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The Genre-Swerving Bill Gunn

With "Ganja & Hess" and "Personal Problems," Bill Gunn made two of the most daring American movies.
Elissa Suh
MUBI's series Double Bill: Bill Gunn is showing July - December, 2020 in the United States.
How daring to make a Black picture without a race problem. So daring that the critics stateside assailed Ganja & Hess (1973), so befuddled were they by the vision of director Bill Gunn. He took them famously to task in a New York Times op-ed, which pointedly condemned the whiteness of film criticism. Gunn died in 1989, but his gripe remains unfortunately pertinent today, and at this moment, when much of mainstream media attention afforded to Black films has taken the shape of anti-racist watch lists. These are useful as educational fodder, but less so on the front of appreciating and valuing films from Black directors absent from conversations about art and cinema today—including Gunn’s.
Gunn acted in Kathleen Collins’s Losing Ground (1982) and rubbed elbows with James Dean and Marlon Brando. He wrote the screenplay for Hal Ashby’s The Landlord  (1970) as well as numerous plays and novels throughout his life. As a filmmaker, he steered clear of mainstream expectations to create a boisterously defiant, though abbreviated and underseen, body of work. Twice he worked within the framework of a notable genre only to turn it on its head. 
His first film, Ganja & Hess, was begat when a studio, hoping to ride the waves of Blacula (1972), hired Gunn to churn out a cheap and sleazy hit. He nominally delivered on the assignment—the now cult-classic does concern a pair of bloodsuckers isolated in the depths of a large mansion. But it swerves into something more thought-provoking and cosmically shambolic. In the film, an upper-crust archaeologist, Dr. Hess Green (Duane Jones), develops a thirst for blood after being stabbed by his unstable assistant (Gunn) with an ancient knife. Soon the assistant’s widow, Ganja (Marlene Clak), rides into town to investigate and she and Hess become lovers. Any traditional element of fright becomes muted, their courtship marked by turns of droll conversations and sultry pleasures. (“Everybody I know is some kind of freak. Everybody’s into something. You're into horror movies, I can dig it,” Ganja casually says to Hess after she discovers his secret.) 
Gunn dispatches many conventions of the vampire tale, including fangs and explicit use of the very word. Low-key lighting features as prominently as sun-blasted mise en scène—and the principals aren’t obliterated by the rays, a standard vampire-killer. Gunn chooses as the setting a Hudson River valley estate and updates the gothic architecture with a more Huguenot-influenced mansion. Hess's refined lair doesn’t so much signal doom as act as a repository for collection of art and artifacts, both African and European origins—a small hint at Gunn’s larger themes. Among them: how Protestantism bristles against tribal religions, ancient traditions with genteel modern society (shards of both glimpsed in Hess’s dreams/nightmares), crime versus comfort, and more. Regarding that last one, the blood addiction turns Hess into a criminal who descends upon the urban poor when he must feed. A heady brew that may suggest the conflicting ideologies present in Black culture, these contradictions are further synthesized into the film’s score: a mash-up of tribal chanting, choir-sung hymns, and soul-gospel originals, aural stunners all compiled and composed by Sam Waymon (Nina Simone’s brother, a musician in his own right and Gunn’s repeat collaborator). Like the best of films, Ganja & Hess feeds the pleasure centers of the nervous system while duly sparking the cerebrum to prompt debate and thoughtful examination—something that critics, especially at the time, seem to have ignored. 
What happens when marginalized people are depicted through a marginalized form? That is one way of looking at an experiment undertaken by Gunn and his collaborator Ishmael Reed, a fellow multi-disciplined Black artist and creator. His rarely-seen follow-up Personal Problems (1980) also occupies a well-worn genre, and ultimately co-opts its utopian ideals for his own unique vision. Though maligned as a frivolity, the common soap opera now stands as a significant form of feminized culture, and in its early years was even ahead of its time. Notable in its depiction of social issues, the soap directly and indirectly addressed class conflicts, feminine concerns, and later race and sexuality, all topics primetime television deigned not to touch. It wasn’t until the 80s, after Personal Problems was made, that soaps derailed into amnesiac fantasies.1 All of this makes it an inspired vessel befitting Gunn’s conceit, one over which he was mostly given.2 free reign
Divided into two parts and originally meant for public television consumption, the film follows the life of Johnnie Mae Brown (Vertamae Grosvenor, the author of seminal anthropological recipe collection “Vibration Cooking”), a nurse, wife, and mother living in Harlem. Like traditional soaps, the film captures her in the midst of domestic activities—home life, work life, relationships with family and friends—and in doing so privileges the feminine realm of private life. Gunn takes a generous pace, according the characters as much screen time as needed to live and let be in the capacious first half. Johnnie Mae looks over an ER visitor with maternal patience; gets a drink with her friends, discusses the finer points of dating; flirts with a hip musician (Sam Waymon); argues with her husband (Walter Cotton); recites her poetry. The resulting film is intimate, expansive, and ferociously prosaic. 
According to the media scholar John Fiske, in the soap opera “feminine culture constantly struggles to establish and extend itself within and against a dominant patriarchy… to whittle away at patriarchy's power to subject women... and to establish a masculine-free zone, from which a direct challenge may be mounted.”2 While this may be true of the Personal Problems, as Johnnie Mae contends with fixing her husband's breakfast and keeping an orderly house, it better applies when one adapts the postulation for Black culture instead of feminine ones, and white supremacy instead of patriarchy. Just as daytime programs communicated the struggle of the feminine, Personal Problems transposed that framework to show Black community establishing itself against white supremacy, which floats at the edges of the picture. This happens quite literally when the camera cuts to white onlookers at a restaurant when Johnnie Mae is out with her friends. Elsewhere, at the club, a white radical inserts himself into conversation, emphatically trying to lift the veil of capitalism from the eyes of a Black Reagan voter (Reed). Whitesplaining par excellence. The film’s opening also acknowledges this notion—Johnnie Mae monologues about picking cotton as a child, and her afternoons as a latchkey kid, jealous that her mother’s job takes her away into a white child’s home—but the hours that follow decenter it completely, depicting Black lives in ordinary reality, the characters neither felonious nor exceptional (“too good and respectable to be true,” as Reed puts it). A member of the working-class, Johnnie Mae is, in her own words, “scuffling, scrimping, scrounging, working hard, getting nothing out of it,” but the film avoids reveling in pain or glorifying any agony. Shot on ¾ U-matic tape, it is never easy on the eyes, in a conventional sense. Plagued by ghosting—smeared figments of motion—and dominated by purple and green hues, the video casts an ethereal glow on the banal. 
The film’s propensity towards dialogue pile-ups, characters talking at or into one another without really listening, echoes Cassavettes’s films, dotted with intractable family pain and incommunicable grievances, and often humor. (In one scene, an argument trickles down as Johnnie Mae tries to recall the title of Sidney Poitier film Raisin in the Sun to her husband and father-in-law, who insist the movie in question is Uptown Saturday Night or Cabin in the Sky). Contemporary microbudget American indies with their slice of life quality may also flicker into view while watching Personal Problems, which is an antidotal and antithetical predecessor to the whiteness of solipsisms of many of those films. Gunn's chronicle of existence reaches farther.
The film’s second half, comprising shorter scenes and takes, ropes the loose plot points into a whole before they can stray. Someone goes to jail (petty crime), someone has surgery, and someone dies.  A late scene where someone accuses Johnnie Mae of negligence while her daughter silently witnesses is gut-wrenching, as Personal Problems emerges as another sort of story. Soap operas share much with the “women’s films” of the 40s, but Johnnie Mae’s cinematic heredity lies less with Hollywood and more with, say, Japanese master Mikio Naruse. 
One can wonder what diversions and distractions Johnnie Mae and company would have encountered had Personal Problems continued into Part III or more. Turmoil is both the norm and necessity in soaps in order to perpetuate new storylines. From the ebb and flow of long-standing disputes and moral relapses arises an opportunity to reaffirm the sense of community and hope every single time. In times of crises and setbacks, friends, family, and the extended network of the cast provide an emotional and material safety net.  In fact, some scholars believe it is this utopian community, and not romance, that compels viewers to watch.3 (Likewise Johnnie Mae’s dalliance with Raymon, though a draw, is not the glue that binds this movie.) Similarly, while it is not completely clear whether Johnnie Mae stands on terra firma, the film ends on a note of optimistic solidarity: old friends offer emotional support, Johnnie Mae and Charles are on the upswing. This would render Personal Problems as Gunn’s showcase of Black community not often glimpsed in cinema—daring indeed.

1. Levine, Elana. “Her Stories: Daytime Soap Opera and US Television History, 1950s-1980s.” Light Industry, http://lightindustry.org/herstories.
2. Lucca, Violet. "Interview: Ishmael Reed." Film Comment, https://www.filmcomment.com/blog/interview-ishmael-reed/
3. Rapping, Elayne. “Daytime Utopias: If You Lived in Pine Valley, You’d Be Home”. Hop On Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture, edited by Henry Jenkins, III, Tara McPherson, Jane Shattuc, Duke University Press, 2002, p. 49
4. Rapping, p. 55-56.

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