March 26, 2023


Showing: Streaming from April 9 through 15
Year: 1973
Country: USA
Genre: ,,,
Actors: ,,,

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Directed by Bill Gunn,
with Duane Jones, Marlene Clark, Bill Gunn, Sam Waymon.
USA, 1973, 110 minutes, rated R for sex, nudity, and blood.

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Flirting with the conventions of blaxploitation and horror, Bill Gunn’s revolutionary independent, daringly experimental Ganja & Hess is a highly stylized and utterly original treatise on sex, religion, and African American identity. Duane Jones (Night of the Living Dead) stars as anthropologist Hess Green, who is stabbed with an ancient ceremonial dagger by his unstable assistant (director Bill Gunn), bestowing upon him the blessing of immortality… and the curse of an unquenchable thirst for blood. When the assistant’s beautiful and outspoken wife Ganja (Marlene Clark) comes searching for her missing husband, she and Hess form an unexpected partnership.

Ganja & Hess is considered by many critics to be the most important independently made film by a Black American in the 1970s. Just as widely, first time viewers who expect a traditionally plotted vampire film as an allegory for racial or sexual relations are frustrated by a complicated film that  defies easy comprehension, and by Bill Gunn’s stated conviction that clarity is less important than poetry. He violates numerous conventional storytelling devices, tells it at different times by different participants, includes a variety of filmmaking techniques including dream/hallucination sequences as well as documentary style scenes in a Black church, and features a wide ranging and lush score by Sam Waymon (who also plays a preacher moonlighting as chauffeur for Hess). This is storytelling more associated with the American avant-guard of the 1960s New American Cinema than with the Hollywood film or NY theater worlds where Bill Gunn was employed as a writer (Hal Ashby’s first film, The LandlordThe Angel Levine, for Harry Belafonte, plays produced at the Public Theater, and more), actor (Losing Ground, The Cosby Show, The Man From Uncle, Outer Limits, and scores of others), and sometimes director (Stop, for Warner Brothers was never released, and Personal Problems with Ishmael Reed). One of the most accomplished and original Black film and theater artists of his era, Bill Gunn is remembered now primarily for Ganja & Hess, which the Museum of Modern Art helped keep alive to gradually increasing popularity and acclaim over the years. As writer Greg Tate eulogized in the Village Voice upon his death in 1989, “The attempt to bury Bill Gunn began in his life.”

The main characters and points of view are:
*   Hess Green, played by Duane Jones. A wealthy anthropologist, obsessed with African culture, history and artifacts, while living a life identified with wealthy, western, materialism.
*   George Meda, played by Bill Gunn. Searching for his identity and rejecting the options available to him (or being imposed on him) as a black artist.
*   Reverend Luther Williams, the preacher/chauffeur, played by Sam Waymon. An important part of his community, with the power to offer salvation, but on terms that reject an African past.
*   Ganja Meda, played by Marlene Clark. George Meda’s widow, who marries Hess Green. A modern Black woman confident in her desires. Hess receives his salvation and is allowed escape the undead (and die), but Ganja rejects the opportunity. The film ends with her perspective.

Ganja & Hess was the only film from the US in the Cannes Critic’s Week in 1973, where it was given a standing ovation but wasn’t given a single mention in American press. It was soon re-cut and released in an inferior version by financiers who hoped it would appeal to the horror market. The version showing here is the original version, restored by The Museum of Modern Art with support from Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, and mastered in HD from a 35mm negative.

Rockland County history: In 2015, The Film Society of Lincoln Center presented a groundbreaking film series titled Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, 1968 – 1986. Piermont’s Kathleen Collins film Losing Ground opened the series, which also included her film The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy (both shown in February at Rivertown Film), and there were two films by Nyack screenwriter, playwright, actor and film director Bill Gunn; Ganja and Hess and Personal Problems. These two Black filmmakers from Rockland County accounted for 4 of the 17 long-form films in the series. Bill Gunn and Kathleen Collins resolutely refused to resort to common racial stereotypes, much less “blaxpoitation,” and offered a different way of viewing Black lives. They often shot their films locally and included local writers, producers, actors, musicians, and crew. While their work represents a unique era of Black Filmmaking, none of their films have been shown in Rockland County until now. Rivertown Film is excited to bring their innovative work to the county where they made their films as well as made their homes.

JOIN THE DISCUSSION ON ZOOM, TUESDAY, APRIL 13, AT 7:00 PM. Local artist/writer/historian Bill Batson will moderate a discussion with Sam Waymon, who appears in Ganja & Hess as Rev. Luther Williams (both minister and chauffeur to Hess) and wrote its incredible score, and Chiz Schultz, the producer of Ganja & Hess. Both had long and close friendships with Bill Gunn, and both remain Rockland County residents.

Register in advance for this Zoom meeting: HERE
After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.


Read “Weekender Recommendations: ‘Ganja & Hess’ and the Story of Bill Gunn” in Nyack News & Views.

In Ganja & Hess from 1973, the writer, director and actor, Bill Gunn, transforms the furious contradictions at the heart of African American culture into a lurid, erotic and trance-like vampire thriller. Dr. Hess Green, a wealthy archeologist and art collector, welcomes a new assistant, George Meda, to his lavish estate. A sort of high-culture, street-smart oddball with a violent twist, George attacks Hess with an ancient African dagger and thereby transmits to him an addiction to blood. The first blood that Hess consumes is George’s own. Blood addiction turns out to resemble drug addiction. It drives Hess to steal from a medical clinic, drives him to commit a crime in a dilapidated city neighborhood and drives him deep into a double life, which becomes all the more difficult to sustain, when George’s elegant and imperious wife, Ganja, shows up at the estate to enquire about George and soon becomes Hess’ lover. Blood addiction also drives Hess deep into a, sort of, inner vision of myth and fantasy, in which primordial traditions, contemporary culture and the modern arts fuse in his dreams and his nightmares to stoke the torment of self-doubt and spiritual struggle. Working on an intimate scale, Gunn’s purview is, nonetheless, boldly comprehensive. He brings together Beethoven and The Blues, ritual practice and alluring artworks, the gloss of luxury and the pressure of poverty, the eruptive force of nature and the eerie chill of the supernatural, as well as the pull of ecstatic religion. He joins sexual pleasure to the violence of irrepressible desire. In the process, Gunn finds aptly ecstatic images, sounds and moods to capture the unresolved historical and metaphysical conflicts of Black life and identity in the United States. It’s one of the most ingenious sublimations of a cinematic and a literary genre to a filmmaker’s personal passions and philosophical visions. – Richard Brody, The New Yorker

“A sensual, scholarly, magic-realist exploration of black history and black desire.” – A. O. Scott, The New York Times

“An underground classic! The most complicated, intriguing, subtle, sophisticated and passionate black film of the ’70s.” – James Monaco, American Film Now

“A blood-soaked masterpiece. One of the most profound, surreal and horrifying love stories ever made.” – Complex

“A visionary filmmaker.” – Richard Brody, The New Yorker

“Ganja & Hess is jolting, jagged, lyrical, mythic and utterly unclassifiable, as avant-garde as the most independent film of today or any of the New American Cinema work from the 1960s or audacious studio films of the 1970s, with resonances one isn’t likely to encounter ever again. Gunn subversively deconstructs the class relations that exist within the black “community” and the expectations of both his financiers and his potential audience while delivering a meditative and un-condescending representation of black American protestant Christianity within a potentially lurid black exploitation movie. No wonder then that Greg Tate once eulogized about the equally unclassifiable man behind it, in a 1989 piece for The Village Voice shortly after Gunn died at 59 (or 54, depending on who you talk to), his masterpiece long forgotten, “The attempt to bury Bill Gunn began in his life.” – Slant

 “The most ambitious ‘black movie’ of its day and a milestone for indie film-making in the US.” – Time Out

“Screened at Cannes in 1973 before being recut against the filmmaker’s wishes for its U.S. release, Ganja and Hess was first made available years later in its intended version by independent distributor Pearl Bowser, and, now restored, is considered a classic. Conceived as a vampire tale, Gunn’s film is a formally radical and deeply philosophical inquiry into passion and history. “A film that was ahead of its time in 1973, and quite frankly, is still very much so today… maybe the rest of world will eventually catch up.”—Tambay A. Obenson. With Marlene Clarke, Duane Jones, and music by Sam Waymon. Preserved by the Museum of Modern Art with support from the Film Foundation.” – Film Society of Lincoln Center

“Born upon the wings of Blacula (1972), Ganja & Hess—a black vampire film of an entirely different vein—cascades obliquely into experimental territory where few black directors had ever found the freedom to venture. After the opening song—by Nina Simone’s brother Sam Waymon—explains the vampiric origins of Dr. Hess Green, the film’s dense, dreamlike structure unfolds via fluctuating perspectives and voices, both internal and external. Played by Night of the Living Dead’s Duane Jones, Hess is a wealthy intellectual whose complicated interaction with an artist leads to his meeting the lovely, self-determined Ganja. Into the vampire metaphor director Bill Gunn poetically folds the black experience, addiction and the victim/victimizer cycle, while tracing the dark shadows of class and race, religion and mysticism, maleness and femaleness and even narrative structure itself. His breathtaking nightmare is further expanded by extended documentary-like scenes in a Christian church and a lush soundtrack that freely alternates between electronic, choral, classical and soul. Though the film received the Critic’s Choice Prize at Cannes in 1973, the mystified distributors brutally re-edited it for the drive-in circuit, forcing all of the original makers to remove their names. Luckily, MoMA retained an original print that was later restored, thus ensuring that Gunn’s transcendent creation would live forever.” –  Harvard Film Archive

“And of course, not even the great liberal East Coast critics could admit that THE ONLY AMERICAN FILM SHOWN IN CRITICS WEEK AT CANNES IN 1973 WAS GANJA & HESS (Not other classics like Mean Streets. Not Serpico. But Ganja & Hess. Now that says something!).” –  Shadow & Act

“GANJA AND HESS is stunning and complex. The camera lingers on Green’s art collection in a magnificent country estate nestled in the all-white landscape of Westchester county in New York. In addition to his preacher/ chauffeur, Green is tended by a retainer Archie, who serves as butler, valet, and all-purpose servant, with genteel m