Flowers For Gunn

Spike Lee had the temerity to remake Bill Gunn’s “Ganja and Hess” – a chilling film about all the modes of vampirism, addiction and colonialism – into a sleazy “art film” that had none of the one the power, spirituality, strangeness or depth of Gunn’s original. Worse, Lee “hipped” it up and spoke down to his audience titling the garbage “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus” and struggled to find an authentic style for the film…and a sincere point in making it. It was classic Spike Lee marketing orgy. It made me sad and very angry. The Children of Warhol HAD won: Artifice and marketing is everything. But one thing the artist has over the grand marketeer is soul. You can’t fake soul.

Since then, Gunn’s work has continued to push and inspire, haunt and confound me. Recently, I re-read his play “The Black Picture Show” and his remarkable novel – if not the best fictional excavation of the dilemma of the Black screenwriter and Hollywood – “Rhinestone Sharecropping.”

Now that his magnum-opus “Personal Problems” is finally available on DVD (after nearly three and a half decades) — I hope film lovers, art appreciators, and just even general witnesses to this “thing” we call life — can experience and appreciate a little of what Gunn tried to tell us. Not since John Cassavetes’ masterworks have been available on DVD has their been a more important acknowledgment of an American dramatist who created and breathed life into the screen and off into the embers around us. If you have not seen “Personal Problems” — watch it one day on a double bill with Cassavetes’s “Husbands.” You may never recover.

But start, obviously, with his most provocative and daring expression “Ganja & Hess”.

The original text to my appreciation as published in Shadow & Act in 2014 can be read at the link below. The text beneath is a slightly abridged and re-contextualized version. Especially coming out of my own battle with the critics and media the past month in the aftermath of my own first film, the eternally misunderstood “As an Act of Protest” . Thanks for reading.

DLK , November 18, 2020

https://dennisleroykangalee.wordpress.com/?s=bill+gunn

If John O. Killens was the soldier of darkness, James Baldwin the prophet of darkness, then Bill Gunn was the prince of darkness…
– Ishmael Reed, Airing Dirty Laundry (1990)

Bill Gunn: A revolutionary writer & filmmaker
Bill Gunn: A revolutionary writer & filmmaker


I realized that vampire films and vampires themselves are as different to dramatists as the gangster or romance genre might be. Everyone has their own idea of vampirism and what that could mean. And that’s a good thing.

However, Ganja & Hess is a film so overlooked that most people are unfamiliar with it, and the ones that are think its some exploitation film. These people are shocked to hear its back-story that, already, has accrued a mythic status. And I’m often perplexed as to why more filmmakers don’t reference him or acknowledge his contributions publicly. What’s even more shocking is that Lee’s Blood is a remake of Gunn’s masterpiece and I find this all the more confounding. Instead of remaking a haunting delicate film into a virtuosic, ironic “art film,” why not simply acknowledge the original? Is a remake necessary? Spike Lee would have done us all a favor if he had simply written a monograph on Ganja & Hess and called it a day. The world needs to know more about Bill Gunn. And if artists want to pay homage to the masters, we should express what we know about life as opposed to cinema – and that would be enough…All the great masters express and teach us what they themselves know about life. And that’s what Gunn did.

Bill Gunn was a triple threat – an actor, writer, and a director. Chiz Schultz was familiar with Bill Gunn’s work,(he had written Hal Ashby’s The Landlord, for instance) and he produced Ganja & Hess in 1972 for a small amount of money. Gunn wrote a “double script” which led Kelly-Jordan distributors to believe he was making a “blaxploitation” picture — but instead made his own personal film. He was not out to “sell” blackness or capitulate to stereotypes for a buck. He wanted to make his own “cinematic poem.” One must understand the sheer guts it took to do this, to play the “spook who sat by the door” and say “yes, yes, yes” to the money men and run off and make a serious work of art that did not care or concern itself with any of the commercial interests of the filmmaking business enterprise. That’s righteous!

When Kelly-Jordan requested an exploitive commercial re-cut Gunn threw a chair through the window leading Kelly-Jordan to call him “crazy.” Gunn quipped, “I have more craziness in the top draw of my bureau than you will ever imagine.”

Now that took balls. If a white man had done that, they’d have branded him “passionate.” Because it was an African-American – a brilliant one at that – they had to dub him “crazy.”

Well, I always felt at home with Gunn’s fervent vision and his idiosyncratic approach to writing and directing. He is another example that filmmakers must be personal and unique in the way that a musician or painter is.

Directors Haile Gerima and Melvin Van Peebles gave me permission to be angry and politically upfront, the absurdist Wendell B. Harris inspired me to be cerebral, but it was the “The Mighty Gunn” who affirmed my aversion to orthodoxy, who inspired my work to reflect the non-linearity, the odd rhythm, the surreal tones of life’s phases (past, present, and future), and who made me realize that a vampire film does not have to be sensational. Like Antonin Artaud, Bill Gunn knew the horror is not what is imagined, but in what is real. And Gunn’s vampire film is horrifying because of the layers and themes it weaves and does not resolve – colonization, cultural displacement, addiction, etc. Bill Gunn inspired a legion of underground and avant-garde painters and dramatists to be as strange as they actually were. The freedom in that alone is revolutionary. And quite dangerous to the Powers That Be since no system has been as aggressive in their approach to homogenize black artists as much as Hollywood.

I can immediately see how Ishmael Reed (who published Bill’s work and produced his Personal Problems) and Gunn may have connected as artists – as they both eschew rules and are informed by a multitude of things, bearing a collage aspect to their work. It was this that I always identified with as an artist and in the case of Gunn – his unabashed mixing of the impenetrable with the aggressively obvious. It was as if he blew his trumpet and muted at the same time. Those tones not only resonate within Ganja & Hess a film that will leave you haunted well after having watched it (even if you don’t like it) but are also implicated in his writing. After all, the man was a poet of the theater. I encourage everyone to read his brilliant “Rhinestone Sharecropping,” a chilling, Kafka-esque account of a black screenwriter’s experience in Hollywood and the hell that swallows him up. The actual ‘vampires’ in Bill Gunn’s book are the rich gangsters who of course don’t view themselves as racist and are quick to drain the artist of his soul and integrity. They need soul and integrity to suck on…because they don’t have any of their own.

My vampire film shall be quite different, as it should be, but I hope it bears the uniqueness and honesty that Gunn’s brought forth. My vampire is an outcast, a marginalized “alien” caught in between her past and future, as well as America’s. My vampires are artists – some are even literal artists. But they are all sensitive – almost too sensitive. And there is no blood that can sustain them. For man’s blood is tainted. Including Jesus’. And there is nothing to be addicted to – except truth. And that is what ultimately kills.

The fact that punk music as an artistic ethos plays a part in my work is no coincidence. All those who dare to be honest and to be themselves are “punk.” And Bill Gunn was creating his crowning achievements with the actual rise of punk and hip-hop; the first known black punk band Death were recording only two years after Ganja & Hess had been made. And Gunn died at the end of the 1980’s – when Hollywood’s Suits had already returned with a vengeance against all of the creativity set forth even by their own “establishment” pop star directors like Warren Beatty and Francis Ford Coppola nearly a decade before. (The Empire did, in fact, strike back didn’t it?)

In memory of Bill Gunn, I post this remarkable letter written to the NY Times in 1973 as he was defending his art and trying to teach a few lessons in the process. Of course they probably had no idea why he was so “ornery” and they probably smirked and called him “just another bitter crazy black man.” And of course not even the great liberal East Coast critics could admit that THE ONLY AMERICAN FILM SHOWN IN CRITICS WEEK AT CANNES IN 1973 WAS “GANJA & HESS.” (Not other classics like Mean Streets. Not Serpico. But Ganja & Hess. Now that says something!)

I’m not shocked. Of course they labeled him “crazy.”
Somehow they don’t, and never will, understand not only the Black consciousness of the Diaspora, but the genius inherent in a handful of living artists. Why? Very simple: the establishment prefers their artists dead.

I love you Bill.

*
This is the text of a famous letter sent to the NY Times from Bill Gunn in 1973. Gunn was the legendary director of the cult classic “Ganja & Hess”, “Stop,” and the post-modern domestic drama “Personal Problems.”

To the Editor: (NY Times)

There are times when the white critic must sit down and listen. If he cannot listen and learn, then he must not concern himself with black creativity.
A children’s story I wrote speaks of a black male child that dreamed of a strong white golden haired prince who would come and save him from being black. He came, and as time passed and the relationship moved forward, it was discovered that indeed the black child was the prince and he had saved himself from being white. That, too, is possible.

I have always tried to imagine the producers waiting anxiously for the black reviewers’ opinions of “The Sound of Music” or “A Clockwork Orange.”
I want to say that it is a terrible thing to be a black artist in this country – for reasons too private to expose to the arrogance of white criticism.
One white critic left my film “Ganja and Hess,” after 20 minutes and reviewed the entire film. Another was to see three films in one day and review them all. This is a crime.

Three years of three different people’s lives grades in one afternoon by a complete stranger to the artist and to the culture. A.H. Weiler states in his review of “Ganja and Hess” that a doctor of anthropology killed his assistant and is infected by a blood disease and becomes immortal. But this is not so, Mr. Weiler, the assistant committed suicide. I know this film does not address you, but in that auditorium you might have heard more than you were able to over the sounds of your own voice. Another critic wondered where was the race problem. If he looks closely, he will find it in his own review.

If I were white, I would probably be called “fresh and different. If I were European, “Ganja and Hess” might be “that little film you must see.” Because I am black, 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, May 1973. Not one white critic from any of the major newspapers even mentioned it.

I am very proud of my ancestors in “Ganja and Hess.” They worked hard, with a dedication to their art and race that is obviously foreign to the critics. I want to thank them and my black sisters and brothers who have expressed only gratitude and love for my effort.

When I first came into the “theatre,” black women who were actresses were referred to as “great gals” by white directors and critics. Marlene Clark, one of the most beautiful women and actresses I have ever known, was referred to as a “brown-skinned looker” (New York Post). That kind of disrespect could not have been cultivated in 110 minutes. It must have taken a good 250 years.

Your newspapers and critics must realize that they are controlling black theater and film creativity with white criticism. Maybe if the black film craze continues, the white press might even find it necessary to employ black criticism. But if you can stop the craze in its tracks, maybe that won’t be necessary.

Bill Gunn
Author and director of “Ganja and Hess”
New York, 1973

BRIAN ALESSANDRO’S PASSIONATE DEFENSE OF A CULT CLASSIC

Why “As an Act of Protest” is still relevant…

Though the film was made in 2001 and scrutinizes the racial profiling and police brutality in New York City under Giuliani’s draconian reign, “As an Act of Protest” has never been more urgent than now. I approach this review—a defense born of moral outrage, really—not as a film critic, but as a fellow filmmaker and novelist. Often, it takes an artist to recognize an artist, talent to identify talent.

To contextualize, the film makes almost all contemporary activism and progressive finger-wagging histrionics feel like a disingenuous kindergarten special, a halfhearted performance staged by people who stand for nothing, driven by questionable motives. 

Che Ayende as Cairo in the film’s ultimate de-colonialist climax

The story centers on Abner, imbued with a glorious righteous indignation by writer-director Dennis Leroy Kangalee (originally “Dennis Leroy Moore“), who runs a Black theater group, and his actor Cairo Medina, Che Ayende in a turn that manages both a visceral nerviness and a cerebral intensity. Though Abner floats throughout the film like a haunted, haunting spirit, the spiritual journey—and crisis—is Cairo’s. He must cope with the unjust, criminal murder of a loved one at the hands of the NYPD as he reconciles his passion for expression through art or, failing that, a descent into violent vengeance. Ayende’s work here is unnerving, spellbinding, and ultimately heartbreaking. He is a force of brooding expression, tension, and apoplectic eruptions. He is compelling when silent and striking when in a verbose fury.

The acting is so raw, immediate, and naturalistic it seems more than improvised—it feels as though we’re watching real intimate connections being worked out. And yet, there is a fascinating formalism at play here. Rarely do we find actors who can balance with such adeptness the natural with the formal. The cinema of Cassavetes comes to mind. The theater of Baraka and Genet do, too. Kangalee clearly knows his film and theater history and understands where he fits in the ever-shifting canon. His marriage of forms and sensibilities is thoughtful; he assiduously toils toward excavating a new understanding of human behavior.

We have seen countless movies that celebrate straight white men at breaking points with society. Michael Douglas in Falling Down. Edward Norton in Fight Club. Joaquin Phoenix in Joker. Rarely are black men granted the same luxury of being enraged with the world and acting on their anger. And if we’re being honest, it is black men—especially black men in America—who have the greatest right to be in a, as Baldwin put it, “state of rage, almost all the time.” 

The ruminations on the nature of theater, and especially the need for a Black theater, run deep and into enlightening spaces. Theatre of the Absurd is thought of when considering the film on a meta level—the way Black people are mistreated in America is in and of itself absurd. Cruel and unfair to an absurd degree. Kangalee knows this and his emphasis on theater suits such thematic meditations. 

Kangalee, the writer, is relentless in his examinations and excoriations. He demands you pay attention and endure the rhythmic chaos and existential horrors he dissects, those dehumanizing atrocities experienced daily by black men and women. Kangalee, the director, doesn’t let up, either. He insists you confront the gruesome truth and either flee or find deep mettle to withstand the revelation of your complicity. Kangalee, the actor, serves as an effective provocateur, a missile in human trappings sent deep into the heart of the matter. Unlike too many current filmmakers who claim to make “message movies” or “take stands” against injustice and the establishment, Kangalee actually does. And he does so poetically, unapologetically, and with an authenticity that shames.

Marvin X’s 2002 review of “As an Act of Protest” as featured in his book This Crazy House Called America.

Speller Street Films has done an admirable job remastering the cult film that has screened at universities across the United States and in Europe, however, it is unconscionable that As an Act of Protest has struggled for nearly two decades to land distribution. I can only blame the American (mainly white) critical establishment for not championing it, instead doing the bidding of the film industry—yes, both the “independent” film scene and Hollywood. The fear, the lack of imagination and depth, and the outright racism that has kept the film from garnering a wider audience is unforgivable. The hypocrisy of the independent film scene is apparent. They speciously declare their allegiance to emerging artists, taking “risks” with “edgy” fare, seeing more deeply than the big wig studio executives, eschewing commercial formula, and promoting marginalized voices. This is all nonsense, though. They’re just better at hiding their ugly, venal faces, faithful only to maintaining the status quo, and the rejection, indifference, and bitterness that As an Act of Protest has met with is evidence of this.

These same critics celebrate Ava Duvernay, Barry Jenkins, Spike Lee, all gifted and worthy in their own right, but also too-polite “fighters” for the cause, falling into line, protesting within acceptable lines; they stick to studio parameters, abide by white executive decree, and follow the structural playbook of formulaic moviemaking. They are using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, which leaves nothing dismantled, in the end. The structures remain. Kangalee has no use for the master’s tools and in his gritty, obliquely stylized aesthetic uses his own tools. And his dismantling is actual, not theoretical. He has no use for levity to break tension. He doesn’t care if you’re bothered by the cacophony of actors screaming into each other’s faces for two hours. He has no use for your precious sensitivities. Why should he? He’s not trying to become anyone’s friend. He is seeking to make enduring, personal art. And he has. 

Writer-Director Dennis Leroy Kangalee in 2001.

In a certain, eerie sense, the detractors of As an Act of Protest mirror the racist cops, corrupt mayor, and gentrified encroachers in the film itself. They too possess a colonized entitlement, a sense that they have the license to control, own, and kill.  

Having followed the underground movements of As an Act of Protest, I possess empirical knowledge of the politics surrounding the film. And of the machinations intent on derailing it. I have witnessed too many cowardly, meek “critics” and academics lazily assail the film as if it posed a threat to their existence. The Guardian’s apathetic pseudo-review and TrustMovies’ ill-informed, vindictive rant, to name but a few. The same people who claim to want revolution and fancy themselves progressives, or even radicals, for that matter, reveal themselves to be anything but—they’re comfortable bourgeoise daunted by the prospect of being discomfited. They prefer a softer, templated blend of activism, something that will go down smoothly with their lattes and Wes Anderson confectionaries. To them, activism is little more than a fashionable accessory, a cute button or hip catch phrase. As an Act of Protest is a litmus test, one to weed out the truly rebellious and throttle the frauds into retreat. It’s exhilarating to watch the assault.   

Brian Alessandro currently writes literary criticism for Newsday and is a contributor at Interview Magazine. Most recently, he has adapted Edmund White’s 1982-classic A Boy’s Own Story into a graphic novel for Top Shelf Productions, which won the National Book Award in 2016 for March. His short fiction and essays have been published in Roxanne Gay’s literary journal, PANK, as well as in Crashing Cathedrals, an anthology of essays about the work of Edmund White. In 2011, Alessandro wrote and directed the feature film, Afghan Hound, which has streamed on Amazon and Netflix. In 2016, he founded The New Engagement, a literary journal that has released two print issues and eighteen online issues. His debut novel, The Unmentionable Mann, was published in 2015 and was well received by Huffington Post, The Leaf, Examiner, and excerpted in Bloom. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize twice and the Independent Book Publisher Association Best New Voice Award. He holds an MA in clinical psychology from Columbia University and has taught the subject at the high school and college levels for over ten years. He currently works in the mental health field.

The Cult Classic That Remains the Most Relevant Film Right Now In The USA

“As an Act of Protest – Best Black Movie Nobody Will See This Year.”

                          – Kam Williams, The Black World Today, Nov. 27, 2002

“Powerful…”

                        – Ryan Shriver, The NY Times All Movie Guide (2006)

cairo_in_mirror_copy
Che Ayende, as Cairo, an actor exasperated by racism, who creative growth leads him to become a revolutionary

 

You cannot have a revolution without having an art to go alongside it.  Sometimes that art is living itself, sometimes it’s the expression of the angst through blood. Sometimes the tears mean more in the glimpse of 24 frames per second. Sometimes, often in actual life, there is no time for tears — and certainly no poetry that comes along with it… “Revolutions are not fought in, of, or by poems,” as Umar from the Last Poets warned in As an Act of Protest.  But it certainly helps to have those poems going up into the sky like fireworks…and hoping that their residue settles onto a willing recipient before the final axe falls or before the final step of the American gestalt is taken.  You can’t clap with one hand.  But you can still wield a sword.  Or a pen.

 

 

In order to bring Dennis Leroy Kangalee’s controversial and haunting 2002 cult film As an Act of Protest to a new generation of film enthusiasts, activists, organizers, and those interested in revolutionary expression, Speller St. Films (who brought the world Wilmington on Fire in 2015) will host online screenings of the movie in an attempt to relay the vitality and importance of the film originally made in response to the murder of Amadou Diallo in 1999 and unfortunately now – the most relevant independent film, perhaps, in American history in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing and Rayshard Brooks’ execution. The film charts the unmapped territory of the fears, inclinations, and proclivities of conscientious Black Americans who are aware that they are “walking in terrible darkness” as James Baldwin once asserted. The film expresses the angst and racism of a system riddled with racism like a corpse covered in tumors. From hostile bankers and a Theater community entrenched in thwarting the liberatory desires of Black dramatists to the hypocrites of Higher Education to families unable to confront the serious trauma of racism to an unbridled savagery contained within the American police force, Cairo – like a character out of Kafka – has nowhere to turn and the more he dares to open his eyes…the more racism he dares to see. Described once as an “internal Battle of Algiers” and “radical Taxi Driver” (had that film been a progressive movie) — As an Act of Protest is a perfect introduction to Dennis Leroy Kangalee’s art, his admiration for the Black Arts Movement — and a stellar example of an unheralded movement and radical inclination in American cinema and drama that went completely under the radar beginning twenty-five years ago. 

— Joshua Kibuka for the New Black Arts Alliance, Speller St. Films June 9, 2020

Stay tuned for more updates on the release of As an Act of Protest and please visit my page here for more information, clips, and a detailed history of my film…

%d bloggers like this: