Pioneering, iconoclastic filmmaker Bill Gunn is likely best known for his allegorical cinema classic that revolutionized the vampire genre, Ganja & Hess – a film that was effectively suppressed in the United States because it wasn’t the Hollywood horror movie that its producers had commissioned the artist to make.
This was during the blaxploitation era, and the hope was to cash in on the euphoria of the period, with Ganja & Hess (what essentially was to be a black version of popular mainstream vampire films, likely inspired by what we saw in Blacula a year earlier); but Bill Gunn had other plans.
“The last thing I want to do is make a black vampire film… If I had to write about blood, I was going to do that, but I could not just make a movie about blood,” the late Gunn (who died on April 5, 1989) is said to have shared with a confidant.
And so he instead used vampirism as a proxy for addiction (although the complexity of the plot makes it nearly impossible to reduce the film to any simple metaphor or allegory), which may have been to the film’s box office detriment. Made on a $350,000 budget, Ganja & Hess was released in 1973 to critical acclaim (it was a Critics’ Week pick at the Cannes Film Festival that year, to start), but wasn’t exactly the box office draw that the producers had hoped for. It was soon yanked from theaters, sold to another company – Heritage Enterprises – who drastically recut Gunn’s original, and re-released it under the title Blood Couple (although you might find it listed under a number of other titles).
And so, for many years, what was essentially a bastardized, gutted version of the film (created without Gunn’s involvement) was all that was available. But thankfully, a print of the original Gunn film (which ignores conventional narrative structure) remained and, almost 30 years later, Kino Classics released the film in the original, stunning and complex director’s cut, mastered in HD, from a 35mm negative. And it’s now readily available as the artist would’ve wanted it to be.
Before Ganja & Hess, Gunn directed one film for Warner Bros, released in 1970, titled Stop, which was also subject to a troubled release, as it was slapped with an “X” rating for its handling of homosexual relationships, and was shelved by the studio. Over forty years later, the film still has not been formally released.
Sadly, Gunn entered the business at a time when enterprising black filmmakers like himself were limited in terms of the type of work that was available to them – especially at the studio level – and that was expected of them. Unfortunately, little has changed in that regard since then.
A true artist with a radical vision expressed across multiple creative fields including as an actor, a playwright, an author and of course as a director, Gunn’s other notable filmmaker credits include penning the script for Hal Ashby’s The Landlord (1970), and teaming up with noted writer Ishmael Reed for what the latter described as “a look at the triteness of everyday life in black middle class America.” The result was a subversion of the soap opera, titled Personal Problems (1980), a film that’s remained criminally unseen in its original form since its premiere (when it has screened, it’s been from poor quality originals).
Originally intended to air on public television in 1980, Personal Problems – a collaboration between director Gunn and writer Reed who also described it as “experimental soap opera” – reworks the genre’s tropes to dig into under-represented African American lives and critique the lack of originality in television at the time. Fragmented and non-linear, the saga of Johnnie Mae Brown (played by the late Vertamae Grosvenor), a professional nurse’s aid, centers the film, which unfolds over a number of seemingly disparate storylines, although they eventually begin to intersect.
The official synopsis reads: Johnnie Mae Brown and Charles Brown are a working-class African American couple in New York at the beginning of the 1980s. While reliant upon one another, the husband and wife have grown emotionally estranged and are each having relationships outside the marriage. Charles’s father, Father Brown (Jim Wright) lives with the couple, and their lives are further complicated when Johnnie May’s brother Bubba (Thommie Blackwell) and his wife Mary Alice (Andrew W. Hunt) come to live with them. After the sudden death of Father Brown, a funeral wake allows simmering family tensions to rise to the surface. Charles spends an introspective day reminiscing with Father Brown’s friends. As a result of these events, Johnnie Mae and Charles rediscover their love for one another and make a conscious effort to strengthen their relationship.
The script was apparently mostly improvised by the actors after discussion with Gunn and writer Ishmael Reed, who also appears in the film as an obnoxious upper-middle-class businessman who voted for Ronald Reagan. There are moments of pure lyricism, but the plot is definitely all soap opera.
And now after decades, mostly forgotten in the annals of cinema history, Gunn’s Personal Problems will be discovered by new audiences (and rediscovered by those already familiar), as Kino Lorber has thankfully and lovingly restored the full-length version of the masterful ensemble drama (all 164-minutes of it), which will open at the Metrograph theaters in New York City (its first proper release), for a one-week run, starting on March 30, 2018. New Yorkers should not ignore this opportunity to see the film on the big screen.
Tickets can be pre-purchased online right now, here.
Ahead of the film’s Metrograph premiere, Shadow and Act has been granted an exclusive first look at the new trailer cut by Kino, as well as new release posters, capturing moments from the film.
First, the trailer, and below, the vivid posters.