A Blazing Field of Colours Running Amok: Bill Gunn's "Personal Problems"

A newly restored experimental soap opera written by poet Ishmael Reed radically captures African American life in 1980 New York.
Bedatri D.Choudhury

Personal Problems. Image courtesy of Kino Lorber, Inc.

In films, there are “Black people problems,” wherein one person’s moral flaws are taken to stand in for a moral flaw with the whole race. These are usually related to drug abuse, extreme violence and a general degeneration of the values that make up the social codes. In his editorial for The New York Times on the Oscar-nominated film Precious (2009) and its theme of incest, the poet Ishmael Reed writes, “This use of movies and books to cast collective shame upon an entire community doesn’t happen with works about white dysfunctional families. It wasn’t done, for instance, with Requiem for a Dream, or with The Kiss.”  

When scripting Bill Gunn’s Personal Problems (1980), Reed wrote about the daily life of the nurse aide, Johnnie Mae Brown, who is not a drug dealer or a coke-snorting bad mother or even poor enough to be forever begging—but is only a regular hard working middle-class woman with a bunch of personal problems. In this writing, it is quite obvious that the personal is tremendously political.

In this three-hour long “experimental soap opera,” Johnnie (Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor) writes poetry, works hard, meets girlfriends for drinks and lives in New York City; her eponymous problems arise when she can’t decide if she wants to leave her straight-laced husband Charles Brown (Walter Cotton) and move in with her smooth musician boyfriend, Raymond (Sam Waymon), or stay and live with everything she has worked so hard in achieving. By her own admission, she is not unhappy, she is just not happy. These are not the Black people problems we know; in fact, it’s something straight out of the pasty whiteness of The Bold and the Beautiful, but obviously way less ridiculous. Personal Problems was made on a tiny budget with an all African American crew—an assortment of people who were never black enough or light enough or easy enough for mainstream Hollywood. 

Johnnie and her friend moved to the city from South Carolina and perhaps belong to the last generation of the Great Migration. Johnnie’s mother was the stereotypical “Northern Mammy” to white children and her father was a cotton farmer. She refused to be a farmhand, rebelled and is now a nurse aide who writes poetry. It’s not easy, she admits, but she knows she will survive. She talks of a childhood where she saw advertisements with happy white families huddled together and smiling, and wanted to be a part of that; “That’s what America was supposed to be,” she says. Instead, she grew up with absentee parents who were always out trying to earn money and coming home tired and sick of working hard.  

Of course, Personal Problems is a narrative on the 1980s New York City and its African American life, but it also documents the systemic exclusion of coloured bodies from mainstream American cultural products. When Johnnie and her cantankerous and giggly girlfriends sit and drink in an outdoor restaurant, they laugh loudly, tease each other and smoke. The people around are all white and are either oblivious to the commotion or very disturbed.

Gunn and his cinematographer, Roberto Polidori, make this film almost as an insistence that we watch the entirety of the lives being portrayed. There are long scene after long scenes that tediously document Johnnie talking, a young man being admitted to a hospital, Johnnie and her friends sitting and chatting, and people fighting over personal problems in Charlie’s father’s wake. For communities rendered socially invisible, the act of occupying space, and a lot of space while at it (both on and off screen), doing normal and personal things that everyone else does, becomes an act of political rebellion and assertion.  

In a fantastic scene set in a party, the stereotypical white social justice warrior “ally” makes an appearance wearing “African” beads. He insists they were given to him by an African when he put his life on the line and fought for liberty in “Africa” (like it’s one big country). He insists that the Black manager of Doggy Diner (played by Ishmael Reed) is oppressed by White people and tries forcing him to admit that. In a fascinating turn of things, Reed’s character says, “Nobody is oppressing me here, man,” and admits to have voted for Reagan. He believes that we need a movie star in the government and that he trusts Reagan to get the hippies off the streets. Of course, in the perfect Black narrative inside our heads, we want all Black people to align with the perfect plan of eradicating oppression that White people think they’ve devised; everyone is supposed to fall in line and necessarily agree to bear the uncalled-for responsibility of being the tokenist minority in debates of social justice and reformation, again standing in as a representative of a supposed homogenous oppressed race.

In its restored version, the film still has a lot of its technical problems unresolved; the film is grainy, there are instances of “ghosting” and “smearing,” thanks to the tube-based video cameras used in shooting the film, and the sound is often not centered. But one doesn’t quite watch Personal Problems for its technical superiority, one watches it for the problems that still persist, to draw a line of legacy for A Wrinkle in Time, Black Panther and Mudbound that have been made on the backs of Ishmael Reed, Bill Gunn, Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor and their tribe, and are products of a very old and tiring struggle.

One watches it for the poetry, and to be dazzled. 

A blazing field of colours
Running amok-
Did I say dancing?
They say that
Ebony rhombus,
Sepia sandburts -
The dance of colours
Is so splendid
That even
Lemon - coloured sun
Is dazzled.

Johnnie Mae Brown


A newly restored version of Personal Problems is playing March 30 - 5 at the Metrograph in New York.

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