The Eclipsed Vision of Bill Gunn:
An African-American Auteur's Elusive Genius, from Ganja & Hess to Personal Problems (Preview)
by Steve Ryfle
Bill Gunn was furious. The press had panned Ganja & Hess, his genre-defying art/horror film, with a mixture of disdain, bewilderment, and indifference. Now, with the movie having opened and swiftly closed at a single New York City cinema, Gunn put pen to paper and assailed what he saw as the critical establishment’s patronizing attitude toward, and destructive influence over, a then-burgeoning black film boom that had produced Hollywood’s first African-American directors: Gordon Parks, Ossie Davis, Melvin Van Peebles, and Gunn himself. Unable to shed their deep cultural biases, Gunn charged, the critics were conscribing black filmmakers to produce “blaxploitation” films and little more.
“Your newspapers and critics must realize that they are controlling black...film creativity with white criticism,” Gunn wrote in his letter, published in the May 13, 1973 New York Times under the headline, “To Be a Black Artist.” Gunn ripped the Times’s reviewer A. H. Weiler (who dismissed Ganja as “ineffectually arty”) for factual errors in his review and for talking during a screening; another reviewer, Gunn noted, referred to lead actress Marlene Clark as “a brownskinned looker.” He responded, “That kind of disrespect could not have been cultivated in 110 minutes. It must have taken at least a good 250 years.”
Unconcerned about making enemies, Gunn vented: “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 & 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 Week at the Cannes Film Festival...Not one white critic from any of the major newspapers even mentioned it.”
Bill Gunn was not the most obvious advocate for the black film movement of his era. When he died in 1989 at age fifty-nine, Gunn had directed only three pictures, all with problematic histories. His debut feature, Stop (1970), was never released, likely due to its boundary-pushing, homoerotic content. Ganja & Hess (1973) was heavily recut, retitled, and reissued without Gunn’s approval or participation. Personal Problems (1980), Gunn’s final work, was a two-part, experimental, shot-on-video African-American soap opera that had limited showings on public television and at scattered venues before disappearing for nearly forty years. A prolific screenwriter, Gunn penned two significant post-Civil Rights era films—the Harry Belafonte vehicle The Angel Levine (1970), adapted from a Bernard Malamud story, and Hal Ashby’s race comedy The Landlord (1970), plus numerous unproduced scripts. A multifaceted creative force, Gunn began as an acclaimed stage and television actor before moving into film; he published novels about the struggle of the black artist in America; and he was a prolific, successful playwright, with works produced on the stages of New York from the late 1950s until his death.
At a time when black-directed cinema was defined by crime and action films such as Cotton Comes to Harlem (Ossie Davis, 1970), Shaft (Gordon Parks, 1971), and Super Fly (Gordon Parks Jr., 1972), and when black theater was dominated by the polemics of the Black Arts Movement (1965–75), Bill Gunn was a unique talent who fit into neither the mainstream nor the revolution. His work confronted America’s black/white chasm in more subtle ways: his characters—like Gunn himself—were sophisticated, cultured, and educated; they surrounded themselves with middle- or upper-class trappings, engaged in interracial and same-sex relationships, and were often emotionally fragile or sensitive; they were aware of their African lineage but refused to be defined by race. Visually, his films bore the influence of Cocteau’s surrealism, Antonioni’s hypnotic atmosphere, and Fellini’s blurring of fantasy and reality more than they did that of any American colleague. And at a time when black machismo was a selling point, Gunn was gay, though he also had relationships with women. In seemingly every way Gunn defied conventions and expectations.
“Gunn occupied a particularly unique position; his career was both emblematic of structural white supremacy within Hollywood, and yet his particular interests and vision were singular,” said Nicholas Forster, a Yale University PhD candidate and author of a forthcoming Gunn biography. “He worked in the industry to create imaginative worlds and he sought to retain his creative autonomy while also reaching a wide audience. He knew how to compromise and sometimes would, but he also offered a vision of black people that for many in the industry and critical establishment, appeared illegible…”
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