Circuits of Pleasure: New Visions of Black Cinema (American Studies Association 2014)

Welcome to our online panel & discussion, Circuits of Pleasure: New Visions of Black Cinema. The links below will direct you to Gerald Butters’ online presentation, Vivian Halloran’s webinar, and Cara Caddoo’s video essay (along with her collaborations with filmmakers Ougie Pak and Kevin Willmott).

ASA logo

We will talk about our presentations and answer your questions at the American Studies Association’s annual meeting in Los Angeles next month. But even if you can’t make it out, we hope you’ll join us virtually! We’ve posted our work online because we want to broaden our conversation about black film. If you’re a scholar specializing in race and visual culture, if you’re a film buff, or if you just happened upon our work and it somehow sparked your interest—JOIN THE CONVERSATION!

We welcome comments and questions in advance of the meeting via the comment field under “Leave a Reply” on this blog. On Nov. 8th, we’ll answer your questions and broadcast our discussion live (10-11:45AM PST). You can also send us questions during the discussion via Twitter @BlackFilmASA. Follow us for more information.

p.s. Those planning to attend our panel at the ASA should definitely make sure to view the presentations before the meeting—we won’t have time to screen our work there.

What is Circuits of Pleasure: New Visions of Black Cinema?

In our presentations, we ask how shared, and oppositional responses to black cinema generated new cultural bonds and facilitated the development of black aesthetic practices. From protest campaigns to the emergence of new consumer markets, our panel’s multimedia presentations examine the relationship between twentieth-century black film—particularly its depictions of violence—and the formation of broader social and political networks. Cara Caddoo and Vivian Halloran examine the role of new technologies in the emergence of alterative circuits and sites for the exhibition of black films, which both transcended dominant networks of capitalist exchange, and fostered film practices and artistic productions that sustained the efforts of black filmmakers. Caddoo’s video essay, “Spectacles of Trauma: Black Film after Emancipation” looks at the popularity of black film in churches at the turn of the twentieth century. These spectacular programs, arranged for the larger black public, combined images of disaster—fires, earthquakes, and sinking ships–interspersed with images of black leaders, and Passion Plays. The collective culture of leisure formed around these types of motion pictures, which situated black people as emblems and agents of modern advancement, had important implications for the later race film and Blaxploitation film industries. Halloran’s presentation, “Running Numbers: Blaxploitation Filmmaking and Chester Himes’ Harlem Cycle” examines VHS and paperback novels as mutually constitutive technologies preserving the legacy and financial success of Blaxploitation films and urban crime fiction. While Hollywood products, the two film adaptations of Himes’ novels, Ossie Davis’ Cotton Comes to Harlem, and Mark Warren’s Come Back, Charleston Blue advanced the careers of black writers, actors, and directors as co-creators of an urban argot whose influence continues to this day. Gerald Butters’ presentation, “From Sweetback to Superfly: KUUMBA and the Fight Against Blaxploitation Films in Chicago,” looks at another mobilization formed in response to Blaxploitation films. He examines the campaigns of an older generation of black activists against the “guns, half-clad women, drugs and crime” of Blaxploitation films, and the impact of the Civil Rights movement on cinematic entertainment. The KUUMBA Workshop, a South Side Black Arts organization founded in 1968, took the lead in condemning these films. KUUMBA took a grass-roots approach to fighting what they believed were exploitative motion pictures, often by picketing and protests in front of theaters that showed such movies. But the group also drafted sophisticated political position papers that laid out their objections to certain motion pictures.

Running Numbers: Blaxploitation Filmmaking and Chester Himes’ Harlem Cycle

By Vivian Halloran, Indiana University-Bloomington (IN)


Watch Vivian’s presentation here:

Email Vivian Halloran:


Vivian Halloran is associate professor of American Studies and English at Indiana University, Bloomington. She is the author of Exhibiting Slavery: The Caribbean Postmodern Novel As Museum. She has written multiple articles on food studies, covering everything from competitive eating and Top Chef, to memory work performed by African American cookbooks.

About the webinar, Running Numbers: Blaxploitation Filmmaking and Chester Himes’ Harlem Cycle:

In Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film, Ed Guerrero compares the advent of the VCR in the late 1980s to the rise of the paperback novel, in the context of increased informal circulation systems: “a film that otherwise could be permanently marginalized can now be passed from person to person, viewed in small groups, viewed repeatedly, and easily taught and appreciated in classrooms” (206). As affordable media, both paperbacks and VCRs increased the circulation of both art and entertainment beyond a small, privileged community of elites and, ironically, made it feasible for commercially profitable genre fiction and films to be elevated to canonical status in the classrooms of the U.S. academy.  The advent of video-recording technology and affordability of VHS rental tapes in the 1980s and 1990s had a similar winnowing effect, preserving and distributing a de-facto canon of the best-known and more commercially successful films for later viewers to discover, appreciate, and share. The wide availability of such films eventually jump-started a new phase of the black film industry where African American directors once again shone the spotlight on Himes’ paperback genre fiction.

This paper takes as its focus the mutually constitutive relationship between Blaxploitation films and the popular crime genre fiction written by the expatriate African American novelist. Both films and fiction were produced and imagined for, as well as marketed to, a primarily-black audience, though they had huge cross-over appeal. I contend that despite being Hollywood products, Blaxploitation films celebrating “black-focused themes and narratives” (Guerrero) and portraying a distinctive black visual aesthetic during the height of the Black Arts Movement, the two Blaxploitation film adaptations of Chester Himes’ novels, the financially successful directorial debut by Ossie Davies, Cotton Comes to Harlem, and the money-losing Come Back, Charleston Blue, directed by Mark Warren, advanced the careers of black artists—writers, actors, and directors—as co-creators of a new urban argot whose influence continues to this day.

Though Himes’ fiction was foundational to this vision, to some degree, his involvement with the films’ actual production was indirect, through the writing of the source material. Although the film rights to both 1970s films were optioned by Samuel Goldwyn, Jr. himself, who then asked Himes to adapt the novels into screenplays, this arrangement ultimately did not prove successful. However, as an early example of cross-over movie advertising, the source novel for the second motion pictures, Pink Toes, was re-released by the publisher bearing the movie’s new title, thereby attesting to the mutually-beneficial arrangement of black-directed films based on African American urban fiction. The continuing availability of Cotton Comes to Harlem and Come Back, Charleston Blue first in VHS, and then in DVD, gave rise to a whole new generation of Blaxploitation fans and Chester Himes readers and paved the way for a neo-Blaxploitation resurgence of sorts with the 1991 adaptation of A Rage Comes to Harlem, also directed by an African American, Bill Duke.

From Sweetback to Superfly: KUUMBA and the Fight Against Blaxploitation Films in Chicago

By Gerald Butters, Aurora University (IL)

See Gerald Butters’ online presentation: Dropbox link

Email Gerald Butters:


Gerald R. Butters Jr. is a Professor of History at Aurora University.  He specializes on the intersection of gender and race in American popular culture.  His books include From Sweetback to Superfly: Race and Film Spectatorship in Chicago’s Loop, 1970-1975 (2014), Banned in Kansas: Motion Picture Censorship, 1915-1966 (2007), and Black Manhood on the Silent Screen (2002).  A Fulbright scholar, Dr. Butters is currently editing an anthology on Blaxploitation cinema.

About From Sweetback to Superfly: KUUMBA and the Fight Against Blaxploitation Films in Chicago:

Black-themed motion pictures burst upon the scene in the early 1970’s in Chicago’s Loop. Thousands of young African-American moviegoers traveled to the Loop, the location of Chicago’s largest and most historic theaters, to witness African American actors in portrayals that had never been seen on screen before.  A number of these films were deemed “Blaxploitation” films by their critics.  The emphasis on guns, half-clad women, drugs and crime in this body of films drew the ire of an older generation of African Americans who had participated in and witnessed the civil rights movement. The Kuumba Workshop, a South Side Black Arts organization founded in 1968, took the lead in condemning these films. Kuumba took a grass-roots approach to fighting what they believed were exploitative motion pictures, often by picketing and protests in front of theaters that showed such movies.  But the group also drafted sophisticated political position papers that laid out the group’s objections to certain motion pictures. These papers are important cultural documents of the time because they demonstrate that black support for Blaxploitation films was not universal. Kuumba became one of the leading forces against Blaxploitation films in the country, with an impressive Board of Directors that included historian Lerone Bennett, Jr., poet Gwendolyn Brooks and editor and theoretician of the Black Arts Movement, Hoyt Fuller. This presentation will recreate a forgotten chapter in the history of Chicago and will discuss the impact of the Civil Rights movement on cinematic entertainment.

Spectacles of Trauma, Symbols of Progress: Cinema and the Aesthetics of Black Modernity

By Cara Caddoo, Indiana University-Bloomington (IN)


Watch Cara Caddoo’s video essay here:

Watch filmmaker Kevin Willmott’s film here:

Watch filmmaker Ougie Pak’s video here:

Email Cara Caddoo:; or send her questions via Twitter @caracaddoo


Cara Caddoo is a filmmaker and Assistant Professor of American Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. She writes about African American and black diasporic history, cinema, mass media, religion, and migration. She is the author of Envisioning Freedom: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life (Harvard University Press, 2014) and a recipient of a 2014-2015 Faculty Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

About the video essay, “Spectacles of Trauma, Symbols of Progress: Cinema and the Aesthetics of Black Modernity,” and Caddoo’s collaborations with filmmakers Kevin Willmott and Ougie Pak:

Caddoo’s video essay and her collaborative projects with directors Kevin Willmott and Ougie Pak are an exploration of the aesthetics and intentions of early black filmmakers. At the turn-of-the-twentieth century, black Americans transformed their churches and schools into motion picture theaters during off-hours. These entertainments raised money for black institutions and provided black folk the opportunity to have fun together. But what type of films did black Americans produce? What films did they watch together?

The motion picture programs of this era are largely lost to us, but other records reveal some important facts about early black cinema culture: black film exhibitors edited together their own moving picture shows, which usually included several short films or clips from various motion pictures. White companies originally produced many of these films. But by combining white-produced footage with music, lectures, slides, and black-produced films, African Americans created programs tailored specifically for black audiences.

Caddoo’s video essay focuses on a type of black motion picture show that was especially popular before 1910. Black film exhibitors combined black produced motion pictures depicting racial advancement with white-produced “disaster films,” and Passion Plays. For example, black exhibitors edited together films of events such as the 1908 Augusta Flood, the San Francisco Earthquake, and the sinking of General Slocum ship, with images of black leaders and clips from religious motion pictures.

While it’s impossible to reconstruct the specifics of these film exhibitions, Caddoo’s video essay and her collaborations with filmmakers Willmott and Pak intend to shed light on the creative possibilities, authorship, and possible meanings of turn of the century black film. This project considers the spaces of exhibition, editing techniques, and films available to turn of the century black film exhibitors that Caddoo first encountered when writing her book, Envisioning Freedom: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life.

Caddoo’s video essay, and Willmott and Pak’s films incorporate footage that matches black press reports of early African American film exhibitions. Willmott and Pak worked with a set of previously agreed-upon limitations as they re-imagined footage from four turn-of-the-century films that featured images of black soldiers, trains, the San Francisco Earthquake, and a Passion Play. Their dramatically different approaches to the project vividly illustrate the possibilities of early black cinema. Willmott’s film, Colored Men! Written and Directed by Oscar Micheaux re-imagines the footage as part of a lost film by black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux. Willmott’s “lost” Micheaux film tells the tale of Corporal Charles Baltimore of the 24th Infantry Buffalo Soldiers who is persecuted by racist police officers in Texas. Although all of the footage in Colored Men! was originally produced by white production companies, Willmott’s clearly reflects the director’s aesthetic sensibilities and his interest in counterfactual history, as seen in his earlier films such as C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America (2004). Colored Men!” critiques America’s history of anti-black violence, and its legacy upon the present. We might note, for example, that Willmott’s film was produced during the height of national and global protests against the death of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri.

While Willmott’s film has a clear narrative structure, Pak’s film The March is more circuitous. The experimental film shows a loop of the same footage that appears in Willmott’s Colored Men!” but the hypnotic music and repetition of black soldiers and fire combine to create a moving image that appears both ephemeral and constant. Pak describes his film in terms of themes, especially that of “never-ending war” and the role that people of color and poor people have played in the United States’ military interventions.

Finally, Caddoo briefly outlines the history of early black cinema and introduces Pak and Willmott’s projects in her video essay by utilizing the same films that she provided to the filmmakers (paired with other archival images). In doing so, her video essay might be seen as a third example of the diverse messages that can be attached to certain moving images, and the means by which editing contributes to film authorship.




Darius Clark Monroe and EVOLUTION OF A CRIMINAL at IU Cinema

“When one commits a crime, the ripple effect impacts the life of the incarcerated individual, their family, spouse, children, victims, the family of the victims, the victims’ children and many others.

With over 2 million Americans incarcerated in prison and millions more incarcerated in juveniles, county and state jails, it’s easy to see how many people are involved when a crime is committed. This is the group I’d like to speak to the most.”

-Darius Clark Monroe, speaking with Filmmaker Magazine


On October 14 at 7PM, the Indiana University Cinema presents a free screening of EVOLUTION OF A CRIMINAL, the first documentary feature by award-winning filmmaker Darius Clark Monroe.  Monroe —  fresh off the Oct. 10th theatrical premiere in NY — will be visiting the Bloomington campus to present and discuss his autobiographical film.

In her review for IndieWire’s Shadow and Act, Nijla Mu’min writes:

Raised in a close knit, Texas home, Monroe was made aware of his family’s increasing financial struggles and debt from an early age, causing a growing frustration in him.

This mounting frustration to economic poverty is often overlooked when the popular image of a “criminal” is presented. The mainstream media wants something and someone more controversial, someone they can paint as “bad,” as a stain on society. However, the youthful realization that you don’t belong to the middle class, that your mother is struggling, and your water will get cut off, can be deeply troubling, especially for a developing mind.

And from Filmmaker Magazine, which named Monroe as one of their 25 New Faces of Independent Film:

Thirty-three-year-old Houston native Darius Clark Monroe’s feature documentary debut Evolution of a Criminal is an unflinching and unusual cinematic self-portrait, the type few directors are ever in a position to make, let alone pull off with such intimacy and panache.

Final week of “Still: Adele Stephenson and the Art of Film,” featuring art from Black Camera and the Black Film Center/ Archive, through Oct. 17

“Through exploring the visual materiality of the world that surrounds us I try to make the insignificant significant and reveal the hidden tensions between the material and the imagined.” –Adele Stephenson

Nothing but a Man postcard 2014

A striking film poster often frames or shapes our experience of a movie well before we enter the theater. When we recall movies that we haven’t seen in years, it’s often a poster or a DVD cover that first sparks memory. The skill and artistry that goes into the iconic images that circulate through film posters, lobby cards, and print advertisements are often overlooked as these works are rarely considered beyond their central function—selling tickets, DVDs, and downloads. At the other end of the spectrum, we find fan art. Because it does not financially benefit its producers, fan-created art  is too easily dismissed (despite Henry Jenkins‘ best efforts) as an obsessive hobby for sad sacks who don’t fare well in the “real” world. Nevermind that the best of film-inspired art, both the official “products” and the amateur labors of love, can offer an alternative lens into a  film, expanding the story world through imaginative interpretation.

Adele Stephenson’s commissioned works for the film journal Black Camera’s “Close-Up” features on Lee Daniels’s Precious (2009), Michael Roemer’s Nothing But a Man (1964), and Stanley Nelson’s Freedom Riders (2010) offer a third possibility–professional work created in response to a film, but not intended to advertise. Rarely is film-inspired art considered in relation to the fine arts, but Stephenson’s work helps us to break down such distinctions. These mixed-media pieces critically engage with the films, drawing on central themes and the historical contexts in which they were made. Stephenson’s striking images allow us to “re-see” each film, and they also ask us to look more closely at the images and materials that extend beyond the film itself. Rather than reducing these visual texts to the commercial or the “obsessive,” we might consider the myriad of ways that artists and designers contribute to cinematic experience  before and long after the relatively brief viewing experience. The currently running exhibit “Still: Adele Stephenson and the Art of Film” seeks to re-engage the viewer, drawing our attention to the commercial and artistic interplay that runs between a film and its extra-filmic texts.

Exhibit organizer Dorothy Berry expands on these themes in her curatorial statement:

“Commercial art, in the form of posters and advertisements, has played a major role in the framing of popular cinema since its earliest days. The delicate and complex process of designing art to promote a film to the widest audience possible, while encapsulating hours of moving images into a single graphic is often denigrated by the anti-art for art’s sake label “marketing.” This exhibit seeks to challenge the distinction between “marketing” and “fine art” by placing Stephenson’s collages alongside the studio-sanctioned art of movie posters and DVD covers. The goal here is not to create equivalencies, rather, to interrogate and, oftentimes, celebrate the transition of moving image to static art.”


Each of the three Black Camera issues that feature Stephenson’s work for the cover art also includes a gallery of additional sketches, paintings, and collages created by the artist in response to the film. The galleries are each preceded by an essay by Art History Professor David C. Wall (Utah State University) that foregrounds the relationship between the African American image in relation to both histories of cinematic representation and Western Art. In “Close Up Gallery: Precious” (Black Camera, Winter 2012), Wall argues that Lee Daniel’s film cannot be understood outside of the popular discourse that surrounded its release. The questions that arose in its aftermath threatened to overshadow the film itself  (e.g. Is Precious a brutal look at the realities faced by the  Black underclass in America, or yet another portrayal of Black poverty and victimhood made to satisfy white liberal sensibilities?). The bold imagery of Lionsgate’s poster for the film, featuring the shattered body of its faceless African American protagonist, unquestionably played its role in framing these conversations. Alternately, Stephenson’s art invokes classical Western Christian imagery of Madonna and Child. The artist notes in Wall’s article that after repeated viewings of the film, the theme that stood out most prominently to her was that of mother and child: “Precious is obviously a victim– of racism, of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, but I wanted to give a much deeper dimension to her. She is the victim of those things, but she is not reducible to those things. She is, for me, much more defined by her relationship to her own children.”

4.1.wall_fig08fAdele Stephenson, Precious Jones, pencil, acrylic, collage (2012)

Wall points out that while Stephenson’s portrait directly references Raphael’s painting Madonna with Child and Book (c. 1502), that it just as significantly evokes other complex cinematic depictions of young Black motherhood in films such as  Leslie Harris’ s Just Another Girl on the I.R.T (1992) and Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama (1979). Wall explains, “These representations refuse the limits that broader cultural and social stereotypes attempt to place around them. In offering her version of a black Madonna and child, Stephenson is further emphasizing– and attempting to subvert– the cultural and historical contingencies of racial representation and the functioning of whiteness as the determinant element in Western visions of the Virgin Mary. Blackness, she is saying, can also function as a universal signifier of motherhood” (222). Wall’s reflections suggest the power of a single image to not only reflect, but to reassess–contributing through adjacent visual mediums to moving image discourse.


(Above Left: Madonna with Child and Book, Raphael c. 1502, Above Right: Ariyan A. Johnson in Just Another Girl on the I.R.T., 1992)

Perhaps changing the singular, iconic image of Precious from the broken, faceless shadow to that of an identifiable young woman, empowered by motherhood and newfound literacy, would shift our perception as well as the critical and popular reception of the film.  This is not to criticize the official studio-approved art, which is quite harrowing in its suggestion of the sense of identity loss at the “hand” of an abuser. This is simply a consideration of the many components that contribute to cinematic discourse in various cultural and historical contexts, including the range of  readings of a single image and the inevitable foreclosures when marketing decisions are made.

Some internet commentators have pointed out that the official poster art for Precious appears to be “stolen” from graphic artist Lanny Sommese’s, whose 1987 Rape Line bears a striking resemblance. However it’s just as easily derived from a combination of the iconic Saul Bass poster art for Man with a Golden Arm (1955) and Anatomy of a Murder (1959), the latter of which also inspired the poster for Spike Lee’s Clockers. In this sense, the history of film poster art, like that of  Western “fine art,” is one of interpretation, appropriation, and revision.

 17935_lg Clockers_film_poster images


The exhibit runs through October 17th, located in the reading room outside of the Black Film Center Archive, Wells Library, 044 (next to the media reserves desk). Dorothy Berry, now the programming director for the Theatrical Historical Society in Chicago curated the exhibit while a graduate student at Indiana University, working with the BFC/A. In an email interview, Berry wrote:  “I was spurred to propose this exhibit because I wanted to share the amazing resources at the BFC/A with a wider audience of IU-B students.  Curating this exhibit helped me gain experience working with archives staff and collections and hopefully led to more students being aware of these great collections.” All of Stephenson’s commissioned works as well as the studio-produced posters included in the exhibit are part of the permanent collection of the Black Film Center/ Archive.

Black Camera issues are available through JStor, where you can find the close-up sections on these films, Adele Stephenson’s galleries, and David C. Wall’s corresponding essays:

“Close-Up: Precious,” Black Camera, 4.1 (Winter 2012), 53-220

“Close-Up: Nothing but a Man,” Black Camera, 3.2 (Spring 2012), 85-204

“Poster Gallery: Coming Attractions, Black Camera 3.1 (Winter 2011), 147-162 (on Freedom Riders)

Film poster art is slowly garnering the attention it deserves for its cultural, historic, and artistic contributions to cinema.  John Duke Kisch’s recent book Separate Cinema: First 100 Years of Black Poster Art, featuring posters from his private collection, is certainly a step in the right direction. The Guardian published a gallery of images from Kisch’s book and an interview with the author, accessible here.


~Noelle Griffis


‘Naked Acts’ program examines ‘Image Making and Black Female Sexuality’

Two decades have passed since Bridgett M. Davis began work on her groundbreaking film “Naked Acts.”

Now the Black Film Center/Archive and Indiana University welcome Davis to the Bloomington campus Sept. 29 and 30 as part of a free series of events also featuring acclaimed artist Renee Cox.

Read more about these events from IU Communications colleague Karen Land at Art at IU.


And please join us at the Black Film Center/Archive in Wells Library for coffee & tea with Bridgett M. Davis and Renée Cox from 5:30-6:30 PM on Monday, 9/29, and from 5:00-6:00 PM on Tuesday, 9/30.

Roger Ross Williams’ GOD LOVES UGANDA at IU Cinema

“I thought about following the activists – brave and admirable men and women…But I was more curious about the people who, in effect, wanted to kill me.”

- Roger Ross Williams, Director/Producer, GOD LOVES UGANDA

Roger Ross Williams

Roger Ross Williams

On Sunday, September 7th, at 3:00 PM, the Indiana University Cinema will present a free screening of GOD LOVES UGANDA, the 2013 documentary produced and directed by Academy Award winner Roger Ross Williams (MUSIC BY PRUDENCE).  Eric Love, Director, Office of Diversity Education, and Barbara Dennis, Associate Professor in the School of Education, will be present for a discussion after the film.  This event is sponsored by IU’s GLBT Student Support Services, the Office of Diversity Education (a unit of the Office of Diversity, Equity, & Multicultural Affairs), the Commission on Multicultural Understanding, the Black Film Center/Archive, and IU Cinema.


Bishop Christopher Senyonjo visiting a rural school in Uganda. Photo Credit: Crispin Buxton

From the film’s website:

As an American-influenced bill to make homosexuality punishable by death wins widespread support, tension in Uganda mounts and an atmosphere of murderous hatred takes hold. The film reveals the conflicting motives of faith and greed, ecstasy and egotism, among Ugandan ministers, American evangelical leaders and the foot soldiers of a theology that sees Uganda as ground zero in a battle for billions of souls.

Through verité, interviews, and hidden camera footage – and with unprecedented access – GOD LOVES UGANDA takes viewers inside the evangelical movement in both the US and Uganda.

For more information, please visit the IU Cinema website at



Restored and Resurrected: Director’s Cut of GANJA & HESS at IU Cinema 8/29

“I’ve liked every script I’ve ever written, I’ve hated every movie made from them.” – Bill Gunn


Bill Gunn (1929-1989) never liked what happened to his scripts in the hands of another director. In 1969, Norman Jewison needed a writer for his new project The Landlord, an adaptation of Kristen Hunter’s novel of the same name. Love Story author Erich Segal, at the time a professor of Greek literature at Yale, had written a draft, but Jewison deemed it “not ethnic enough” for a film that Jewison was promoting to Variety as “the first all-negro comedy.”[1] Bill Gunn had just finished the script for The Angel Levine (Jan Kadar, 1970), which was going into production for Belafonte Enterprises, and Harry Belafonte’s producing partner Chiz Schultz recommended Gunn to his friend Norm. Gunn revamped The Landlord, giving the content a more political edge and adding brilliant dialog that struck a nerve. In one of the film’s most poignant final moments, Diana Sands’ character Fanny asks Beau Bridges’ Elgar to put their love child up for adoption, declaring him as white. When Elgar asks why, Fanny replies with a line that’s utterly heartbreaking in its simplicity and truth: “Because I want him to grow up like you. Casual.”

Gunn spent a good deal of time on set with first time director Hal Ashby, who Jewison had turned the film over to at the last minute, but expressed frustration with the final work. Determined to direct his own scripts with complete creative control, he took his experience on set along with actress Marlene Clark (a nightclub dancer in The Landlord) to Nyack, NY and began working on a film that would truly defy generic categorization, Ganja and Hess.


Gunn had previously written and directed Stop in 1970 for Warner Brothers, making him the second African American director hired for a major studio project. Yet, the studio refused to release the film, which received an X rating from the MPAA and remains rarely seen. Despite these setbacks (including the lackluster BO performances of The Landlord and Angel Levine), Gunn remained faithful to his artistic vision, following with his most ambitious work to date– a spiritual mediation on Black ritual and desire in the guise of a vampire film. Ganja and Hess premiered in 1973 at Cannes Film Festival to great acclaim, but its U.S. producers Kelly-Jordan Enterprises missed the appeal of Gunn’s experimental exploration. Cutting almost 40 minutes from Gunn’s film, the completely re-edited version was promoted as a Blaxploitation horror film, which had become all the rage following the box office success of Blacula (1972). Additional versions of the film were later released under alternate titles, including Double Possession and Blood Couple. Yet, the original print remained at the Museum of Modern art, becoming one of its most popular rentals and earning the status of cult classic.


Given Gunn’s dissatisfaction with other director’s interpretations of his scripts, one wonders how he would feel about Spike Lee’s Ganja and Hess adaptationDa Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014).


The restored director’s cut of Ganja and Hess will screen on 35mm on Friday, August 29 a the Indiana University Cinema. Print courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.

[1] Variety, April 10, 1969. See also Chris Sieving’s chapter on The Landlord, ” Hollywood meets New Hollywood” in his book, Soul Searching: Black-Themed Cinema from the March on Washington to the Rise of Blaxploitation (Wesleyan, 2011).

For More on Gunn & Ganja and Hess:

Manthia Diawara and Phyllis Klotman’s essential Jump Cut essay, “Ganja and Hess: Vampires, Sex, and Addiction”

Shadow and Act piece on the (possible) DVD release of Bill Gunn’s Stop

“Lone Wolf in Black America: A Bill Gunn Retrospective” from Moving Image Arts Film Journal

And a great feature on the house rented by Bill Gunn and creative partner & composer Sam Waymon (brother of Nina Simone!) during the production of Ganja & Hess: “Sam Waymon Lived Here”

Rachel Boynton’s BIG MEN premieres on PBS POV on Monday, Aug. 25

“If you want to know how the world works, as opposed to how we are told it works – or how we wish it might work – you need to see ‘Big Men,’ a remarkable new investigative documentary about oil, money, Africa and America that comes with Brad Pitt’s name attached as executive producer but was directed by Rachel Boynton.”      - Andrew O’Hehir,



In 2007, American oil company Kosmos Energy discovered the first oil in the history of the West African Republic of Ghana. Award winning documentary filmmaker Rachel Boynton (Our Brand is Crisis, 2006) gained unprecedented access to the company and the cooperation of its leading executives. At the same time, Boynton researched and filmed for over seven years in Nigeria and Ghana,  with admittance into two Ghanian administrations, and into the camp of one of the region’s key militant groups, The Deadly Underdogs. Big Men follows the extraordinarily complex relations between these groups, providing a rare peek into the fascinating and deeply unsettling dealings of the oil business and its effects on the African region from the initial striking of “first oil.”  In his laudatory review, Scott Foundas of Variety describes the film as a “real life Chinatown” or There Will be Blood.

Backed by a team of renowned executive producers, including Brad Pitt and Dede Gardner of Plan B Entertainment,  Boynton’s independently produced and directed investigative work screened to great acclaim at the 2013 Tribeca film festival and will premiere on PBS as part of its POV series on Monday, August 25th (check local listings on the POV website, here).


Check out MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” interview with Rachel Boynton here.

Additional Media & Publicity:

BIG MEN official website

Hollywood Reporter Interview with Rachel Boynton and Brad Pitt

NY Times Critic’s Pick: Jeannette Catsoulis’ Review, “Oil, Money, and Where it Flows”



- Noelle Griffis










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