The unstated thesis of Bill Gunn’s impressionistic vampire masterpiece Ganja & Hess doesn’t concern vampirism at all, but rather a crossroads of black American identity. Through associative montage linking the characters with ornate, even precious Western art objects, Gunn depicts a contemporary black upper class identity premised on the performance of fixed class roles. Vampirism here is a regression to African tribal identity, brought about by being stabbed with a ceremonial African dagger. The crisis brought on by the recognition of non-western selfhood drives the afflicted to a bloodlust that resembles addiction. The film’s narrator describes blood as a form of truth, and states that by becoming addicted to blood, the protagonist has become “addicted to truth.” The truth that blood represents is the essential selfhood, the undeniable identity intrinsic to the flesh. Blood, then, is racial self-awareness. After being vampirized, characters are beset by visions of themselves lost amid the Serengeti grasslands. These visions provoke an identity crisis that leads one character to seek out the black church whose traditions attempt to synthesize Western and African ritual forms. But this hybrid tradition does not lead to salvation, but annihilation for Gunn’s Africanized Americans. Ganja and Hess is an uneasy film that seeks and does not achieve resolution, a mirror on a culture whose identity is caught in a tragic protean chaos. It is among the most beautiful, disquieting, and profound films of the American New Wave.
Actress Marlene Clark was working as a fashion model before making her film debut with a small part in For the Love of Ivy. She appeared in the following films — Ganja & Hess, Slaughter, The Baron, and The Beast Must Die. Clark also had a recurring role as Lamont Sanford’s fiancee on Sanford and Son.