Ganja & Hess
With Duane Jones, Marlene Clark, Bill Gunn.
US, 1973, 35mm, color, 110 min.
Print source: Museum of Modern Art
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.