The rarely seen video project is now out from Kino Lorber.
There is a moment early on in which Personal Problems feels utterly groundbreaking; during a long outdoor sequence, three black women dine and dish about shopping, careers and their love lives. The 1980 work — called a “meta soap opera” — pre-dates shows such as Girlfriends, Living Single and Sex and the City, letting the viewer luxuriate in the true joy that these women feel chatting with each other. Such a moment is an example of what sets this project apart from films and TV of its time.
Bill Gunn (Ganja & Hess, 1973) directed the episodes of Personal Problems, with Part I out in 1980 and Part II in 1981. Part I spends time with Johnny Mae (Vertamae Grosvenor), a married nurse in the midst of a love affair with lounge singer Raymon (Sam Waymon). In the interview which opens Part I, Johnny Mae talks about her home state, her work at the hospital, and her poetry. There’s a dreaminess and optimism to her character that seems to dissipate the more time we spend in her meandering story.
After a 9 minute recap, Part II plays as less cohesive than the first portion. The narrative largely dwells on Johnny Mae’s husband Charles (Walter Cotton), grieving the death of a dear family member. Johnny Mae is here, as well as their daughter, but is more of a supporting character.
The hope was this pilot — shot on a small budget, and based on what began as an audio program (also included in the new Kino Lorber BluRay) — would eventually screen on TV. Filmed on video, Personal Problems has audio that is difficult to make out at times and features ghosting visuals due to the medium. The filmmakers use innovative storytelling techniques within these limitations.
In stark contrast to earlier Hollywood portrayals of black people in film, Personal Problems celebrates the mundane in the lives of an African-American couple in New York. Contained arguments erupt in a night club (after a white guy obtusely comments to a group of the friends, “You people won’t listen”), a hotel room and even a wake. Lovers converse in a park. Old friends drink and mourn through the night at a neighborhood bar. Time is spent among this lower middle-class family and their community of family and friends, doing their jobs and getting by.
Created by a small community of black filmmakers, scored by acclaimed jazz composer Carman Moore, and performed by a cast of dedicated black actors, this work is a revelation. After decades of only sporadic screenings, Personal Problems is now accessible to film historians and the rest of us, thanks to Kino Lorber’s restoration.
Along with the digital HD restoration of the two videos, the Kino Lorber BluRay includes a range of special features:
- A shorter iteration of the program from 1979, directed by Bill Gunn
- The original 1977 radio drama which inspired the work
- Theatrical trailer
- Deleted & extended scenes
- Interviews with actor Sam Waymon and filmmakers Ishmael Reed & Steve Cannon
- Q & A from the 2018 restoration premiere
- Booklet with essays from Reed and Gunn biographer Nicholas Forster