Personal Problems (1980)

When comparing it to a lot of mainstream production of the 1970s, not to mention documentaries about African-American urban lives, this film feels like a completely different world. As the writer Ishmael Reed and producers suggest in a bonus featurette on the Kino Lorber release, Personal Problems derives from an opposition to the ‘Blaxploitation’ films being churned out by Hollywood during the 70s, and also presumably somewhat from a lot of the counter-cultural artists who contributed to the film, none of whom were likely to recognise much about their own lives on the big screen at that time. Reed invokes the alternative circuit of ‘race films’ that developed during the silent era, but aside from 1982’s Losing Ground (itself restored a few years ago) there’s not much that I can think of to compare it to.


This film is a sort-of-television show in the way it’s made (on video, which while never exactly visually stunning, has its own internal beauty, with the ghosting of figures during movement or the oddly unnatural colours), though its first iteration was a radio play. When you watch it, it feels more like an improvised theatre piece, and I suspect that’s the kind of milieu the actors were more familiar with — and indeed, I gather that a lot of it is improvised. In so doing, we see people that seem like real people (and, as mentioned by I think a fair few commentators, that means it has an almost documentary quality at times). I think of the three women near the opening of the film, just chatting at a bar, perched on some tables on a sidewalk. I think of the scenes in the kitchen between Vertamae Grosvenor and Walter Cotton (playing her husband; he’s a lot gruffer and angrier in the preliminary 1979 version included as an extra, but here his beard is thinner and he seems somehow less commanding next to her). She’s telling him to expect her brother, to which he’s not best pleased, then by the end of part one, she’s laying down some furious anger at all of them for disrespecting her home. The second part of the film/TV show/performance piece is a little shorter and follows the death of the elderly father character (Jim Wright). If the first part seems dominated by the voices of the women in the ensemble, this one is altogether manlier, though these men, gathered at a wake then later at a bar, feel adrift and despondent (as I suppose you’d expect given the narrative).

Still, overall, it feels like a film about people living their lives, true in a sense to the ‘meta-soap opera’ the writer promises, and to the melodramatic qualities of the form, but with characters who are more lived-in and weary than that might suggest. There’s little discussion of politics and contemporary society, aside from a memorable scene at a party where Reed’s character says he voted for Reagan to audible consternation (and that scene features an appearance from a grumpy young white intellectual, whom I must try to ensure I do not ever become), but there’s also a vivid sense of urban life in the era. Part of that may come from the grainy old video stock, but I think it pervades a lot of the film, not just the fashion but also some of the choices the characters make. Anyway, it’s a lovely, strange document.

Personal Problems film posterCREDITS
Director Bill Gunn; Writer Ishmael Reed; Cinematographer Robert Polidori; Starring Vertamae Grosvenor, Walter Cotton; Length 165 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 5 January 2019.

Losing Ground (1982)

You sort of expect that all the best works of an era will be known and widely celebrated already, but then you see something which was once obscure that blows you away. This feature-length debut by Kathleen Collins (an academic and playwright who died a few years later) is said to be the first feature film by a Black woman in America, but despite that it’s very far from being some pioneeringly amateurish stab at filmmaking from a dilettante. Rather this is a deeply-felt, very carefully constructed film that shapes its narrative and characters in very particular ways, in which Collins makes full use of the cinematic means at her disposal. There’s drama in its story of a relationship between Sarah (Seret Scott), an intellectual professor of philosophy who is serious-minded and likes order in her life, and her husband Victor (Bill Gunn, himself a director of pioneering films like 1973’s Ganja & Hess), a loose, louche painter of abstracts with a ready smile and the desire to constantly move around. Yet there’s also plenty of comedy, not to mention a filmic tone that keeps pushing at the edges of both registers, never resolving any of its characters into stereotypes or boxes but allowing them many forms of expression. It’s remarkable too that this story of middle-class intelligentsia is exclusively made and performed by people of colour, but that may be the reason for its marginalisation since its initial release. Whatever the reasons for its obscurity, it’s a brilliant film with some fantastic performances that presents a really compelling and complex inner journey of one woman.

Losing Ground film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Kathleen Collins; Cinematographer Ronald K. Gray; Starring Seret Scott, Bill Gunn, Duane Jones; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Wednesday 25 May 2016.