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Pioneering filmmaker Bill Gunn’s 1973 iconoclastic “Ganja & Hess” revolutionized the vampire genre and was effectively suppressed in the United States because it wasn’t the Hollywood horror movie that its producers had commissioned the artist to make. Gunn made a film unlike anything that came before it (and arguably even after), at a time when black films weren’t allowed to be much more than empty sensation. It comes with a mythical backstory that should inspire all filmmakers, but especially young black directors who would use the impulse to get creative.
The early ’70s were the height of the blaxploitation era, and the producers of “Ganja & Hess” hoped to cash in on the euphoria of that moment with a black version of popular mainstream vampire films, likely inspired by titles like “Blacula” a year earlier. But Gunn had other plans.
The movie stars Duane Jones as wealthy anthropologist Hess Green, who’s stabbed with an ancient ceremonial dagger by his unstable assistant George Meda (Gunn himself), endowing him with the blessing of immortality and the curse of an unquenchable thirst for blood. Hess creatively copes with his need for blood to survive (robbing blood donor clinics for example). When the assistant’s beautiful and outspoken wife Ganja (Marlene Clark) comes searching for her vanished husband, she and Hess form an unexpected partnership. She’s officially inaugurated into his way of life — and then, for reasons not fully explained, he wants out.
Hess’ journey has a brilliant, folkloric structure built around it. He gets two visitors to his home — one who came to murder him (Meda), and the other who would eventually come to love him (Ganja). The murderer instead made him immortal, while the lover gave him mortality. It’s an intriguing meditation on what it means to live and die as a black man in America.
Over the years, it has been commonly accepted that Gunn used his subject matter as a proxy for addiction. However, a closer read suggests that the vampirism in the film operates as a canny metaphor for race. Vampires are seen as many things — threatening, feared, perverse, parasitic, cool, sexy — and these are all reductive attributes that have been assigned to black people throughout history.
So it’s possible that Gunn was going for something even more profound. Much of the film seems to celebrate vampirism as a source of pride for its characters — a means of acknowledging their separateness and embracing it as a key aspect of their identity.
At the same time, the complexity of the plot makes it nearly impossible to reduce the film to any single metaphor, and that’s what makes this demanding, elliptical film hard to forget. Gunn believed his audience was intelligent enough to grasp ideas and themes of his highly stylized original film essay on sex, religion and African-American identity. In a way, it’s a film very much made in his image.
“Ganja & Hess” disregards conventional storytelling devices like the three-act structure, cause and effect, and clearly defined heroes and villains. Audiences are forced to wrestle with the film through the eyes of different characters as the movie keeps shifting point of view. The narrative is designed to throw you off at every moment, from unconventionally framed shots to conversations that ramble on, and sudden bursts of hallucinatory imagery and sound.
But these were all stylistic flourishes that hadn’t been seen in black films at the time. From the very beginning, the movie alerts the audience that nothing they experience will follow conventional patterns, that there will be diversions and detours. The result mystified critics who struggled to define a kind of work they had never seen before with a black cast.
Though the film was peculiar for a black filmmaker, Gunn underlined the “blackness” of the narrative by focusing on the bodily aspects of his black cast — their skin, their naked bodies, their blood, and so on — and in beautiful, sensual ways that stood apart from the exploitation films of the time. For a country just a few years removed from the signing of the Civil Rights Act and the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, it’s quite possible that “Ganja & Hess” was too close for comfort, at least for some moviegoers.
While the film was a Critics’ Week pick at the Cannes Film Festival that year, it faced mixed reviews, and wasn’t exactly the box office draw that the producers had hoped for. In response, Gunn penned a New York Times op-ed in May 1973, titled “To Be a Black Artist,” addressing this very issue:
“If I were white, I would probably be called ‘fresh and different.’ If I were European, ‘Ganja and Hess’ might be ‘that little film you must see.’ Because I am black, I do not even deserve the pride that one American feels for another when he discovers that a fellow countryman’s film has been selected as the only American film to be shown during Critic’s Week at the Cannes Film Festival, May, 1973. Not one white critic from any of the major, newspapers even mentioned it.”
It was yanked from theaters not long after it opened, sold to another company who drastically recut Gunn’s original, and re-released as “Blood Couple” (although it might be found listed under a number of other titles). For many years, a bastardized version of the film (created without Gunn’s involvement) was all that was available.
Gunn’s original vision has gained more prominence in recent years, thanks to a restoration and re-release by Kino Lorber in 2012, but “Ganja & Hess” remains under-appreciated and wrongly categorized as an exploitation picture. The lack of appreciation for his work by modern-day filmmakers is a travesty, though hardly a surprise.
Gunn entered the business at a time when creatively daring black filmmakers like himself were limited in terms of the type of work that was available to them and that was expected of them – especially at the studio level. Much has changed in that regard since then, but there’s still plenty to do. One can only wonder what kind of cinema he would create in today’s environment. (Gunn died in 1989.)
Gunn’s other notable filmmaking credits include teaming up with noted writer Ishmael Reed for what the latter described as “a look at the triteness of everyday life in black middle class America.” The result was a subversion of the soap opera, titled “Personal Problems” (1980), a film that’s also remained criminally underseen in its original form since its premiere.
But “Ganja & Hess” remains his greatest work, and deserves to accrue more fans. It’s one of the most beautiful and strange filmmaking achievements about black life in America, and still has much to teach us about that today.
Today’s black filmmakers would do well to follow in Gunn’s renegade footsteps and create work that’s this complex and layered, without surrendering to convention just to make a buck. He wanted to create his own art and, at the time, it took immense courage to pull that off — to take money from the financiers and then defiantly go create something that disregarded all artistic and commercial expectations.
“Ganja & Hess” is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and Shudder.