Movies Against Whitey! Ganja & Hess
Sure, I could have…and probably will…go with Blacula for our blending of Whitey Wednesday and Vampire Vednesday, but first I thought I’d put on my cinema snob hat and go with 1973’s Ganja & Hess. And while I can’t say I regret the experience, I will have to start off by saying that the film is not for everyone in that it’s a difficult film. Mind you, I’m not trying to be elitist here, but there are long lingering shots, there are grating music cues, there are long patches of silence and, if I’m being brutally honest, a lot of the time you’re wondering how anyone can like, or for that matter even bear to spend time with, these characters.
Well, except for Archie…that brother’s got the patience of a damn saint. That said, synopsis time:
Dr. Hess Green finds himself a member of the undead after his murder by his assistant, George Meda. Called back to the land of the living by George’s suicide, Hess now lives as a vampire but without all the usual trappings of the myth. Instead, he spends his days looking for prey that will not be missed in his search to quench his thirst. But when Meda’s widow, Ganja, comes looking for her late husband, Hess’s life becomes far more complicated when he discovers that he might not be alone in his addiction anymore.
If for no other reason, Ganja & Hess is worthy of attention for how it eschews the long-established vampire mythology and instead Bill Gunn opted to root his film in African culture, Christianity and realism. You won’t find any fangs here, no transmogrification into bats, wolves or fog or any other such popular tropes. What we have here is the story of a man, isolated by choice, who deals with his addiction as best as he is able. And that’s probably the biggest twist in the narrative, Gunn doesn’t show us the romantic ‘hunger’ that nearly all vampire films hold at their core. No…blood here could simply be replaced by heroin, cocaine or any other vice…any other addiction that a man can fall prey to. In fact, the places that Hess finds himself in to get his fix, filled with pimps and prostitutes, helps to make that kind of substitution even more feasible. The only real complication is when someone enters his life, someone he wants to open up to, in this case, Ganja. It’s from here that Hess starts to come to terms with where his addiction is leading him and eventually decides that it needs to come to an end.
Let’s take a look at the main characters in play here, starting with George Meda. While he’s not in the film for very long, he does set the entire thing in motion. You see, George here is a bit on the crazy side. The movie doesn’t try to hide it, nor should it, because it’s how we get to where we need to be. It is interesting to see from a modern perspective though. I mean, hell, at least today we pay lip service to mental health and disorders and as such, we might find ourselves wondering why George isn’t locked up or on some serious meds, but if we rewind to the early 70s…of course George would be out walking around, especially if one takes Cuckoo’s Nest at face value. [Granted that film would be made 2 years later. – Ed.] Soon after getting settled in with Dr. Green, we see a failed suicide attempt. Meda is up in a tree drinking while his intended means of death, a noose, hangs unfulfilled. Hess is able to talk him down and back into the mansion, but this peace doesn’t last long as Meda grows violent and stabs Hess thrice with an ancient Myrthian ceremonial dagger. Then, after bathing, finally succumbs to his suicidal impulses and shoots himself. As a plot device, he works and is well played by the film’s director, Bill Gunn, but again, the fact that his craziness somehow slips through the cracks until it’s too late proves to be a bit confounding.
Next we have Dr. Hess Green, our main character. As I mentioned above, he’s a fairly aloof fellow, alone by choice. We see this not only in his empty estate, aside from those that work on the grounds or in the house, but also there is one scene where a party is being held and Hess’s son is in attendance. This begs the question, is Hess divorced with his former wife having custody of the child? Or, more likely given the context of the scene, the boy is away at boarding school…however this would leave the status of the boy’s mother unresolved. This type of isolated character would fall directly into the wheelhouse of actor Duane Jones, well known for his incredibly private nature. As the main character, it’s his arc in his dealing with his new immortality that carries the audience through the film. With the film’s focus on treating his vampiric nature as an addiction, this means we see Hess descend into the darker corners of society, most notably the world of prostitutes and pimps, where he makes three kills, two from an ambush that goes horribly awry for the pimp that planned it and the third which claims the woman’s life, but leaves her young baby helpless and crying as Hess leaves nonchalantly, again highlighting Hess’s detached nature. It’s only when Ganja enters his life, and then eventually his lifestyle, that we start to see Hess start to look critically at what he’s been doing and finally, seek an end to his addiction. Why, you might ask? Well, in order to address that, we need to look at Ganja herself.
I’ll be honest, I fail to see what any of the men in this film see in Ganja. Yes, physically she is attractive…but that’s about all there is to her ‘charms’. When we’re first introduced to her, needing a ride from the airport, she is very abrasive. Now, some of this can be excused given the circumstances: she’s cold-calling Hess to get in touch with her mentally unbalanced husband, Meda, so that he can pick her up from the airport. Hess, of course, is forced to cover up the late Meda’s fate and the complicated circumstances behind it. But as she becomes a guest in his house, we learn that this brash nature goes to her very core, from her ‘impolite questions’ to Hess to her downright rather mean treatment of Archie, it’s hard to imagine that Ganja cares for anyone else other than Ganja. In fact, in a way, she sums it up best in answering one of Hess’ equally ‘impolite questions’: ‘What do you want?’ She answers, ‘Money.’ Now, admittedly, it takes balls to say this directly to the host sharing his estate with you for the moment but it’s from this revelation on that we see how predatory Ganja is and, ultimately, how fit she is for this lifestyle. This stands in direct contrast to Hess, who, again, treated vampirism as an addiction to be kept in the shadows while she, as we see by the end of the film, uses it more in the way that we see traditional vampires use it: surrounding themselves in opulent settings using that allure in tandem with physical seduction to lure in prey.
It's perhaps in giving Ganja this vampiric gift that finally sheds light onto Hess, making him understand that this lifestyle just isn’t a good fit for him. As such a private man, the fact that he would be forced to go out and hunt, meet people, lure people and et cetera, would ultimately prove to be more trouble than it’s worth. As anyone with social anxiety issues would clearly see, including myself, this would prove to be incredibly taxing…to say nothing of the other added chores: committing murder in a way that draws little to no attention, hiding the bodies, so on and so forth. In seeing his direct opposite in Ganja, it becomes clear that he needs to find a way out…and so he eventually does as we see in the film’s penultimate scene. It is the final scene, however, that would likely lead to an interesting discussion. Here we see a naked man, climbing from the pool on Hess’ estate, rushing to meet Ganja as she opens a window from the second floor of the mansion…and we know that this will be the last time this extremely well-endowed fellow makes this run. Is this a liberated woman set loose on the world, taking what has been denied to so many of her gender…or is this a monster bent on glutting herself on all the pleasures the world has to offer? Given her behavior earlier in the film, I come down on the side of the latter…and I would CERTAINLY hope that once Hess passed on that Archie and the other staff attached to the house sought other forms of employment and got the hell out of there! But, as an art film, I can certainly see the case being made for both.
So, what can I say about Ganja & Hess. First off, it’s a hard film to watch. [And a hard film to review given how long it’s taken to put this review together! – Ed.] It’s slow-paced filled with lingering shots, periods of silence interspersed with terse dialog. As both an art film and a genre film all falling under the umbrella of Blaxploitation, it is certainly worth viewing once, if for no other reason than to see the breadth and scope of the genre itself: it’s not all Shaft and Super Fly after all! But does this film warrant repeated viewings? Sigh…I’m not sure I can answer that in the affirmative. However, saying that would naturally then suggest I would have some constructive criticism for the film…and I really don’t have any. I wouldn’t change anything here. The film is effective and unique and certainly deserves the attention and such that it has earned. But I’m certainly in no hurry to add it to my collection.
TLDR: An important part of Blaxploitation film, Ganja & Hess manages to combine art film with vampires in an effort that is certainly praiseworthy…but one viewing is probably enough as it ends up being difficult to sit through at times for its lingering shots and sparce dialog. It all makes sense in the context of the film, so it’s certainly not a flaw, but it’s clear that this film isn’t for everyone. The good and the bad end up cancelling out and I feel comfortable giving this film a Plain Cat rating.