Monthly Archives: June 2014

Flowers for Gunn: Remembering an Outlaw Artist

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



After reading Tambay Obenson’s reaction to Spike Lee’s vampire film, Da Blood of Jesus, a part of me sighed in accordance with Obenson’s exasperation as he simply implored audiences to just see Ganja & Hess instead.

Obenson is one of the most honest and dynamic critics and supporters of independent filmmakers, especially Black filmmakers, that I have ever read. He does not mince words and he expects a lot from filmmakers. His honesty is refreshing.

I have not seen Da Blood of Jesus and I doubt if I will for some time. I already wrote last month when I went public with development plans for Octavia that I felt it was odd that Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee had both released vampire films as I was just about to start one. I thought I might have gone the way of “fashion.” But of course 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, I write this because Obenson knows cinema and he’s right to acknowledge one of the greatest films ever made: Ganja & Hess. 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 Mario 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

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Ruby Dee 1922-2014

Image

 

A remarkable actress.

A passionate woman.

She was radical before being radical in Hollywood became hip. She knew risk in a way that would put any Hollywood ‘(H)Activist’ in 2014 to shame. This is a person who worked closely with such mavericks such as Lloyd Richards, Lorraine Hansberry and Jules Dassin. An artist who toed the line, pushed barriers, and helped interpret the soul, thoughts, and feelings of not only a generation or a race or a gender –

but an age where consciousness was not only something that the enlightened aspired to but where actors, too, were not mere hired arms

but instruments that illuminated the human condition and liberated the mental shackles impeding our evolution.

I hope your exit was joyful, Ruby.

(Say hello to Ossie for me)

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So Much Beauty to Offer, But too Ugly To Move

Just remember to write, tuck the face, face the soul

Until the foul
Erodes

Like the million splintered tiny silver angels that floated on that morning when everything changed.

Receive the vision so you may heal the tribe
Write the stories only if you feel the vibe
But don’t outsource your soul

Not everyone
Can have
An Elephant Man

so stay down in the trench and come up just once when night appears
or the day the sun has decided to make you his ally.

 

"A Kangalee Mourning" [photo by Nina Fleck, 2009]

“A Kangalee Mourning” [photo by Nina Fleck, 2009]

*this poem was originally published in the Outlaw Poetry Network

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THE ANSWER (or: When they ask “what do you intend to do with your film?” a poem for guerrilla filmmakers and producers)*

Well, obviously you intend to share it. You won’t just leave it in your Aunt Edna’s socks drawer. (But then again, what if you did? Would that be a crime?)

 Kangalee at the famed Odessa Diner, NYC 2012 [E.Torres]

Kangalee at the famed Odessa Diner, NYC 2012 [E.Torres]

If the investor asks, obviously you well tell him your ambitions for the festival circuit and beyond. He’s concerned with money. And he should be. That’s who he is. But this Answer is intended for artists to be used…on other artists (actors, in particular)

Do singers actually ask composers: “So you want me to record this song? Hmmm…and what is your intention there?”

Would you have asked Langston Hughes: “What do you intend to DO with that poem once you’ve spilled it forth onto the page?”

So, I implore my fellow artists, my fellow Independent (truly) Filmmakers to use this as an answer to that most ridiculous question.

When asked: “What are you shooting with?”
Say: “An AK-47.”

Then remind them, that Gordon Parks wrote: it is a choice of weapons…

Cite Robert Kramer. Or John Cassavetes. Or…No.
Just be yourself and be honest and let it all hang out.
Because you are a beloved-madman anyway.

Say:

“We intend to blow minds if not souls. We intend to scrawl across the sky every single nuance and imperfect emotion contained in the film. We intend to agitate, inspire, affirm, or destroy all the energy that may be working for, against, or within us.

We intend to enlighten and scream.
We intend to howl with laughter.
We intend to think until our brain plates writhe like worms too well-oiled in a groping mud-slide.
We intend to reveal and admit.
We intend to entertain and challenge.
We intend to sprinkle
just a
little bit of beauty –
truth –
on this heaping mound of savagery
called Modern Life.

We intend to not lie and appreciate the pain of being honest.

And we intend to be proud as we say “This is who we are and what we were for the past year. We hope you understand part of it, if not actually like it. We hope it can inspire you to make your own film as well.”

​*you can use this as a stock answer anytime you want, anywhere you see fit, you don’t have to credit me because eventually you will come up with your own answer that’s even better. ​

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He Went to Church…


He went to church. He prayed to his ancestors, wondering where their blood might have spilled before the Jews’.

He imagined what his mother’s face might have looked like in the car accident back home in New York the year before. Her face mangled and contorted in a permanent look of horror. His sister said she would not send him a photo even if he insisted. She told him he was macabre and losing his mind. Probably was right, but he couldn’t help re-playing the conversation in his head as he slid down the steps of the church facade. And then, for some reason, looking out into the city ahead and around him, his eyes kept reaching for the sky as if waiting for something awful to happen.

— from “The Maestro,” (2006)

Dennis Leroy Kangalee, 2013 [Photo by Nina Fleck]

Dennis Leroy Kangalee, 2013 [Photo by Nina Fleck]

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ON CONQUERING & EXPRESSING:

To have bits and pieces of yourself smeared all over the screen is heavy…There’s nowhere to hide. It all hangs out. But if my favorite Hip Hop artists have used their styles of music to conquer their personal fears and espouse their political autobiographies – why can’t the new young black directors do the same? True auteurs should create movies about what they know, who they are, their interests, and about the strangeness of their lives…”

— from Notes from an Underground Filmmaker,
the introduction to the screenplay for
“As an Act of Protest”

(August 26, 2000, Harlem, NYC)

The Author, DL Kangalee, NYC, 2004 [photo by Nina Fleck]

The Author, DL Kangalee, NYC, 2004 [photo by Nina Fleck]

Black Film & The Underground Spirit: 3

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A Rhyme Inside A Screaming Brain

…Are you waiting for the flood?
While the news goes gaga
& our brains turn to mud?
As the neighbors turn on their TVs
& cultivate their fears
I’m going to come up with a plan
and destroy museum tears
Cause humanity is aching
It’s been dying all this time
since Columbus called it Trinidad
& colonized our minds
We’ll be watching our funerals
our criminal descent
into the land of amusement
& some kind of weird gaga death

*

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Limits of the Imagination…

An actor who auditioned for my latest film Octavia: Elegy for a Vampire just balked at our offer to participate in the film (I offered a part!) The actor interrogated my partner: “How much and when will I get paid?  What are you shooting with?  And what do you intend to do with the film after its made?”

We wanted to reply to this lost soul:

“We’ll pay you what that silly television show paid you to shake your ass for a bunch of rich gangsters in “cool” 1920’s gear. Sound good?  We’re shooting with AK-47’s (we no longer believe in cameras). And we intend to hide the film in an insane asylum until it burns down and someone can find it in 50 years.”

I have no idea what has happened to the Actor.  There is a strange new breed of actors that have come of age in the new millennium, actors reared on proxy, business kits, the internet, American Idol, and marketing showcases.  Actors have always been a strange, insecure, odd breed of artists.  They are, actually, the odd man out even among artists themselves – because their art is inextricably bound up with social systems, the zeitgeist, the ebb and flow of capitalism and getting ahead, etc.  And I understand this.  It is a harsh world and one must be crazy to be an actor.  The rejection, the disappointment, the nutjobs who manhandle your career, the evil back-stabbers who thwart a good audition, the jealous types who make sure you never get a good role or opportunity — I know it happens.  I’ve seen it.  I’ve experienced it.  But that’s also why I stepped back and away from the tide of Show Business and why, at the tender early age of 21, decided completely that mainstream Entertainment Industrial complex wasn’t for me.

I have no tolerance for actors who aren’t artists and I really don’t know what to say to actors who actually care about Hollywood.  I look and crave for the actor who wants and NEEDS to act – to save his or her soul.  Not to feed a mortgage or dignify his parents greed or justify their own egotistical cravings.

I have swept floors and worked in warehouses in 100 degree weather in the middle of New Jersey to feed my own habit as an artist and to ensure that I could remain true to myself.  I don’t judge others who do what they have to do – either for money or for the proclivities of their soul — but I cannot for the life of me understand the sad pathetic insulting requisitions and inquiries made by actors who APPROACHED ME and submitted to our ULTRA-LOW BUDGET SAG film only to try to play “Mr Hollywood Big-Shot” when we offered them a part.  

For all you lost in the wilderness:

I am Dennis Leroy Kangalee.  I am not Darren Aronofsky.  I am not Steve McQueen.  I am not Kelly Reichardt.  I do not say this to disparage these talented individuals, I say this to clarify:  even if I had the support and access to money that they do, I’d still make my films the way I have always approached cinema and theater and I would still be only concerned with expressing my own madness and trying to find some peace within.

Actors are emotional athletes.  They should not be Corporate Soldiers.  If your concern is “what camera” a director is shooting with and NOT about the character or the ideas of the director, etc – then something is wrong with you.

There is utter transparency with my work, my reputation as someone who has NEVER EVER sold out, bought in, copped out, or stood down. I’ve had my work screened in Burkina Faso, Paris, Berlin, and New Orleans when the establishment at the NY TIMES refused to acknowledge my work or that of any other ‘African American art’-filmmaker’s work. I am a man who has wiped down counters and cleaned fridges in order to pay my actors, musicians, etc.  And I am proud of that.  And I take great offense when I post what kind of union film this is (they are even lucky I am dealing with a such a corrupt organization such as SAG), and yet get treated like my work is not as “important” as the mainstream independents’ is.  My work is actually more important. And, frankly, we need directors and writers and actors and producers who challenge ALL status-quos and try to make films that are less like a real estate deal…and more like a poem. Here’s my suggestion: When you walk into an audition and ask Spike Lee or Martin Scorsese what they intend to do with their films and get a response, then I’ll reconsider my righteousness.

But only a little.

*

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