In his novel All the Rest Have Died (1964), about his experience as a young actor in New York, Bill Gunn wrote, “I was always only slightly aware of the injustice the Black artist suffers while trying to create in a white world. But I had been enraged and close to insanity because of injustices done to myself and to others in American society, realizing finally that I could not function in such a state without committing murder. I proceeded to use personal ambition as a protection against what would eventually destroy me: my passionate distaste for such things as stupidity and poverty of self-respect.” It was this distaste that made him unfit for the commercial film industry, where for decades Black actors have been subjected to the stupidity of producers and directors who assign roles that challenge their self-respect.
Gunn did reach the top, though. In the late sixties and early seventies, he was a Black screenwriter in a field that is still largely white. He was the second Black director in Hollywood, after Gordon Parks. He wrote The Angel Levine, starring Zero Mostel and Harry Belafonte, and appeared in movies with Natalie Wood, Robert Vaughn, Yul Brynner, and Joanne Woodward. But after making his 1970 directorial debut, Stop!, which included explicit scenes of same-sex intercourse and was never released by Warner Bros., Gunn’s career in Hollywood entered its decline.
I was attracted to his work because, unlike some of those who demean themselves by accepting roles that cater to a crossover audience, he was picky about how Hollywood used his talent. For producers, too picky. They demanded that he coast along with the familiar roles that have been assigned to Black people since the beginning of film: anti-Black propaganda disguised as entertainment. Therefore, he was considered difficult.
Before Robert Townsend and Spike Lee satirized the situation of Black actors in Hollywood in their films Hollywood Shuffle (1987) and Bamboozled (2000)—a situation that could apply to television and Broadway as well—Bill Gunn wrote his protests. When Sam Dodd, the character who stands in for Gunn in his 1981 novel Rhinestone Sharecropping, suggests to a sleazy producer that there might be a role for a Black actress in his movie, the producer snaps, “It’s not a porno film.” Apparently, audiences have an insatiable appetite for Black actors who are portrayed as pimps and prostitutes.
Black actresses still play maids and prostitutes in film and television, and though there is more work for Black performers now, Hollywood is as segregated behind the camera as it was when Gunn struggled there. As PopMatters reported this year, UCLA’s 2019 diversity report found that “even though Hollywood is responding to the success of Black-cast films and series by hiring more actors of color, the underrepresentation behind the camera makes clear that many of these minority characters are being written by white writers.” This explains the offensive, often disgusting roles that Black actors and actresses are hired to perform.The article also notes:
According to the Directors Guild of America, in 2017 (the year Get Out premiered), just five percent of the 237 film directors were African American, while 91 percent were white . . . Overall, Black writers accounted for less than 5% of the 3,817 writers across the shows, despite Black people making up 13% of the population.
In Hollywood, Gunn was hampered by third parties interloping on his vision. This led to confrontations with producers that, on one occasion, turned violent. Their aim was to comfort white audiences with the usual Black stereotypes that entertain them and reinforce their superstitions regarding Black life. As we learn from accounts in Rhinestone Sharecropping, Gunn was the butt of jokes and a hapless whipping boy for the same vulgar Hollywood types who were exposed by the scandals involving Harvey Weinstein. They called Gunn “blackbird” and other racist names. Stop!, which had a million-dollar budget, brought him only $12,000 and left him in debt. The producer, David Begelman, and an associate skimmed $300,000 from the film’s budget and made a naive Gunn take the fall by setting up a bogus company and installing him as president. He objected to the final cut of Stop! and was asked to return the $25,000 advance on a three-picture deal, with interest.
Producers and critics didn’t know what to make of his second film, the masterpiece Ganja & Hess. It was a distinctive take on the vampire genre, and it confused audiences because the Black characters were so refined. Hess—played by Duane Jones, star of George A. Romero’s horror classic Night of the Living Dead—is not a drug dealer but an anthropologist living in a swell house on the Hudson. Instead of getting blood in the usual crude ways, he finds ingenious methods of obtaining his supply. Ganja, a vamp played by Marlene Clark, is surprised that he possesses a house full of art and music ranging from early blues to classical. At first, she mistakes him for the servant of a white man. Though she finds out that Hess has murdered her husband, she ends up marrying him.
Barriers were broken in the film, including sexual ones. Ganja has love scenes with Hess and a male dinner guest (Richard Harrow) that include toe fetishism, which many in the early 1970s would have found perverse. The movie ends with the guest, now among the undead, displaying his genitalia, a rare image in movies of that era.
I can imagine the producers cringing while watching the final cut. How would they make a profit off this art film? They had wanted a Blaxploitation movie, and Gunn seems to make mocking reference to that in one scene, giving those producers the finger. They probably missed the dig.
American critics ignored the honor that the film received at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973. Gunn expressed his frustrations in a letter to the New York Timesthat year. It opens with a challenge: “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.” Clearly angry, he called a white critic’s treatment of Ganja & Hess criminal, noting the critic had stayed for twenty minutes and still wrote a review of the entire film.
Hollywood’s assessment of Gunn is summed up by an outburst from a crass bottom feeder in Rhinestone Sharecropping:
I told them this guy writes the best goddamn dialogue in Hollywood today. Black or white. But he’s got to write so people can understand him. He’s got a lesson to learn and nobody’s gonna learn it for him. You gonna be a highbrow, you gonna be left out.
On the Margins: Todd Haynes’s Poison
This touchstone of nineties independent filmmaking is a reminder that true queer cinema is about taking risks and breaking taboos—an increasingly rare thing in our corporatized entertainment culture.
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