Bill Gunn and Ishmael Reed’s Personal Problems, which will have its first U.S. theatrical run this week, is a crude, clunky relic made during a time when home-video cameras were newfangled pieces of high-tech wizardry the size of a small child. It was originally shot on tape in 1980, on ¾-inch tube-based cameras with automatic irises. Especially when the camera panned or zoomed on “hot spots” of light, it occasionally made images or the people on screen blurry every time movement happened — known as “ghosting” or “smearing.” That makes this production often feel like a trippy dream you’re intruding on. That feeling is compounded by the surreal moments Gunn has conceived: One scene has a woman reciting poetry to her date while a dude in the background practices karate moves.
For these rebellious, African-American filmmakers, home-video technology was a new way to get their story out there. Mostly conceived by shit-stirring man of letters Reed and directed by Gunn, the late actor and playwright who directed the cult vampire flick Ganja & Hess, Problems is a DIY middle finger to all those powerful, pale-skinned white folk back in Tinseltown who weren’t trying to make positive, sympathetic stories about black folk back then nor to give African-American writers and directors the opportunity to create those stories. (In an interview in the book Conversations with Ishmael Reed, Reed claimed Gunn, who also wrote the screenplays for The Landlord and the Muhammad Ali biopic The Greatest — the latter he didn’t get a writing credit on — was blacklisted in Hollywood for daring to demand that he get paid just as much as white screenwriters.)
Thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Reed and Gunn snatched up some cameras, corralled a bunch of black actors and whipped up this lengthy “experimental soap opera” about working-class black folk in Harlem. (It was eventually shown on public TV stations in New York and San Francisco in 1982.) Problems’ main focus is on Johnnie Mae Brown (Vertamae Grosvenor), a nurse who, despite her strong-willed demeanor, is going through the middle-age blues. Even though she’s got a husband (the Petey Greene-looking Walter Cotton, also the film’s producer) at home, she’s having an affair with a smooth-ass musician (Sam Waymon), whose mellifluous tunes and dapper charm distract Brown from her stressful existence.
It goes without saying that Problems has, you know, problems. Apart from the visual roughness and the occasional filmmaking blunder (you can plainly see a boom mic in one shot), the movie can be something of a narrative mess. The first half is a scattered compendium of scenes that bounce back and forth in time, a mundane, meandering collage of black life. Reed has said he wanted the mostly improvised film to feel like Brechtian theater. But it aesthetically resembles the rambling, unpolished awkwardness of John Cassavetes movies. (The film’s last 12 minutes, where a bunch of guys drunkenly meander around New York, almost looks like it was lifted from Cassavetes’ lost, melancholy gem Husbands.) The second half, which I assume was shot a year later (the copyright date is 1981) is not only visually cleaner, but more linear, especially when a death in Brown’s family has several kinfolk getting really real during a wake.
But I guess that’s ultimately what Reed and Gunn wanted to provide: a view of African-Americans that’s messy, complicated, dramatic and, most importantly, honest. It’s also a fascinating artifact of black people getting together and making their own art — mainly because they wanted to see themselves properly represented onscreen. While Black Panther recently demonstrated that black folk can create an awesome, successful blockbuster if they’re just given the chance, Personal Problems showed long ago that black people don’t need white folks’ permission to make a substantial, cinematic product. Just give us a camera, and we’ll come up with some interesting shit.