Writer and Ph.D. Candidate (Yale University) Nicholas Forster visited the BFC/A for research on a biography about actor-director-playwright Bill Gunn, most recognized for directing the experimental horror movie “Ganja and Hess” in 1973. In this guest blog post, he returns to a question that pursued him as he conducted his research in the  “Mary Perry Smith Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame Archives Collection” while he meditates on the idea of the archive. Forster is one of five inaugural fellows to visit the BFC/A in the coming months. 


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From a 1984 BFC/A interview with Bill Gunn

When I arrived in Bloomington, Indiana, eager to explore the historic BFC/A, I followed my established routine for unpacking my always overfull luggage. While I carried more books than I needed and though I stuffed my duffel bag with an extra set of unnecessary clothes, I enjoyed the calm, if overly methodical, process of unpacking in a new city. After the flight, after the cab ride, after the torrent of sweat that followed from the self-inflected inability to carefully choose what to bring and what to leave behind, dropping my heavy luggage and unpacking felt like the start of something new. This was my process—and like all routines it would be broken. I arrived at my hotel in Bloomington and was excited to continue my research on Bill Gunn, the Black filmmaker-actor-writer, most often recognized as the director of the 1973 art-horror film Ganja and Hess. I hadn’t yet set up my own phalanx of toiletries on the bathroom sink when my phone rang and an assistant connected me to a prominent actor-producer who worked with Gunn. He wanted to chat about someone he considered a friend. There were no pleasantries exchanged. Instead, the opening to the conversation was a question, one that had undergirded some of my research from the last few years. This time I wasn’t asking it—instead the question was posed to me:

 

What took you and everyone else so long to write about Gunn?!

 

PART I

For a few decades now, the story of Ganja and Hess has been told among academics, artists, film fiends, programmers, and horror aficionados. Conversations and criticism of the film relay how the dream factories of Hollywood never were able to reckon with the work of a Black writer/director who slipped the yoke and changed the joke by challenging the conventions of cinema. When Ganja premiered the action film was being redefined by the emerging codes of Blaxploitation; thanks to the sonic worlds of Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield, you knew Shaft had arrived and Superfly was hip, if troubling. The Black action hero was here to kick ass and settle the score. Gunn’s existential tale of addiction was different. For some critics, like James P. Murray, Clayton Riley, and James Monaco, Ganja, ripped open the possibilities of the Black cinematic imaginary. Quite simply, the film offered something that was unlike anything else. These critics recognized in Gunn’s film the potential for new visions within an industry that so often relied on stereotypes and simplicity. And so, the film became weighted with a potential for a new future.

However, the mass interest that Gunn hoped for was hard to find. Critics were confounded and in New York audiences were too small. In less than two weeks the film was pulled and the studio, Kelly-Jordan, which was experiencing its own financial instabilities, re-cut the movie and re-released it as an exploitation feature, under various titles including Double Possession and Blood Couple. This is the common story. This is the lore.

But the film didn’t die. Thanks to the work of curator and scholar Pearl Bowser, Ganja and Hess was screened throughout the 1970s, perhaps most notably at the Museum of Modern Art. At the same time that Ganja played in the aesthetic shrine of the museum, the re-cut version, (which Gunn and others insisted their names be removed from), graced the screens of the sticky floored cinemuck theaters and drive-ins. Ganja was Gunn’s second movie but the first to be theatrically distributed and the story of its dispossession has given historians an all too easy rhyme scheme to wrangle and write a narrative in which Gunn is a tragic figure, a Black artist squashed by the system. Though Gunn continued to work, his credits disappeared and none of the screenplays he worked on were ever again distributed intact. The narrative of a potentially great filmmaker cut down by the industry ossified. Troublingly, this came to be Gunn’s legacy for scholars and critics.

 

            What took you and everyone else so long to write about Gunn?

 

The answer to that question lies, in part, in the way that artists are rendered legible to and by producers, audiences and power-brokers. The overwhelming, well-intentioned, and enticing story of “what could have been” has swallowed Gunn’s career and made him less an individual than an emblem. That Stop, his debut film, was never released only overlays a coating of mystique to a tale that is as mythological as it is political. Hollywood was founded on and secured itself as an economic-cultural space of white supremacy and that space was not meant to be open to people like Gunn. However, Gunn was interested in playing the game that the industry dealt, in part, because he wanted a large audience, and in part because he wanted to remake the rules of popular culture.

In other words, Gunn hoped that he could work within a white supremacist industry and create art that revealed, as he told Janus Adams in a 1973 interview, “the truth of my experience.”[1] It was a political cause but rarely articulated as such by the filmmaker who constantly stressed individuality. Working alongside but rarely with those tied to the Black Arts Movement, Gunn always found himself apart from that movement. My research at the BFC/A was motivated by a hope to understand and learn more about the types of communities that Gunn did inhabit. After all, he repeatedly worked with a number of the people like Kathleen Collins, Sam Waymon and Billie Allen.

Now, it is important to recognize that Gunn’s career exceeded his work on Ganja and Hess and Stop. As John Williams has so comprehensively cataloged, Gunn was prolific and his numerous projects were forged through collaboration.[2] That is clear as much in the letters, memos, manuscripts, and scraps of a life that exist across institutional archives (perhaps most notably in Gunn’s papers at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture), as it is in the memories of those that knew and worked with him. When Gunn unexpectedly died in 1989, the night before his play Forbidden City opened at the Public Theater, he left a catalog of unfinished works. The remnants of those projects exist across many archives, hidden away in folders where Gunn’s name rarely appears in the accompanying Finding Aids. This has made it difficult for scholars (particularly those uninterested in interviews) to trace Gunn’s life. At the BFC/A I would dig through some of those folders.

The question, “what took so long,” is as much a bewildered inquiry as it is a sign of the historical value one cultural laborer bestowed upon another. Within the question is an assumption of one’s influence within a network of creative voices. To acknowledge the very real relationships at the heart of that network is to engage with all that isn’t said but still asked, by the interviewee, as though from that initial question tumbled countless thoughts:

“What took so long?We all know this artist was important.

“What took so long?” I always thought he’d get those screenplays out eventually.

“What took so long?” Has it really been almost thirty years since he died?

“What took so long?” And whatever happened to those who loved him?

“What took so long?” And how the hell did you get interested in Gunn anyway?

The initial question became a kind of eulogy—an extension of association, as though, after careful consideration, I too would be brought into the network of those who knew Gunn. But, I didn’t know him, and even if I could gesture at an answer, it would always be incomplete. Gunn’s life and career refute the narratives often ascribed to Black artists and his portrait remains necessarily hard to grasp within a world where prefigured templates and off-the-shelf phrases offer a way to make history cohere. In the deep pauses and the ragged crevices of dozens of interviews I’ve conducted with artists, producers, writers and friends, this fact has remained important to articulate and claim. Still, the initial question signifies the kaleidoscopic relationships forged among artists in New York, producers in Hollywood, and creative voices across the country. That opening question, “what took so long,” highlights how the history of Gunn’s career has too often been overshadowed by a single film. That question highlights the need to explore more than an artist’s published works.

 

            What took you and everyone else so long to write…

 

PART II

The following day I arrived at the BFC/A and that question persisted as a kind of hum, in all of its humor and frustration. I knew that whatever I would find in the archive would be tethered to all the conversations I had engaged in with those that knew Gunn. The bits of everyday speech and the off-hand references in interviews may not seem so important, yet they provide nodes that only glow until you hear or see another allusion, turning what was a glimmer into a luminous beacon. In a long research process, one’s ethical commitments grow larger with each interview and archival visit, I was accountable to these conversations and to those who once told their own story.  I was at the BFC/A to hear and see interviews past scholars conducted with Black filmmakers. In these conversations, I hoped, might be shared experiences, references, and residues of a Black artistic scene in New York and Hollywood.

The BFC/A holds one of the only extant videotaped/filmed interviews with Gunn. We can thank the herculean efforts of two scholars for the persistence of this tape. The first is the scholar/archivist/activist Pearl Bowser, who has fiercely advocated for Black filmmakers, spending years traveling to campuses and cultural sites to screen what many had thought was a forgotten history. Bowser almost singlehandedly kept Ganja and Hess alive in the 1970s and she has spent her life documenting and promoting the visions created by some of the world’s greatest artists. She was, as Gunn called her, his “fairy godmother.”

There would also be no BFC/A were it not for Dr. Phyllis Klotman, who helped found the Center in 1981. Klotman supported emerging Black filmmakers for three decades, working as an archivist, scholar, and public intellectual. Whether in cinemas or at the front of a class Klotman helped wiggle free the deadbolt on the doors of the academy, a lock that was, even after the development of Black Studies programs, almost as firm as the one on the gates of a Hollywood studio lot. As Charles Burnett told the New York Times, Klotman “was one of the first to preserve Black independent films, and in doing that, she encouraged us…for many of us, [she provided] the first…exposure… in a university setting.”[3] She worked with, promoted, and interviewed artists like Charles Burnett, Kathleen Collins, Bill Gunn, William Greaves, Larry Clark. They never left, but for a time they each became figures who were, in Joseph Roach’s words, “forgotten but not gone.” Now, these names, at the very least, animate the wind chime of memory because of the work of Klotman and Bowser. Both of these figures deserve their own biography—without them we would not know about so many imaginative worlds, nor would we have the vocabulary to recognize them.

 

            What took you and everyone else so long…

 

To visit the BFC/A is to acknowledge that which has remained under-recognized and offer an extension of Klotman and Bowser’s work, which was always collaborative. The interviews at the Center offer a sounding of such collaboration.  It is heard in the moments William Greaves describes seeing Oscar Micheaux hanging out in Harlem and it is audible in the importance Carlton Moss gives to his relationship with John Houseman as he narrates his entry into filmmaking.[4] These moments are the substance of the question what took so long, because these moments of personal and professional interaction shifted each artist in their trajectory. We hear of these moments in the interviews conducted by Bowser and Klotman at the BFC/A.

When I sat down to watch the 1984 interview with Gunn, I was hopeful that one such relation might be made clear. I saw that the tape was 29 minutes long and thought that I might learn about the connections Gunn forged and felt, connections that were imperative to his aesthetic life. In the interview, Gunn explains that the personal and the professional always collided. Describing his friendship with Montgomery Clift, Gunn notes how one night, during the production of Sign of Winter, Clift was in the audience. In between scenes, the anointed representative of Method acting royalty would run back stage and give the aspiring actor advice. “He redirected everything I did,” Gunn recounts with affection. That redirection was the loving work of care. It provided necessary relief for the life of a Black artist whose dreams of Hollywood and New York Theater were driven by hope as much as they were undergirded by exhaustion. In the concluding minutes of the interview, Gunn explores that exhaustion:

I spent much of my younger life trying to convince people that I was real. When you sit on a plane you have to eat a certain way, you have to dress a certain way, you have to carry yourself-because you are always reassuring someone else that you are not going to eat them, you know, or mug them, or rape them…then at one point you’re attacked by this exhaustion, this intellectual and emotional exhaustion and you say ‘no more.’

If we explore more than Ganja and Hess it becomes clear that Gunn’s career was one where an artist said “no more.” Rather than a story of triumph or tragedy, Gunn’s work revealed what it meant to refuse to capitulate to the demands of producers and instead sculpt new worlds, like those seen in the Black experimental soap opera Personal Problems or on stage in Rhinestone, his 1982 play at the Richard Allen Center for Culture and Art

 

            What took you and everyone else…

 

The question is defined by time and an anticipation that things would change in the future. In that anticipation is a different kind of exhaustion—one yoked with longing and desire. Even if not explicit, this question has subsisted in all my conversations with those who knew Gunn. In Bloomington, it was finally posed to me. And in Bloomington it was played out as I was in the archive, this overdetermined word, which signals so much and also always fails to account for the very worlds of existence it is predicated on. The archive seethes, tremors, incites and repels. We are not all welcome at all times. Here I was, in Indiana, lucky to do this work, privileged to continue to understand, what took so long.

Ganja & Hess 1972 by Bill Gunn
Actor, Director, and Playwright Bill Gunn.

[1] See Janus Adams, “Bill Gunn: We Should Burn All the Books and Start All Over Again” Encore June 1973.

[2] See John Williams, “Bill Gunn (1929-1989): A Checklist of his Films, Dramatic Works, and Novels” Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 25, No. 4 (Winter, 1991): 781-787.

[3] Charles Burnett quoted in Margalit Fox, “Phyllis R. Klotman, Archivist of African-American Cinema, Dies at 90.” New York Times, April 5, 2015: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/06/movies/phyllis-r-klotman-scholar-and-archivist-of-african-american-cinema-dies-at-90.html

[4] As Moss describes, his career began with writing The Negro Solider for Frank Capra in the 1940s.

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