Upcoming Film


Showing: Streaming Feb. 17 through 23
Year: 1980
Country: USA

Actors: Vertamae Grosvenor, Walter Cotton, Stacey Harris, Jim Wright, Thommie Blackwell, Sam Waymon, Marshall Johnson

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Operating in defiance of the racially exclusive Hollywood studio system, novelist Ishmael Reed, Rockland County based director Bill Gunn and a renegade group of artists banded together to film a “meta soap opera” about the struggles of a working class African American couple in New York City in 1980. With Vertamae Grosvenor, Walter Cotton, Stacey Harris, Jim Wright, Thommie Blackwell, Sam Waymon and Marshall Johnson. USA, 1980, 165 minutes.

In Episode 1, we meet Johnnie Mae Brown and Charles Brown, a working-class African American couple in New York at the beginning of the 1980s. While reliant upon one another, the husband and wife have grown emotionally estranged and are each having relationships outside the marriage. Charles’s father, Father Brown lives with the couple, and their lives are further complicated when Johnnie May’s brother Bubba and his wife Mary Alice come to live with them.

In Episode 2, Father Brown unexpectedly dies, and his funeral wake allows simmering family tensions to rise to the surface. Charles spends an introspective day reminiscing with Father Brown’s friends. As a result of these events, Johnnie Mae and Charles rediscover their love for one another and make a conscious effort to strengthen their relationship.

Streaming on Rivertown Film’s Virtual Theater for one week from Friday, February 17 through Thursday, February 23.

Personal Problems was produced in 1980 and appeared once on PBS. It was rediscovered in 2015. Although video restoration has been done, the result reflects the affordable 3/4″ videotape it was recorded on, and the image does not meet modern standards.

Tickets are $10, and $8 for members of Rivertown Film. Once you pay for your tickets you will have 72 hours to start watching. When you start watching you will have 4 days to finish. To purchase a ticket you will be asked for your email address and a password. Please save your password! You’ll use it for future ticket purchases. If you experience any problems please click on “need help?” on the order page. It will bring up an FAQ page with typical questions (and instructions for viewing on your television) and will also offer very useful “live chat support.” Please use it if needed. We at Rivertown Film do not have access to the ticketing software and cannot help. “Live chat support” will help you!

Join a Zoom discussion about Rockland County resident Bill Gunn’s film on Tuesday, February 21 at 6:00 PM.
Register for discussion HERE. Participants will include Sam Waymon and Marshall Johnson, two Rockland County artists who appear in Personal Problems and were part of Bill Gunn’s creative circle. Register for the discussion HERE.

A pioneering Black artist, Bill Gunn pursued a radical, idiosyncratic vision across multiple creative fields as an actor, playwright, novelist and filmmaker from the mid-1950s until his untimely death in 1989.  Best known for writing and directing the ever-astonishing vampire masterpiece Ganja & Hess (1973), Gunn helmed two other features, Stop (1970) and Personal Problems (1980), that have remained criminally unseen in their original forms for decades.  In the case of Personal Problems, that has thankfully been rectified by Kino Lorber, which has lovingly restored the full-length version of Gunn’s masterful ensemble drama.

Originally intended to air on public television in 1980, Personal Problems emerged as a collaboration between director Bill Gunn and acclaimed writer Ishmael Reed who described it as “experimental soap opera.”  Reworking and reorienting the genre’s tropes, Gunn and Reed illuminate under-represented African American realities and critique the reductive banalities of television.  The saga of Johnnie Mae Brown, a professional nurse’s aide, leads us through the stresses of her professional and personal life, rendered with a penetrating irony. – UCLA Film and Television Archive

Excerpt from press notes by writer and producer Ishmael Reed:

George Bernard Shaw said that “If you do not tell your stories others will tell them for you and they will vulgarize and degrade you.” With few exceptions, this expression can be applied to Hollywood’s treatment of Blacks from the creation of the industry to now.

So what happens when a group of unbankable individuals tell their stories? Actors who have final say over their speaking parts? A director, who was found “too difficult” for Hollywood? A composer, who would not submit to the formulaic mediocre soundtracks required by the industry? A Black male lead, who was not black enough? A Black actress lead who was not light enough? An actor who had been retired because he belonged to another era? He was a star during the “Race Films” era. A cinematographer who chose art over expediency? An unmarketable male, a roguish charming home wrecker who didn’t look like Clark Gable? Three producers – Walter Cotton, Steve Cannon and Ishmael Reed – who, having no experience in producing movies, organized a production with the amount of money that a Hollywood spends on catering? Maybe less. Some consider the result to be a classic.

Personal Problems is a breakthrough because it shows how Black life looks away from the intervention of mediators at the Hollywood Studios, HBO, Showtime, etc. where Black actors get to play pimps, thugs and whores most of the time. Reed, Cotton and Cannon assembled a group of artists, largely composed of young people, mostly unknown at the time, and the result was first a radio drama and then a video production.


“With a Fassbinderian flair for color and a neorealist’s eye for composition… Gunn spins a potent ensemble drama from his modest domestic milieu.”—Hollywood Reporter

Personal Problems is among those rare, quietly unassuming avant-garde works that takes the trouble to be genuinely entertaining while pushing formal and textual boundaries.” —Film Comment

“Embodies the spirit of independent film. Bill Gunn is one of the most under-appreciated filmmakers of his time.” – Spike Lee

“Bill Gunn’s long-lost, wondrous opus Personal Problems feels its own organic way into the unsung lives of its African-American characters.” – Film Comment

“It may take years or even decades, but the cream does eventually rise to the top… During an era where Blaxploitation was king, Gunn made films that were sensitive and nuanced while others were strip-mining Black culture.” – Amsterdam News

“Bill Gunn inspired a legion of underground and avant-garde painters and dramatists to be as strange as they actually were. The freedom in that alone is revolutionary.” – Indiewire

“Gunn was a pioneer of black filmmaking… a lesser-known and immensely talented auteur whose works offer a unique vision of black American life.” –  Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture/NYPL

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Rivertown Film is made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts and from Restart the Arts, a regrant program of Arts Westchester, with the support of Governor Kathy Hochul and the New York State Legislature.

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