“Men Overtaken by Racism”
The success of William Crain’s 1972 Blaxploitation film, Blacula resulted in a series of formulaic genre films, such as Blackenstein (1973) and Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (1976). The film that most forcefully resisted this moral simplicity was Bill Gunn’s Ganja and Hess (1973), an allegorical artwork about the nature of addiction. Producers Quentin Kelly and Jack Jordan decided to bankroll five films, one an adaptation of a James Baldwin story, and another to be directed by Maya Angelou, thus assembling among the most highly talented, radical African-American artists and material in American film history.
Early in Ganja and Hess, the most prominent of these films to have seen the light of day, George Meda (Bill Gunn) comes to stay with Dr. Hess Green (Duane Jones), to assist him in his research on African tribal traditions. Driven insane by the pressures of black masculinity in racist America, Meda climbs a tree in despair. Gunn frames his own image next to a noose, invoking the central image of Jim Crow terrorism. Yet it is not the white people in Westchester County (whose prying eyes and scorn Dr. Green rightfully fears) who bring the noose, but Meda himself.
This is the central conceit of Ganja and Hess—one that resonates with contemporary American cinema, from Psycho (1960) to A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)—horror comes not from without but from within. This also marks the generic break with Blacula and the normative Blaxploitation film. The horrors of blood lust, while framed within a very clear critique of white racism, ultimately derive from an Afrocentric tradition, passed from an originating tribe to Dr. Green’s bourgeois American lifestyle as a successful scientist and art collector in New York’s most swank county.
Ganja and Hess breaks down the largely separate worlds between black and white folks common in many American representations of race. Dr. Green is introduced via his work at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. As the museum director leads Hess around, the camera comes to rest on a painting of a partially clothed white woman standing shivering in front of a tree. The image is a 1799 oil painting by Chevalier de Bonnemaison entitled, “Young Woman Overtaken by a Storm.” The allegorical piece expresses the drama of a world in crisis in the wake of the French Revolution.
Such personal and political turmoil also frames the story of Green, whose pursuit of knowledge of African culture will lead to his contracting the disease of vampirism, doomed to prey on the poor to supply his blood habit. The film situates Hess in a world of black and white people coexisting, but also one riven by class inequities, a world once again separate and woefully unequal. Dr. Green has to drive out of his ritzy neighborhood to travel to the ghetto to prey upon the black working class.
In the film’s second part, “Survival,” Hess pretends to donate blood at a bank in the ghetto. To distract the staff, he lights a wastepaper basket on fire, allowing him to steal from the facility. He calmly walks down the street outside of the blood bank carrying his pilfered hemoglobin. As Gunn’s camera pans across kids playing in the street, a city bus passes, with the word “Liberty” printed across the back. Gunn’s film uses its mise-en-scene tactically to establish such ironies. Here, Dr. Green has attained the financial ability to collect the treasures of Western and African art, hire chauffeurs to drive him around in a Rolls Royce, but at the same time is doomed to suffer the pains of his addiction. He is no freer than the members of the black underclass whom he exploits.
Early in the film, Meda tells Hess, “You are the despised of the Earth.” The film comes close to invoking post-colonial theorist Franz Fanon, who, in The Wretched of the Earth (1961), formulates a three-pronged approach to colonization: 1) a phase where the colonizers identify with the cultural and technological prowess of the “civilizers;” 2) another in which the colonized desire to return to the simpler state before the colonizers arrived; and 3) “the fighting phase” in which the irrevocably changed culture of the colonized emerges into the future in a new idiom of progress and resistance.
Fanon’s ideas are a road map to Ganja and Hess. Hess is trapped between a nihilistic Meda, who destroys himself because he cannot reconcile with a world in which racism so determines his identity. Dr. Green fares no better, identifying so heavily with the world of white culture and commerce. Only his lover, Ganja survives to the end, struggling with the addiction she’s been bequeathed by Hess, yet finishing the film in close-up with a wry smile, awaiting the new vampire lover she has created emerging out of Hess’ swimming pool. The film ends with Ganja and her love prepared for the fighting phase of liberation that awaits them.