Starring: Duane Jones, Marlene Clark, Bill Gunn and Mabel King
Rated: R Drama/Fantasy/Horror
Ganja & Hess is a film about Dr. Hess Green (Duane Jones) and his struggle with addiction; in his instance, the substance he needs is blood because he is a vampire.
A successful and wealthy African-American anthropologist, the focus of his research is centered upon the Myrthians, a fictional ancient ethnic group of Africans. One of their cultural beliefs and practices are consumption of blood to gain immortality.
One evening at Green’s luxurious mansion, he and his new assistant, George Meda (Bill Gunn), are working on research. Soon after, George appears to be having a type of bizarre mental breakdown. Although it seems that the anthropologist allays his issues, soon after, George attacks Hess with a Myrthian ceremonial dagger and then commits suicide. Hess, surviving the wound, has an unusual urge and that is to drink the blood of George. This need is presumed to have been brought on by the weapon’s history and power and Hess quickly realizes that he is a vampire.
Hess desperately tries to balance his life with this new addiction when a new issue arises: the arrival of Ganja Meda (Marlene Clark) to his home. Even though she and George were estranged, she is still worried because she has not heard from him. Before long, Hess and Ganja become lovers. However, when she discovers George’s body, truths must be shared if the new couple are to survive … literally.
How will life turn out for both Hess and Ganja? Can love truly overcome all? Viewers have to see!
Hailed by The New York Times as “A sensual, scholarly, magic-realist exploration of Black history and Black desire”, Ganja and Hess was written and directed by Bill Gunn, who starred as George Meda. Created on a budget of $350,000, the motion picture was received with high critical praise. This ground-breaking, independent film was a project distributed by Kelly-Jordan Enterprises.
Gunn, an actor, director, novelist, and playwright, was approached by the distribution company to create a Black vampire movie. Kelly-Jordan Enterprises sought to benefit from the success that many Blaxploitation films were having at that time. Not wanting to create a weak-themed film, Gunn chose to further develop the film’s plot, which included both adding African cultural heritage as well as presenting vampirism as a metaphor for addiction. To illustrate the cultural and financial success of Dr. Hess Green, filming occurred at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City and on a stately property at Apple Bee Farms in Croton-on-Hudson, New York.
Selected as one of the “Ten Best American Films of the 1970s” by the Cannes Film Festival, Ganja & Hess premiered at the 12th International Critics’ Week at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973.
While the film was considered praiseworthy overseas, it was panned by critics in the United States. In “The Eclipsed Vision of Bill Gunn: An African-American Auteur’s Elusive Genius, from Ganja and Hess to Personal Problems”, author Steve Ryfle referenced several film reviewers’ issues. One of these was A.H. Weiler of The New York Times, who “dismissed Ganja and Hess as ‘ineffectually arty’”. Anotherdiminished the lead actress’ skill and performance, stating that Marlene Clark was a “brown-skinned looker”. Rightfully outraged, Gunn’s blistering reply referenced racial and gender debasement, slavery and White privilege. As shared by Ryfle, the pioneering auteur fired, “That kind of disrespect could not have been cultivated in 110 minutes. It must have taken at least a good 250 years.”
This response was contained in a letter composed by Bill Gunn that was published in the May 13, 1973 issue of The New York Times as “To Be a Black Artist”. Condemning those, he volleyed, “Your newspapers and critics must realize that they are controlling Black … film creativity with White criticism … It is a terrible thing to be a Black artist in this country. 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 Wek at the Cannes Film Festival … Not one White critic from any of the major newspapers even mentioned it.”
Ganja and Hess also did poorly, box office-wise. Kelly-Jordan Enterprises quickly sold it to Heritage Enterprises, who drastically edited it. An example of this extreme editing is that the film was reduced from 110 minutes to 79. Bill Gunn strongly disapproved of the new version and had his name removed from it. Under Heritage Enterprises, Ganja and Hess has been re-released under different titles: Black Evil, Black Vampire, Blackout: The Moment of Terror; Blood Couple; Double Possession and Vampires of Harlem.
The original version was later donated to the Museum of Metropolitan Art (MOMA). An edition of the original Ganja and Hess was restored by MOMA, who was aided in support from The Film Foundation, and mastered in HD from a 35mm negative. This updated edition was released by Kino Lorber, one of the most prestigious distribution firms of art-house and international films worldwide. Under Kino Classics, it was remastered for Blu-ray edition and in 2018, Ganja and Hess was re-released in select theatres of the United States.
Various factors, including race, social class, sexuality and Black identity, have strengthened the film’s contemporary cultural impact. In an article, “TCM Underground: Ganja and Hess”, Turner Classic Movies reviewer Chris Fujiwara, offers insight on this impact, affirming, “Gunn’s complex storytelling makes it impossible to reduce Ganja & Hess to any simple allegory. Preying on the Black urban underclass, Green is not only a romantic, aristocratic hero but also a murderous exploiter of people. On the other hand, his final search for redemption in the arms of the Protestant church is a surrender and a betrayal … By complicating the viewer’s responses to all the characters and situations, and to the religious and cultural symbols surrounding them, Gunn evokes some of the paradoxes of African American experience, seeking not to resolve them but to place the viewer in the middle of them.”
Writer, actor, director and producer Spike Lee remade the film in 2014, calling it Da Sweet Blood of Jesus.