Little has been written about Bill Gunn (1934–1989), the singular actor, playwright, screenwriter, novelist, and director, even though there is so much to say about him. Those lucky enough to catch the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s essential program “Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, 1968–’86” this past February were treated to titles featuring Gunn either in front of or behind the camera (and sometimes both). In Kathleen Collins’s Losing Ground (1982), a standout of the series, Gunn, playing Victor, a painter married to philosophy professor Sara, rivets with his foxiness and magnetism. His charisma is deepened by his droll delivery: “Your husband is a genuine black success,” Victor tells his spouse early in the film, sharing the news that one of his works has just been bought by a major museum. The line has a sardonic bite, slyly underscoring Victor’s uneasiness with the qualifying black in his boast.
It is also spoken by a man who spent his life trying to expand, if not trouble, the very meaning of “genuine black success.” Gunn began his career as an actor, debuting on Broadway in 1954 in an adaptation of André Gide’s The Immoralist and making several one-off appearances on Sixties TV shows like The Outer Limits and Dr. Kildare. After becoming fed up with the roles available to him — the multihyphenate told Variety in 1964: “When a good part for a Negro actor does come along, they always offer it to Sidney Poitier. If he turns it down, they rewrite it for a white actor” — he began to write, first for the stage (Marcus in the High Grass, from 1959), then novels (1964’s All the Rest Have Died), then for film.
Largely rooted in autobiography and often centering on a divided, tortured protagonist, Gunn’s work was often savaged by the press. He wrote to the New York Times in response to the negative reviews of his Ganja & Hess (1973), a disjunctive, seductive fever dream of a vampire movie in which Gunn cast himself as the morbid assistant to Duane Jones’s courtly archaeologist and researcher of an African blood cult: “I want to say that it is a terrible thing to be a black artist in this country — for reasons too private to expose to the arrogance of white criticism.” That suffering is laid bare in Gunn’s play Black Picture Show (1975) and novel Rhinestone Sharecropping (1981), two out-of-print volumes now available in their original printing courtesy of I. Reed Books via the Film Desk (thefilmdesk.com/books), a boutique distribution company (which is run by Jake Perlin, a friend).
Produced by Joseph Papp, Black Picture Show, about a playwright/filmmaker father and his movie-director son (both stand-ins for Gunn) who are driven mad by the artistic compromises demanded of them, opened at the Vivian Beaumont Theater on January 6, 1975, and closed after 41 performances. Its short run was surely the result of noxious notices like this one, from Time magazine’s T.E. Kalem: “[Gunn] persists in what has become for some an article of faith and fallacy — that some whitey somewhere is prostituting the black brothers for gain.” By then Gunn must have grown accustomed to such obtuse, hostile responses, though I wish he had written a rejoinder as stinging as this one, from that letter to the Times: “Another critic wondered where was the race problem. If he looks closely, he will find it in his own review.”
None of his retorts, though, have quite the scalding power of his evisceration of Hollywood in the first-person roman à clef Rhinestone Sharecropping, a book inspired by Gunn’s beleaguered efforts as a screenwriter for The Greatest, the 1977 biopic of Muhammad Ali, in which the heavyweight champ stars as himself. The novel’s Gunn surrogate, Sam Dodd, is hired to script the story of the black football star Big Mike Rambow, an assignment filled with endless humiliations for the writer, whom craven, crass studio executives eventually replace with a higher-profile white scribe. (Former Hollywood blacklistee Ring Lardner Jr. has sole screenplay credit for The Greatest.)
Filled with thinly veiled accounts of Gunn’s earlier disastrous experiences with Hollywood — including that of his directing debut, Stop (1970), a partner-swapping marital drama never released by Warner Bros. — Rhinestone Sharecropping climaxes with a transcript of the producers’ cretinous comments in their final meeting with Sam before he’s axed from the Big Mike movie: “It’s a problem with the Black writer’s objectivity. The white writers have the objectivity…. About being black.” But Gunn is also tough-minded when reflecting on the concessions he — well, Sam — has made to stay employable in an industry he despises: “I vow I will get through this project even if it’s one I’m not deeply interested in…. I did not invent the Hollywood Negro, but I have had to reproduce him some five hundred times at least…. I have nearly destroyed myself with this double edge sword which is called writing Race for money.”
Later in the novel, Sam recalls the tepid critical reactions to his first stage work: “I wrote what I felt, which always lacked the sign posts that lead the average man to the ghetto….We need to hear the popping of chicken fat to tell where I was, or it was no play.” It’s a withering assessment of a culture that grants subjectivity only to some — specifically, to those who, per Rhinestone Sharecropping‘s despicable execs, “have the objectivity.”
Black Picture Show and Rhinestone Sharecropping
By Bill Gunn
From I. Reed Books