Ganja & Hess

Bill Gunn

Celebrated at the Cannes Film Festival, then exorcised by timid distributors and inappropriately marketed as grindhouse blaxploitation before being revisited by Spike Lee forty years later, this eerie, sui generis work by director Bill Gunn (1929­-1989) has now been resurrected in a new restoration, which has prompted its recognition as a landmark feature of African­-American cinema. In Cannes, Gunn introduced the film by saying, “We’re not yet allowed to make personal films — so I was offered a vampire movie to do instead. When they came back, this is what they found.” Gunn was hired to make a blood­saturated exploitation movie; instead he deliv­ered a languid, baroque, and phantasmagoric exploration of addiction, assimilation and identity — ”an Africanized vision quest filtered through a ramshackle collection of psychedelic and genre elements” (Howard Hampton, Film Comment). A groundbreaking film for the period, Ganja & Hess not only became renowned for its all black cast, but also for the remarkable work of cinematographer James E. Hinton, who changed the look of African­-American filmmaking by insisting that the skin tones of the black actors and actresses in the film not be lightened photographically, a technique which was standard at the time. The film features Duane Jones and Marlene Clark as the title characters, as well as Sam Waymon (Nina Simone’s brother), who also composed the film’s haunting score.

Introduced by John Gianvito.

English spoken, no subtitles


“Ganja & Hess is quiet, literate, thoughtful and sombre — as far from Blaxploitation as it is possible to get. Its luminous cinematography and fascinating modulation from refined Europhilia to sophisticated Afrophilia constitute an African-American art-house movie that remains unparalleled to this day.” — The Otolith Group


Almost before the credits have finished their cryptic roll in Ganja & Hess, you know you are watching an extraordinary film. Something about the ‘voice’ of the film — its editing, camerawork and point of view — tells you this experience will be unique. The film has a vitality that seems to broadcast itself. It comes alive as only masterworks do... Like the greatest films of the horror genre, Ganja & Hess taps hidden reservoirs in our collective unconscious for its power. But unlike most of those films, it doesn’t think to emphasize the metaphor. Its terror is considerably closer to home than to Hollywood’s Transylvania.” — James Monaco


Restored in its original version by The Museum of Modern Art with support from The Film Foundation and re-released in 2018.