The question of ”being” as a person who has been racialized as Black, minoritized as Black, and colonized as Black is a generative one. What does it mean to “be” as Black is a question that has been stretched far and wide by gracious contemporary thinkers like Saidiya Hartman. It is also a question wrapped up in the long legacy of Pan African thought. Ultimately, it is an evergreen question, one that is being asked and answered at this very hour—in the middle of uprisings, in the middle of toppling statues, in the middle of imagining new futures. And the running thread through this question is: how and where are we finding each other? In what crevices and overlaps are Black people finding each other, divesting from whiteness—and in that, finding our own lush and unending humanity?
Two Black filmmakers of the late 1960s and 1970s, Bill Gunn and Med Hondo, asked this question through the convention of experimental film. Bill Gunn and Med Hondo—Gunn from the U.S., and Hondo from Mauritania—produced work that has informed parts of Black film canons. Gunn’s 1973 film Ganja & Hess and Hondo’s Soleil O in 1967 have several poignant shared frequencies about Black experiences, and utilize the themes of exile, rejection, and assimilation, while bending time and constructs of singularity. In many ways, both directors made work that is immense in production and immense in intimacy—in their ability to speak with Black audiences.
The saliency these particular works have lies in their capacity to have a conversation with us, with Black audiences—to pull us in, and, in the best cases, hold us tight. Soleil O’s narrative gives a glimpse into the specific and intimate kinds of racism in France, where the conditions of Frenchness are elusive at best, and non-existent at worst. This film can show those of us who live in settler colonies or reside in colonizing countries what our reflection is, explicitly and implicitly, as an individual and as a mounting collective. Ganja & Hess subverts the mechanisms of “the Other”—a category that traditionally sees vampires and other creatures, as scholar Shannon Winnubst points out, as allegories of evil, often taking the shape of racism or homophobia—and rather puts us, Black audiences, in the driver’s seat. Ganja and Hess’ tenuous relationship with each other, the world, and the other realms of existence at play evokes the deeper and sometimes wordless ideas, desires, grievances, clarity, and emptiness that comes from belonging as people descendent from american (lowercase intentional) chattel slavery. These films ask us about the most naturalized aspects of our lives—ask us, “What does this really mean?”—allowing Black audiences to own and claim our experiences in a world that has consistently insisted otherwise.
Soleil O and director Med Hondo are often regarded as important staples within the African cinematic canon. Soleil O loosely follows the story of a Mauritanian immigrant trying to make a life in Paris, France. Such a feat proves to be incredibly strenuous, as displayed through a fractured arrangement of scenes of liberalism, racism, existential crisis, fetishization, and everything in between. Aboubakar Sanogo, assistant professor at Carleton University, in writing about Soleil O, points out that the story is one of history, told through the representational usage of several characters in the film. While there is a main character of sorts, this character stands in for a collective, and comes to broadly represent the Black immigrant experience in Paris. This expression of being is in harmony with the West Indian social philosopher Frantz Fanon, from whom Hondo drew great inspiration, and his conceptualizations of Blackness within the white world: where we are “objects amongst objects” or where our bodies demand an explanation in every interaction we have, and “Negro” is the prefix for your name or title. In this way, it is not just Soleil O’s nameless main character who gets kicked out of establishment after establishment while seeking a job—a montage spliced with a sudden cut away static scene of a sign that reads “Beware of the Black-Arab Peril;” it is a representation of the way Black life was, and arguably still is, viewed in France. Additionally, the white characters in the film are recycled and reappear throughout the film; these symbolic characters signify the malleability of time, and reveal a narrative of coloniality and policing of the “deviant” body that continues on regardless of who is standing in as individual people.
Ganja & Hess
Bill Gunn’s now classic 1973 “experimental horror” film, Ganja & Hess, was birthed out of a defiance. Gunn was tasked with making a Blaxploitation film, something that was Black by definition of white consumption (think Blacula or Superfly). However, Gunn instead made an avant-garde horror film that grapples with cultural identity questions surrounding Christianity and African spirituality in the United States.
Unlike Soleil O, Ganja & Hess has a slightly more formalized story structure, yet still deviates from conventional ideas of time through abstract scenes, highly hallucinogenic aesthetics, and moments that take one out of the physical world and expand into the other worlds and ways of living. The film centers on the wealthy and established Dr. Hess Green, an anthropologist who, at the beginning of the film, is stabbed by his new assistant, George Meda (played by Gunn himself), with an ancient African dagger (country unspecified). However, instead of dying, Hess emerges immortal, with a need and taste for blood. The story deepens when Hess takes a wife, Ganja, whom he also turns immortal. While the two are undead—stealing and killing for blood—they are symbolically connected to Africa. They are also unhappy and haunted in this state, guilty and unfulfilled; their only release is through repentment within the Black church.
Gunn demonstrates the limitations of binaries through the inclusion of the church, where the constructed choices for Black americans are too often either a demonized and demon-filled connection to the continent of Africa, or the absolute devotion to Christianity in absence of Africa. Gunn uses reoccurring dreams and meditative moments that embody either “Africa” or “Christianity” as vehicles of this juxtaposition, allowing Gunn to reconstruct a means of remembering and living where Black life and Black history happens in more than one particular place, continent or realm. Contemporary literature, like that of Akwaeke Emezi, similarly centers African world views. Through their semi-autobiographical novel, Freshwater, largely focusing on embodiment as well as their 2018 essay for The Cut, Emezi affirms that there are boundless and intricate realities within our indigenous worldviews.
Exile in One’s Body
These films overlap in their conversations about exile, assimilation and rejection, as both are set within majority white countries—one settler colony, the U.S., and one extractive colonizer, France.
In Ganja & Hess, the sense of exile in one’s body is expressed through the impossible embodiment of what are often considered opposed cultural and religious identities: an indigenous, or African, spirituality and Christianity. From the onset of the film, there is an array of Christian imagery contrasted with African spirituality. Within the first five minutes of the film, we are told that Hess was stabbed with an ancient “diseased” African artifact three times: “One for the god the father, one for the son, and one for the Holy Ghost.” Following the narrated introduction, we see the opening sequence, a montage of European sculptures of pain, blues music, and the title of the film, which uses the H in “Hess” as the stem for a cross, signaling the collision of opposed worlds within the film.
In the first act of the film, “The Victim,” we are introduced to Dr. Hess, his condition of being un-dead, and his new assistant, George Meda. George meets Hess at his mansion and the two have a tenuous evening together, filled with forced and unfulfilling conversations. Then the film cuts to one of its first abstract and recurring scenes, which becomes a kind of calling card for another realm, another consciousness. A mother-type figure, wearing what could be considered an African style headdress, walks through an open field while chanting music plays. When the scene ends, it appears to have been a dream. Hess goes outside to find Meda perched on a tree with a noose in the frame. Hess talks him down, and the two go in for the night. However, the two men then attack one another—Meda takes a dagger within his reach and stabs Hess three times (the father, son, and holy ghost). Following the murder, we then find Meda typing a letter addressed to “the Black male children:”
To the Black male children. Philosophy is a prison. It disregards the uncustomary things about you. The result of individual thought is accruable only to itself. There is a dreadful need in man to teach. It destroys the pure instinct to learn. The navigator learns from the stars. The stars teach nothing. The sun opens the mind and sheds light on the flowers. The eyes shame the pages of any book. Gesture destroys concept. Involvement mortifies vanity. You are the despised of the Earth. That is as if you were water in the desert. To be adored on this planet is to be a symbol of success. And you must not succeed on any terms. Because life is endless. You are as nameless as a flower. You are the child of Venus. And her natural affection is lust. She will touch your belly with her tongue, but you must not suffer in it, because love is all there is. And you are a cannon fodder in its defense.
Shortly after typing of this letter, Meda dies from suicide, via a gunshot to the chest, perhaps motivated by the conclusion he came to about the impossibility of Black life. Here Gunn reintroduces the leitmotif of the chant. Hess comes in, awakened from supposed death, to begin drinking Meda’s blood. This scene is cut with scenes of Jesus’ crucifixion and a cross floating in the tub, suggesting that Hess’ drinking is sacrilegious. He is drinking the wrong kind of blood.
It is in the final chapter of the film, “Letting Go,” that Hess decides to find a way to end his life—to end the exile he feels as an undead person. Hess goes to the Black church where his personal driver preaches and gives himself over to God, experiencing a deeply cathartic moment where he enters the church weary and stumbling, falling to his knees as the preacher holds his hand over Hess’s head. As Hess leaves the church, the camera uses a birds eye shot, signaling some ascension. In this way, Gunn poses a question of cultural identity and meaning—in what ways are the things that have shaped Black american life tainted? How and where can one start when it comes to making sense of descending from uprooting? In what direction are the new roots growing—and are they growing towards an expansive and non-conditional dignity?
Soleil O answers some of Gunn’s questions, but continues to raise more. As we follow the main character through the streets of Paris, the society performs its rejection of Blackness both implicitly and explicitly. Most prominently similar to Ganja & Hess is Soleil O’s use of religion. In the beginning of the film, we see an opening monologue of nine Black men sitting down, looking at the viewer directly through the camera, and telling us that before colonialism “We had our own civilization. We made our own tools and cooking utensils…we had our own literature, our own legal terms, our own religion, our own science, and our own methods of education.” Once the monologue concludes, the men are ushered into a baptismal room. The men begin to ask for forgiveness for speaking in their mother tongues: “Forgive me, Father, for speaking Bambara. For speaking Creole. For speaking Lari.” After the apologies go around the room, the priest asks to “make room for the Spirit of Christ” and for evil spirits to leave these beings. While there is no immigration process that requires an official baptism, Hondo points to the way this process can turn into an internalized shaming of Blackness. Hondo manifests this shame, this traditional debasement, in a pageant-like ceremony.
The pageantry continues in the colonial military fighting scene, as all of the men symbolically die in fighting each other for space, visibility, and a place within France.
Hondo’s film speaks to Gunn’s in a way that conveys what can feel like the impossibility of Blackness within a white and violent world. Hondo points to what Maya Angelou pointed to just a handful of years later: what a veneer of survival can look like, and why so many of us develop these veneers in the first place.
The strongest aspects of Soleil O are the ways in which white supremacy, paternalism, and fetishization are personified. Two scenes of the film take place in a classroom, where we are met with the full cast of Black men once more. It’s in the classroom that they are being “taught” French—the language many of them speak as a result of colonialism—through the rudimentary and paternal means of dolls and hardware items as tools to learn vocabulary words. These “lessons” represent the lessons the main character learns in the street, but they stretch to Black experiences to this day of being undermined at every moment—of existing in a world where white people really believe they are the teachers of the world, where growth and safety is dependent upon appeasing white (supremacist) feelings.
Inside Demanding Out
Lastly, both films explore the theme of rejection through experimental conventions and the use of a scream. Significant screams arrive at different points in each film, but both serve as moments of great narrative and emotional significance.
Ganja & Hess utilizes a scream midway though the film. Immediately following her first kill as a vampire, Ganja unleashes an intense scream in an open field. She screams out with blood down her cheek. Within the bounds of a traditional horror convention, her scream takes on other meanings. Ganja is horrified at her existence and at what she has done—a rejection of herself, initially, but also a scream of pain at leaving the mortal world (the world of “normalcy”) and transitioning into an ancient and unending universe. The scream is an existential one. Much of the horror of Ganja & Hess lies in feeling the relentless misplacement whiteness puts on one’s sense of being and ability to be.
Soleil O also utilizes a scream, and it becomes the culmination of the main character’s experiences. The main character screams out at the end of the film, having perhaps gone mad during the duration of the film, one dehumanizing and delegitimizing experience after the other. Rejection can be seen in obvious and explicit terms: the denial of jobs, being told to go back to where one came from, white liberalism, and the fetishization disguised as “interest” from white partners. The scream of the main character occurs at the end of the film, and it, too, is one of rejection and conclusion. The scream serves as the only outlet to express oneself, to command an existence that has felt denied at every moment.
Black British novelist Zadie Smith is quoted as saying “All I want to do with my work is to take words like black, British or woman and stretch them so they’re big enough and I can live in them comfortably.” Med Hondo and Bill Gunn’s work is perhaps of this same ethos, predating Zadie, as they took mediums and stretched them far and wide to wrap their arms around a specific semblance of a Black experience, one that contains infinite expressions. In telling our stories and asking questions around our being, more questions and answers are indeed generated, along with a potential that, too, exists in many places, continents, and realms.