In 1973, African American director Bill Gunn was tasked with making the next Blacula. Instead, he gifted the world with the strangest rumination on identity, addiction, and religion that we are just beginning to appreciate. Starring Duane Jones, who gave a revolutionary performance in George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and the magnetic Marelene Clark, who demand attention from every frame of celluloid, GANJA AND HESS manages to subvert every convention, every rule, and every expectation that audiences had for not only horror films, but for black cinema and the depiction of black people on the big screen.
After about a week of screenings in 1973, the producers pulled the film, chopped almost 40 minutes from its running time, attempted to reshape it into a more standard exploitation film, and threw their new amalgamation onto the Drive-in circuit with Bill Gunn’s name removed from the credits.
Gunn’s original vision wasn’t realized again until almost a decade after his death when it was reassembled in 1998 for a special DVD release. To this day, GANJA AND HESS remains an elusive and fascinating cinematic experience that can only be full understood with full immersion. We are bringing this film to the big screen at The Museum of Photographic Arts on February 20th of this year and sincerely hope to introduce some new eyes to a rare opportunity have that immersion.
Joining me on this episode to discuss the film, its cultural importance, and our attempts to understand our own, sometimes differing takeaways from its esoteric structure, is Ashlee Blackwell. Ashlee is the founder of a great horror blog called Graveyard Shift Sisters, which examines the presence and representation of women of color in horror–on screen and on the page. What follows is a fascinating conversation that was sometimes difficult to have because GANJA AND HESS is just so damn strange and interesting. I hope you enjoy our spoiler-free discussion and, if you are near San Diego, hope you join me to view the film on a big screen with full surround sound the way film was meant to be seen!