Editor's note: In consideration of all the conversation about Bill Gunn's "Ganja & Hess," given that it's been officially revealed that Spike Lee's "Da Sweet Bloof of Jesus" is a remake of that film, I thought this write-up of a film Gunn made before "Ganja & Hess," 1970s "Stop," was worth revisiting, even if only to introduce you to Gunn's other work.
As I have said before, the 1970’s were the greatest period of filmmaking ever. Boundaries were broken, all sorts of taboos were being smashed and filmmakers had more freedom to do whatever they wanted than they ever had before.
On top of that, film studios were desperately looking for anything to pry people away from their TV sets at home and go to see a film. So why not give them something that they couldn’t get on TV - namely sex and violence? And studios were more open to take risks with regards to subject, matter since no one knew what was going to be a hit. Could a film like John Borrman's Deliverance or Ken Russell's The Devils be made today? Not hardly.
So it wasn’t all that surprising when Warner Bros backed Bill Gunn to make his provocative film "Stop" in 1970, making him only the second black film director ever to make a film for a major film studio. The first being Gordon Parks when he made his semi-autobiographical film The Learning Tree also for Warner Bros, which was released in 1969.
And like Parks on "Tree," "Stop" was also Gunn’s first ever film as film director, and was pretty much a one man band, not only directing the film but he also wrote it, was co-producer and was even the film’s casting director, selecting Marlene Clark, who’s the only black actor in the film for one of four starring roles, after Gunn saw her in Hal Ashby’s United Artists film The Landlord, which Gunn wrote.
The film was pretty much ahead of time, or perhaps more accurately of its time, dealing with two married couples who form a foursome while on a extended vacation in Puerto Rico in the house of the brother of the one husbands, who lost his house after he murdered his wife.
The mathematical possibilities of all those couplings with the requisite sex and nudity in "Stop" got the film an X rating from the MPAA (the equivalent to today’s NC-17 rating). Though. keep in mind that. during the early 70’s, an X rating for film wasn’t the kiss of death that it later became after the rating became associated with porn films. And second, we’re talking about a film made some 44 years ago, and what would be considered X rated and shocking back then, would seem very tame to our jaded, seen-it-all eyes today.
However, the film, despite all the new permissiveness back then, was too much for Warners to handle, and the studio recut the film and then shelved it, not even releasing it to theaters.
No doubt the whole experience was a bitter disappointment for the incredibly talented multihyphenate Gunn, who was not only a director, but also a playwright, novelist and film and television writer, stage producer, film TV and stage actor who passed away too soon at the age of 54 in 1989, from encephalitis, the day before the premiere of what was his last play, "The Forbidden City" at the Public Theater in New York.
As a result, when he returned to filmmaking, it was totally independently, on his own terms, and he created a true cult classic, the horror film Ganja & Hess - also with Marlene Clark - which we have written about on more than one occasion on S&A (HERE).
Unfortunately the film was, like "Stop," taken out of his hands and recut, and only recently has been restored to Gunn’s original vision and on blu-ray as well. And it’s the film that Spike Lee has, more or less, done a remake of for his new film "Da Blood of Jesus."
But "Stop" has hardly been seen, except for very rare exceptions here and there, such as one screening at the Whitney Museum of Art in N.Y. in 1989 after Gunn’s death. There was talk that, years ago, it was released, perhaps under a different title, on a bootleg VHS by some small video label, but finding a copy has proved to be impossible. It’s one of those rare cult films that no one has ever seen and is just getting by on its reputation.
However, it turns out that Warner Home Video had, in fact, remastered the film, and had plans to release it last year on their DVD-on-demand specialty label Warner Archive.
Well, that is, they were, until, according to a Warner Archive spokesman: “We were getting close to a release when plans came to a (no pun intended) dead stop due to lack of proper documentation internally that would allow us to release this film. Until we are able to resolve these issues, we are on hold."
And what are those issues? Once again, according to the spokesman: “a lack of necessary information in corporate files to confirm clearances. Nothing likely to happen until that is resolved. Very disappointing."
So, evidently, there still are plans in the works to release the film on Warner Archive DVD, once they get this matter involving the rights to the film all straightened out.
Until then, it will remain one of cinema's great mysteries.