3 comments on “Zine Gives Black Filmmakers A Platform

  1. In 1981, steve cannon and i gave bill gunn, whom hollywood found
    difficult, chance to direct a film with complete freedom. although
    ‘personal problems’ was my concept the actors and actresses created
    their characters. we spent $40,000 and used 3/4 inch.tech. because
    it depicted normal working class blacks it never found distribution
    but it opened at the pompidu in paris, made it to the whitney in
    1990.last week at BAM. with the tech. available today there’s no
    excuse for depending upon hollywood and tv ( see my piece about
    ‘the wire’ in playboy) to define african american culture.did anyone
    see a doc. called ‘nollywood?” nigerians are producing vhs movies
    and distributing them. like the rappers started off selling tapes
    out of their cars.here’s a review of personal problems.

    As for what we got, Personal Problems really is like if you mashed-up, say, Performance and 1970s-era Days of our Lives. The narrative is fragmented and non-linear, there’s all sorts of moments of lyricism and abstraction, but the plot is pure soap. That’s not a bad thing. Vertamae Grosvenor as Johnnie Mae, the nurse working at Harlem Hospital, is the central focus, and she could easily be Susan Lucci and Erica Kane in the early years, before Erica became rich and a glamour goddess. Like Lucci’s character on All My Children, Johnnie Mae is introduced as living in modest surroundings she disdains, wanting more out of her lot in life, wanting to pursue her poetry instead of working round the clock in the ER. She cheats on her surly husband Charles (the great Walter Cotton) with a vaguely obnoxious musician who gives her a taste of the high life, and lets her ‘lean on’ instead of always being leaned on by her friends and family. She longs to leave NY and go back to South Carolina, as her friend is doing, yet she and her girlfriends seem to also enjoy moments of living above their means in these sort of rough, prototypical Candace Bushnell-esque cocktail klatches. It’s a lot of self-delusion; Johnnie Mae puts on a gauzy dress and a floppy hat and prances along the banks of the Hudson with her lover, but at the end of the day it’s back to her tiny apartment which is housing her, Charles, his father, and her ne’er-do-well half-brother and his wife, who have run into trouble with the law and have yet to retrieve their child, who was left behind in California with Social Services.

    There is some occasional, fourth-wall-breaking direct address where someone (Gunn?) puts Johnnie Mae and others through a Q&A about their feelings and motivations. And we never figure out when a scene takes place where Johnnie Mae finds Charles in bed with his own mistress, but judging by the end of Volume 2 it must have come before the events of that episode. The script was apparently totally improvised by the actors after discussion with Gunn and Ishmael Reed, and there are some hilarious moments, including a scene where Johnnie Mae suggests Charles’ get-rich-quick scheme sounds like Sidney Poitier’s in A Raisin In The Sun, but no one in the household can remember the name of the film, and her father-in-low is convinced it’s Cabin In The Sky. It’s a long, languid riff, but priceless. Ishmael Reed also turns up as an obnoxious upper-middle-class businessman who voted for Reagan, arguing with a white radical (played by one of the production staff) and citing that any Hollywood actor who can bring his own monkey to the White House (from Bedtime For Bonzo) has his vote. Later, he appears again at a posh party Johnnie Mae attends with her lover, where the disparate stories (just like on daytime) begin to intersect. While spending a night in jail, Johnnie Mae’s brother has spoken to another guy in the cellblock about getting ‘an introduction’ to mysterious crime boss “Mr. Damian” (Bill Gunn), who, unbeknownst to Johnnie Mae, is also at the cocktail party. At the party, Johnnie Mae’s relationship with her musician lover unravels as it is clear she is out of place in the plasticine world he prefers, despite her love of the finer things, and she is drawn back to Charles and her home. I don’t know where the story went from there (or maybe just would have gone), but I’m dying to find out. As a stand-alone, closed piece, however, it also pretty much works.

    I forgot to ask about PP’s potential future availability but given the truly home-video quality of the picture and sound I have my doubts. But I would kill to have it all – video format, audio-only, you name it.

    • Mr. Reed,

      I’ve been dying to see “Personal Problems” for years… alas, i’m a Chicagoan so I couldn’t attend the BAM screening, but if you have any say in the matter, it would be amazing to book that film at the Gene Siskel Film Center at some point, or perhaps at Facets Cinemateque…

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