PERSONAL PROBLEMS: Everyday Life in Epic Form

A collaboration between two pioneering Black artists — writer Ishmael Green and director Bill GunnPersonal Problems is a nearly three-hour-long chronicle of the everyday ups and downs of a middle-class Black couple in 1980 New York. Originally conceived as a “meta-soap opera” to air on public television, Personal Problems went largely unseen until an HD restoration of the original tapes was distributed by Kino Lorber in 2018.

Miles away from the toxic stereotypes of Black life that have populated Hollywood films throughout history — stories of pimps and prostitutes, murderers and drug dealers — Personal Problems is grounded in a universe not often depicted on the screen then or now, that of the real world. Currently available to stream on MUBI, the film is a groundbreaking portrayal of the Black experience precisely because of how ordinary (and messy, and complicated) the characters at its center are.

Life Itself

Personal Problems centers on the marriage of Johnnie Mae and Charles Brown and the friends and family that move in and out of their lives. Johnnie Mae (wonderfully portrayed by renowned culinary anthropologist Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor) is a hard-working nurse at Harlem Hospital who finds release from her personal and professional stress by writing poetry.

The audience is introduced to her through a documentary-style interview in which Johnnie Mae, slumped in a chair in her nurse’s whites while clutching a cup of coffee, tells the man behind the camera about her childhood on a farm in South Carolina, where she was so desperate to avoid fieldwork that she faked heatstroke. After Johnnie Mae’s family moved to New York, her mother became a domestic worker in the homes of white families, and Johnnie Mae describes the jealousy she felt in knowing that her mother had to spend more time caring for the white children of her employers than she did her own.

PERSONAL PROBLEMS: Everyday Life in Epic Form
source: Kino Lorber

In addition to her poetry, Johnnie Mae finds release going out with her girlfriends; a boozy brunch scene towards the beginning of the film, in which she and two friends laugh and gossip riotously over glasses of white wine at an outdoor table, almost feels like a precursor to Sex and the City, with one big difference: the white servers and customers at the restaurant are shown eyeing the women shiftily, as though they feel strangely uncomfortable by these unabashedly bold expressions of Black joy. A key topic of gossip between the women? Johnnie Mae is having an affair with a jazz musician named Raymon (musician and actor Sam Waymon, the brother of Nina Simone).

While Johnnie Mae loves Raymon and the freedom from her everyday troubles that being with him provides — going for walks with him in the park, watching him perform in nightclubs — she’s also understandably reluctant to throw away the more traditional life she has built with her husband, however imperfect it may be. As she later claims, “I’m not unhappy, I’m just not happy.” Later, we learn that Charles (Walter Cotton, also one of the producers of the film) is having an affair of his own, though he too is reluctant to abandon his marriage for the sake of it.

Little Imperfections

In addition to their teenage daughter, the Browns share their home with Charles’ ailing father (Jim Wright) and, later, Johnnie Mae’s wayward brother, Bubba (Thommie Blackwell), and his wife, Mary Alice (Andrea W. Hunt). Bubba and Mary Alice got into trouble with the law in California and fled, leaving behind a baby, and while Johnnie Mae feels obligated to take them in, familial affection quickly morphs into frustration as the two newcomers spend their days loafing around the house, refusing to clean up after themselves.

Divided into two parts, the first half of Personal Problems ends with Johnnie Mae deservedly blowing up at the entire household, her emotional and physical exhaustion from the sheer amount of labor demanded by both her job and her family manifesting itself in an outburst that shocks almost all of them into silence. Yet while the first half of the film focuses primarily on Johnnie Mae, the second half provides more of Charles’ perspective, ensuring that one cannot easily take the side of one over the other in their marital disputes.

PERSONAL PROBLEMS: Everyday Life in Epic Form
source: Kino Lorber

Produced with an extremely low budget and shot on videotape — a technology that was new then, but gives the film a distinctly retro home-movie vibe today — Personal Problems is a collage of lengthy scenes highlighting the everyday struggles faced by the Browns. Much of the dialogue is not only improvised but also layered in such a way that it can occasionally be difficult to understand exactly what is being said, with characters interrupting and talking over each other.

Yet what this style lacks in technical polish it more than makes up for in authenticity. Whether it be a moment of great drama, such as a death in the family, or everyday mundanity, such as an argument over spending too much time in the bathroom, these characters are never anything less than utterly real. As a result, even as some scenes in Personal Problems seem to drag on indefinitely, one maintains a keen investment in their outcome — which, as in life, is never as neat and clean as one would like.

In one particularly entertaining party scene, a white radical (musician Kip Hanrahan) berates an outspoken Black Republican (played by Reed himself) for his views, claiming that by voting for Reagan he is complicit in his own oppression. While there is some truth to those words, the irony of this white man shouting down a Black man while wearing what he calls “African” beads and bragging about his own work fighting oppression does not go unnoticed by the others at the party, all of whom are Black (and all of whom are laughing at him).

In another standout sequence that highlights the highly uncomfortable ways in which grief can manifest, Charles’ sister repeatedly accuses Johnnie Mae of being responsible for her father’s death — at the man’s wake, in Johnnie Mae’s home, at that. The scene goes on for some time, dissolving into first shouts and then tears, while Charles hides in a side room, unwilling to take sides with either woman, preferring to be alone with his grief.

In these and so many other scenes in Personal Problems, there is no easy hero or villain, and while that may not seem terribly cinematic, it is not lacking in impact; these characters resonate deeply with all of their flaws and feelings. And while it may have been shot forty years prior, scenes in which Mary Alice encounters a crying mother who has been jailed for accidentally using counterfeit food stamps, and Johnnie Mae and Charles debate the danger posed by the police, remain uncomfortably timely.

Conclusion: Personal Problems

As the Black Lives Matter movement continues to be attacked by the powers that be, Personal Problems focuses on Black humanity in all of its highs and lows, hopes and fears, mistakes, and triumphs. By showing us that everyday Black life is just as worthy of being seen on screen as its white counterpart, its creation remains a revolutionary act to this day.

What do you think? Are you familiar with the works of Bill Gunn and Ishmael Reed? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Personal Problems is currently available to stream on MUBI.

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