GANJA & HESS
"Ganja & Hess is everything its advocates claim and far more.
If you don't own a DVD player, get one for this title alone."
says Worldly Remains
"One of the best DVDs of 1998!"
"I bought my DVD player based on just one film--Ganja & Hess is arguably the most important DVD in the format's young history."
says Travis Crawford, Video Eyeball
"This is an essential purchase."
says Nathaniel Thompson, Mondo Digital
1972: indie production company Kelly-Jordan Enterprises sets out to capitalize on the existing market for gothic horror films and the growing popularity of blaxploitation. They hire Bill Gunn—playwright, actor, multiple threat artist—to direct their Black Vampire movie. He in turn makes an arthouse thriller about addiction, culture clashes, and moral redemption.
Hailed as one of the great artistic achievements of modern American cinema, it was the only American film screened during Critics’ Week at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival--where it won a standing ovation. It was literally ahead of its time--so audacious and unique it was all but buried.
Bill Gunn, playwright, novelist, and actor, was one of the first black filmmakers ever to direct a major studio feature. His importance as a black artist of the highest order, though, has only been accorded recently--during his all-too-short life, Gunn struggled against racism that held him back from fulfilling his artistic promise.
In 1973, Gunn wrote and directed a feature called Ganja & Hess for Kelly-Jordan Enterprises. It was the age of "blaxploitation," which Kelly-Jordan hoped to exploit to find an audience for a high-minded horror picture. It starred Duane Jones (star of the venerable cult hit Night of the Living Dead) and Marlene Clark (from, among other cult faves, Beware the Blob!). The story, a delirious vampire tale set in the modern day, was deeply allegorical--taking on such notions as addiction, and the conflicts between black and white cultural heritage.
Ganja & Hess was screened at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival, where it earned a standing ovation. The French critics declared the film a major artistic triumph, but American audiences were less impressed. It opened in New York City with little advertising and almost uniformly negative reviews. Within a week, Kelly-Jordan yanked it from distribution and sold it to Heritage Enterprises.
Heritage hired Fima Noveck to recut the film drastically. He deleted the original African-music-inspired score and replaced with it with cheap synthesizer music. He deleted over a half hour's worth of footage, and reshuffled the remainder, adding outtakes unused in Gunn's cut and redubbing some dialogue. This new, bastardized version was released on videotape under no less than five or six different titles.
Replaced by its shorter, more sensational video version, Ganja & Hess all but disappeared. In fact, in the creation of the shorter cut, Heritage destroyed the original negative. For years, the only way Gunn's vision could be seen in its proper form was by infrequent screenings of the only known print by the Museum of Modern Art. Ganja & Hess was one of MOMA's most often requested titles, and its popularity ultimately resulted in the print suffering severe damage and being retired.
In the late 1980's, Pearl Bowser, a black film historian, spent $10,000 restoring a 16mm print for a limited nation-wide revival.
All Day Entertainment originally reissued Ganja & Hess for its 25th anniversary, restored to Bill Gunn's intended version. Our new digital transfer came from combining two previously unknown original 35mm prints with Gunn's own print held at MOMA! That deluxe collector's item DVD was for its time the ultimate collector's edition of this once-lost film.
But wait there's more!
There was a discrepancy in editing between the copy of the film that Bill Gunn donated to MOMA and the prints that had been held by the film's cinematographer and editor. A 3 minute sequence, which had been Bill Gunn's final dialogue in the original cut of the film, had been removed from release prints and was missing from our DVD restoration, even though it was described in the Video Watchdog article included on the disc as a supplement.
I spent many years trying to track down that missing sequence and reinstate it to the DVD. This new edition finally restores Bill Gunn's intended presentation, uncut, and maintains all of the special features from the original DVD edition plus a host of new features!
"Long considered irretrievably lost, . . . Ganja and Hess turns out to be one of the most extraordinary ethnic pictures ever to have come out of the United States. . .it leaves audiences reeling and wondering whether anybody had any idea how potent a film they were making."
--Alan Stanbrook, Films and Filming
"What is radical about both Ganja & Hess and Sweetback Sweetback's Baadasssss Song is their formal positioning of Black characters and Black cultures at the center of the screen, creating a sense of defamiliarization of the classical film language. The two films also inaugurate for Black cinema two narrative tracks with regard to time and space... With reagrd to Black aesthetics, it is possible to put in the same category as Ganja & Hess such films as A Powerful Thang (Davis), Daughters of the Dust (Dash), Losing Ground (Collins), Killer of Sheep and To Sleep with Anger (Burnett), Tongues Untied (Riggs) and She's Gotta Have It (Lee)."
--Manthia Diawara, Cinemas of the Black Diaspora
"Ganja and Hess was suppressed in the United States because it turned out not to be the Hollywood genre film its producers, Quentin Kelly and Jack Jordan, had commissioned Bill Gunn to make. Produced at a time when black exploitation movies like Shaft and Superfly were blockbusters in the black community, Ganja and Hess was supposed to exploit black audiences with a black version of the white vampire film. The film was withdrawn, however, when Gunn went beyond the vampire genre and created an original work: a densely symbolic film whose non-linear narrative is told from three different points of view."
--Phyllis Rauch Klotman, Screenplays of the African American Experience