Bill Gunn and Ishmael Reed's Personal Problems, which will have its first U.S. theatrical run this week, is a crude, clunky relic made during a time when home-video cameras were newfangled pieces of high-tech wizardry the size of a small child. Originally shot on tape in 1980, on ¾-inch tube-based cameras that occasionally made images or the people on screen blurry every time movement happened — known as "ghosting" or "smearing" — this production often feels like a trippy dream you're intruding on.
Shit-stirring man of letters Reed and Gunn, the late actor and playwright who directed the cult vampire flick Ganja & Hess, snatched up some cameras, corralled a bunch of black actors and whipped up this lengthy "experimental soap opera" about working-class black folk in Harlem. Problems' main focus is on Johnnie Mae Brown (Vertamae Grosvenor), a nurse who, despite her strong-willed demeanor, is going through the middle-age blues. Even though she's got a husband (the Petey Greene-looking Walter Cotton, also the film's producer) at home, she's having an affair with a smooth-ass musician (Sam Waymon) whose dapper charm distracts her from her stressful existence.
It goes without saying that Problems has, you know, problems. Apart from the visual roughness and the occasional filmmaking blunder (you can plainly see a boom mic in one shot), the movie can be something of a narrative mess. The first half is a scattered compendium of scenes that bounce back and forth in time, a mundane, meandering collage of black life. It suggests Brechtian theater and John Cassavetes while offering a view of African-Americans that's messy, complicated, dramatic and, most important, honest.