Spike Lee Speaks On how Black British Actors, David Oyelowo and Chiwetel “Invaded” Hollywood

imageFollowing a much buzzed-about Kickstarter campaign and a roll-out on Vimeo last month, Spike Lee’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, a “reimagining” of the Blaxploitation horror film Ganja & Hess, is finally getting a limited released in theatres this weekend. Lee’s modern take stars Stephen Tyrone Williams as Dr. Hess Greene, an anthropologist who acquires a thirst for blood after being cursed by an ancient African artifact. Zaraah Abrahams is Ganja Hightower, who falls in love with him.

I spoke with Lee and Abrahams about the making of the film, the recent influx of black British stars in Hollywood, and the possibilities of a sequel to He Got Game.

What was it exactly that drew you to Ganja & Hess? It’s pretty different from what you’ve done in the past.

Lee: Well, I think that if you look at my body of work, I’d never done anything like 25th Hour until I did it. I hadn’t done anything like Bamboozled until I did it. I hadn’t done anything like Summer of Sam until I did it … It’s really for me a great departure. I think it fits into my overall body of work. I saw Ganja & Hess when I was an NYU grad in film school where Ernest Dickerson, my long-time cameraman was there, also Ang Lee was my classmate. We were a couple years behind Jim Jarmusch and that was where it left an impression on me. So, when I decided to do a film using Kickstarter to finance, I had to really think about it, because I knew … as far as budget goes, it’s not going to be a big budget. And then, there I was.

Would you go the Kickstarter route again? What was your experience with that?

Lee: Well, it was a great experience. But for anybody that thinks they can get on Kickstarter or IndieGogo and just glide in and get money, they don’t know what they’re talking about. I like to never say “no.” But I’m gonna leave that door open, I had a wonderful experience on Kickstarter.

Zaraah, were you familiar with Ganja and Hess before this or was it completely new to you?

Zaraah Abrahams: No, it was completely new to me. And Spike had advised me not to watch the original until after we filmed it. [But] I took a few sneaky peeks. I just wanted to make sure that I could interpret the style of the movie, because even though [Da Sweet Blood of Jesus] was a modern film … it still had a hint of classic [style]. And I wanted to make sure that I got that.

There’s a moment in the movie when Hess says to Lafayette, “I’m the only colored man on the block.” It stood out to me especially in the context of Benedict Cumberbatch’s recent comments using the word “colored”—which made people pretty upset.

Abrahams: I think that the media say it’s out of date, but it’s obviously not. People still say it whether it makes you comfortable or not. Whether it’s not the right thing to say-

Lee: You say it more in the UK though, right?

Abrahams: Yeah, I mean people do say “colored.” And people take offense or people just take it as it is. But I think he apologized and he felt it wasn’t a true representation of who he is and I think that was the best lesson to learn from that.

And just to piggyback off of that, there was a recent Buzzfeed article about the “rise of the black British actor.” And you, Zaraah, are British—

Lee: The invasion! It’s a welcomed invasion.

The invasion. Has this been the case for you in terms of your career? Was this your first American movie?

Abrahams: Yeah, this was my first American movie.

Lee: First of many!

Abrahams: It was a very different process … We had a lot of fun … when we were on set. It has been a wonderful experience. It’s been extremely nurturing. You guys are a lot more excitable. I think we’re a little calmer.

In terms of race-relations or just everything?

Abrahams: Just everything. You’re a very enthusiastic group of individuals, you New Yorkers. I think it’s fantastic that America is embracing us Brits and we will continue to do a great job—and it’s thanks to you all wonderful scripts and your diverse roles that we get to come over here and be a part of it. So, thanks!

Lee: You’re welcome.

And Spike, you welcome the British black invasion?

Lee: Oh yeah, I mean as a director, you don’t care where somebody is from. In cases of some very specific things sometimes you gotta be from that block or that neighborhood, but that’s very rare. You want talented people. It’s evident to me that this “black Brit invasion” is spurred on by the great craft that these actors have. Is it true that you get your training on the stage, right?

Abrahams: Yeah.

Lee: Their training is very proper, whereas some of these other brothers and sisters, you know, they come in here, and they don’t got that training. The training and craft, it’s the same thing and I see it when people come in to audition and stuff, they don’t got it together. And that’s not to say that the entire population of black British … are whatever, but once they’re working, here, then their stuff is tight. The acting game is tight.

Do you think it helps in terms of playing historical roles like David Oyelowo and Chiwetel Ejiofor? Some of them have suggested that not being born black in America gives them a certain distance from the material, so they don’t have all of this weight on them when playing these roles.

Lee: That’s what they say?

I think that’s what David Oyelowo has said.

Lee: You know a lot of time you can use that stuff, you got weight you can use, too. Denzel Washington grew up as a black man here in this country and he used that for Malcolm X. So c’mon, now. It can go both ways.

You mentioned before that you’ve done different genres and different types of movies. School Daze was kind of like a musical, but do you have any plans to go full-out musical?

Lee: I’d love to go full-out musical some day … Singing and dancing. But I’m not going to be singing or dancing with no chicken …

He Got Game, maybe?

Lee: No, no no. If we see He Got Game again it will be as a sequel, not on a stage. Not as a musical.

And do you have any concrete plans for that?

Lee: If God is willing, and the creek don’t rise.

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