DIRECTED BY: Spike Lee
FEATURING: Stephen Williams, Zaraah Abrahams, Rami Malek, Elvis Nolasco, Thomas Jefferson Byrd
PLOT: A well-to-do doctor of anthropology gets stabbed with an ancient Ashanti dagger and becomes immortal but addicted to blood.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The movie’s vampire-origin premise is an uncommon one, but the movie is weighed down by a cold—bordering on somnolent—lead performance, a scattershot tone, and the fact that the most compelling scenes are largely uninvolved with the main action.
COMMENTS: The opening credits of Spike Lee’s latest movie are fully alive. Across the acting and production shout-outs, Lee shows off a very skilled street dancer (Charles “Lil Buck” Riley) performing a number of smooth, impressive moves in various Brooklyn street spots. The momentum continues with the opening scene proper, a lively gospel shout ceremony at “Lil’ Piece of Heaven” church. During the full-blooded, upbeat sermonizing, we see Dr. Hess Green (Stephen Williams) sitting alone in the back, noticeably separate from the rapt congregants. After this introduction, however, it seems that all the blood drains from the movie.
What follows is a sometimes dreamy, sometimes intellectual, and consistently tedious affair involving the realities of a modern, bookish vampire. Dr. Greene hosts big parties for intelligentsia at his large estate in Martha’s Vineyard (with grounds spanning 40 acres, no less). He chats amiably, but briefly, with the various educated bourgeoisie, before having to hightail it to his basement for some blood packs from the refrigerator. He emerges with a wine glass of blood; when an insistent guest tries it and spits it out, he glibly explains, “It’s organic.” And so comes and goes one of the few breaks from the largely unremitting monotony of the film.
Between his unfortunate conversion to vampirism and a personal spiritual revelation, he murders and drinks blood of various poor women of color. His traces of hyper-shy charm are smudged over by his callous and guileless manner. For reasons not entirely clear, he immediately falls in love with Ganja Hightower (Zaraah Abrahams), who was once married to his erstwhile assistant. She seems to hate everything and everyone, and has adopted the unfortunate habit of being 100% honest 100% of the time. She has a backstory to explain her current hostility to the world, but I found myself utterly incapable of seeing how that justifies her sheer unpleasantness. Throughout the movie, Spike Lee (who co-wrote the screenplay) dribbles in bits and pieces of mumblecore exchanges; where he should have focused on creating an atmosphere of angst and ambiguity, instead he makes each character no more than a projection of a type. Even the hammy characters from Blacula have more nuance and relatability.
There are some scenes of vitality and beauty. Whenever the action shuffles over to the church (all too infrequently), the movie immediately gets a shot in the arm. And while I am not one to generally marvel at the visual splendor of a scene, the marriage on the private beach that takes place in the second half was a sheer joy just to look at. Unfortunately, I can only come to the conclusion that while the movie toyed with greatness, it came short in a number of ways. It may have been a worthy recommendation if it had been: more atmospheric, more puzzling, livelier, wittier, and so on. Had it thoroughly pursued any one of those directions, it may have been on to something. Instead, Spike Lee seems to want it all, and it ends up falling flat.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…with no one breathing down [Lee’s] neck, it’s free to zoom all over the place — from seriousness to high comedy to weird comedy to quietly anxious set pieces… For better and sometimes worse, ‘Jesus’ is undiluted Lee — a half-committed attempt at a twisted genre film that freely gets lost down unexplored alleyways.”–Matt Prigge, Metro (contemporaneous)