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.
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.