there's no question what we're supposed to get from it.