Examining Personal Problems

Rooney Elmi

Aug 13, 2018

Image from the film Personal Problems

On Friday and Saturday, August 17-18, the Wex presents a rare opportunity to see Personal Problems on the big screen. The experimental drama, made in 1980, was originally intended for public television and is only now receiving a theatrical run. SVLLY(wood) publisher Rooney Elmi shares more about the work below.

Working with a minuscule budget of $40,000 in Harlem, New York, two underground titans in African American storytelling banded together to make a landmark epic that would go unseen for nearly 40 years. Thanks to a recent restoration, it can assume its rightful stance within the American independent film canon.

Personal Problems is a nearly three-hour “meta-soap opera” revolving around a ensemble led by a Harlem nurse, Johnnie Mae Brown, played by anthropologist and writer Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor. With disarming sincerity, the filmmakers follow Johnnie, her husband, her best friends, and her lover, a jazz musician played by Sam Waymon, through a blistering, authentic saga of the black working class milieu.

It was conceived by Ishmael Reed in the shadow of the Blaxploitation craze of the 1970s and '80s. The Southern iconoclastic poet and acclaimed author of 1972’s satirical Mumbo Jumbo aimed to create a long form dramatic serial of everyday black life and found a devoted partner in director Bill Gunn. After making the art-horror landmark, Ganja and Hess, Gunn—who now posthumously enjoys cult status—received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to finally make this run-and-gun production a reality.

Originally available as a series of audio cassettes in 1977 and later adapted to a two-volume video program for PBS through Gunn’s visionary prowess, Problems was eventually shown on public TV stations in the Bay Area and New York in the early '80s. The work currently exists as a hybrid between video art and Brechtian theater, exemplifying the radical avant-garde essence of two seminal black artists and the collaborative effort of their cast and crew.

Its lush, sporadically captured video cinematography, shot by renowned photographer Robert Polidori on Sony three-quarter-inch U-Matic cameras, builds a diasporic bridge between black American cinema and a video format popularized by African film industries, most noteworthy Nollywood and Somaliwood (hailing from Nigeria and Somalia, respectfully). The advent of video cameras, followed by more contemporary inventions like camera phones and online streaming, democratized cinematic resources and ushered in a new dawn for filmmakers—an opportunity to access a bigger piece of the metaphorical pie.

Yet Problems became part of the silenced vanguard for DIY experimentalism. Unimaginative presumptions about artistic merit and bigotry still rendered the ivory towers of film and television inaccessible for this seminal portrait of blue collar existence. Nonetheless, the trailblazing legacy of this two-part experimentation could be seen across the pond in the audacious oeuvre of the London-based Black Audio Film Collective with their lyrical nonfiction hybrids, which also premiered on British public television stations years later!

Although some have argued that the discombobulated essence of Problems makes for a chaotic viewing experience (there's an infamous scene  of Johnnie Mae Brown reciting poetry to her lover as a man inexplicably performs karate moves in the foreground), even its supposed faults add to its charm. Gunn allows characters to find themselves on screen and, in part, grants performers the time and space to improvise life’s personal and professional complications.

Personal Problems has an inherent beauty that generates a nostalgic twang through its cinematic technology and it harnesses the talents of a eclectic group of black multi-hyphenates. The film also silently maneuvers as a cautionary tale to fine-tune your cultural radar for fearless contemporary creatives. Embrace the pioneering nature of revolutionary, idiosyncratic ideas and aesthetics in the now, not decades after their initial creation.