Actor Duane Jones deserves an accolade for his work on screen, having made his mark in zombie folklore as Ben for George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, he would once again appear in another significant feature five years later. Ganja and Hess would be a vital and symbolic feature in American-African culture had initially been greenlit by producers Quentin Kelly and Jack Jordan as a response to replicate the formula generated by Blaxploitation feature Blacula. Thankfully the director charged with creating Ganja and Hess had a more sophisticated tale in mind, and one that would mark an integral voice for African-Americans in the celluloid world. Bill Gunn was most noted as a playwright, novelist and actor, would produce a feature that examined the impact of Christianity on African culture in a modern setting, infusing gothic elements as its guise.
This vampire tale would centre on Dr. Hess Green (Jones), a black anthropologist, with money to guide his research into an ancient African nation of blood drinkers. Hess’ path takes a dark turn however when he attempts to save the life of George Meda (played by Gunn) who flips proceedings by stabbing Hess with a ceremonial dagger and commits suicide. Hess survives the ordeal but takes up the practice of his studies, drinking the blood of Meda, transforming him into a vampire.
Ganja and Hess is also a character piece that is told with no clear drive from its protagonists, not necessarily guided by love or power, but by their ancestral history, tying them to their roots, shackled by their past, yet striving to break free. This is perfectly captured by the closing scene on the film when a young man is revived in his new frame and leaps gallantly in his birth suit (a symbol of rebirth) towards the camera.
The journey on the way to the climax fluctuates through the actions of Hess, and poignantly the arrival of Ganga (Marlene Clark – (Night of the Cobra Woman), Meda’s estranged wife who becomes entangled in Hess’ affairs, succumbing to vampiric charms, the two then entice others into their spiritual wake.
These activities are formed in juxtaposition to the Christian perspective, led by the films’ narrator and head of the Christian church Rev. Luther Williams (Sam Waymon), a man who strives to lure Hess towards his values. With Ganja carrying this heavy burden following Hess’ demise, this balance of perspectives is delicately poised and Gunn leads the audience to surmise their own thoughts on which way, (if any) that the pendulum should swing.
- Saul Muerte.