Johnnie Mae Brown (Verta Mae Grosvenor) is the protagonist during the first volume of Personal Problems, Bill Gunn’s meta soap. She’s juggling a social life, a nursing job, a marriage and, since this is a soap, an affair with a musician her age, Raymon (Sam L. Waymon, Nina Simone’s brother). This didn’t get a proper release during its production. But it’s getting a second and third life through Kino Lorber and the Criterion Collection. The generation gap should give those new audiences what to expect when watching something that a director shot on crude video. And the format adds a lot here, like a surrealist air.
And that’s true when Johnnie Mae and Raymon have a date and the person serving them is doing Akijutso (Marhsall M. Johnson III). But otherwise this is the easiest I’ve ever felt watching crude video footage. Well, there’s still from the tension that a real person experiences in real life. It shows Johnnie Mae’s marital troubles with her husband Charles (Walter Cotton), both accusing the other of not doing enough in their home. The video captures the differences in her treatment of the people in her life. Her smooth mezzo voice becomes more menacing when she’s asking Charles what he does all day.
The film’s two half structure also fragments its chronology, making us question which character we sympathize with and why. During the first, we see Johnnie Mae’s affair before her married life and Charles’ own affair. And the second half switches that around, making Johnnie Mae look more sympathetic. Although the second half is shorter, it opens its story up to show more of her social circles. That expansion shows the class differences within the Black community in New York City during the late 70s and early 80s. There is a school of film criticism believing that audiences should see everything as racial representation and symbolism.
But the scenes here, like the dates and the domestic scenes and the cocktail parties cement its depiction of Black life in that place time. The same goes for a funeral scene, where there are at least three arguments taking place. Arguments like that flair up in funerals regardless of race. But we can read into the racial implications when Johnnie Mae yells at a mourner. That act seems gauche. But in her defense, hr family is criticizing the way she treats a strange visitor. There was also a mourner thought it was a good idea to compliment her daughter that day. And again, the video and the angles here capture Blackness in relation to their environment. That’s especially true in depicting a woman who wants more for herself.
Buy or stream Personal Problems on Criterion Collection and on Kino Lorber.