'Personal Problems': Film Review

An accessible experiment made at the dawn of the video era.
3/30/2018

A nearly unseen 1980 work by 'Ganja & Hess' director Bill Gunn chronicles the stresses on a black couple in Manhattan.

A married black couple in circa 1980 New York struggles to maintain domestic harmony in Personal Problems, a lost drama by Ganja & Hess director Bill Gunn being given its first proper release (after nearly four decades) by Kino Lorber. That one-sentence synopsis, however factually accurate, hardly suggests the scope of this experimental, challenging, nearly three-hour film shot on crude video gear with a surprising group of artistic polymaths. Coming a few years after Spike Lee's very strange G&H homage, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, the release should help draw attention to Gunn, the late writer-actor-director already hailed in some quarters as a marginalized visionary.

The film was shot by Robert Polidori, who these days is an acclaimed photographer whose giant images spill over with detail. What a difference a few decades make. Here, the DP faces all the aesthetic limitations of early videotape, and seems to be deliberately avoiding compositions whose attractiveness might distract viewers from the prosaic action. Videotape does, however, enable Gunn's patient approach, in which scenes are allowed to run on for much longer than they would in a mainstream film. At times — as in a hospital scene where nurse Johnnie Mae Brown (Verta Mae Grosvenor) keeps emergency room visitors calm despite a patience-testing intake process — this plays like a verite documentary; other sequences, like a lunch where Johnnie Mae gossips with two girlfriends, feel like time capsules of social mores.

Johnnie Mae is the focus of the film's first half, as a fragmented chronology observes her new affair with Raymon (Nina Simone's brother Sam Waymon), a musician whose piano-and-voice performances recall the softer side of Gil Scott-Heron. Facing gruff indifference at home from husband Charles (Walter Cotton), she finds precious hours to spend with Ramon and to tease her friends with clues about the relationship. When she isn't at work or with Raymon, she's quarreling with Charles about taking in two temporary house guests in addition to his aged father: Her brother and sister-in-law, penniless and in trouble with the law, prove to be terrible roommates, and Part One ends with Johnnie Mae blowing her top, laying down the law about shared household chores and common courtesy.

Part Two starts with a 10-minute reworking of what we've just seen, complicating our sympathy with Johnnie Mae and reorienting the narrative to give Charlie more attention. His father dies, and — after a painful-to-watch party scene involving Johnnie Mae and Raymon — most of the rest of the film follows the rituals of mourning: long, awkward family reunions at the wake; an epic drinking session by the men of the family.

Despite all appearances, Personal Problems is indeed moving toward a fairly conventional end. But along the way, it observes much of its era through the corners of its eyes. A pair of memorable scenes find the film's screenwriter, poet-novelist-songwriter Ishmael Reed, playing a black Republican whose values are assailed by a white radical (percussionist Kip Hanrahan, part of the filmmaking team and founder of the invaluable American Clave record label). The latter, with a huge chip on his shoulder, argues that Reed's character is trying to make himself like his oppressors. He isn't exactly wrong (Reed's character has evolved a bit the next time we meet him), but boy, does he come off like a jerk, surrounded by black people who were hoping just to have a drink or two and listen to some music.

That's as close as we get to overt politics in a movie that, after all, is about personal problems. But in its sometimes wry, sometimes weary account of this thorny melodrama, Gunn's film says more than it seems to about race, class, and getting by in a nation entering the Reagan years.

Production company: Reed/Cannon Productions
Distributor: Kino Lorber
Cast: Verta Mae Grosvenor, Walter Cotton, Jim Wright, Sam Waymon, Thommie Blackwell, Andrea W. Hunt, Margo Williams, Michele Wallace
Director-Editor: Bill Gunn
Screenwriter: Ishmael Reed
Producer: Walter Cotton
Director of photography: Robert Polidori
Composer: Carman Moore
Venue: Metrograph

163 minutes