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, a legendary, meta-soap opera, has held small audiences since 1981, when the final part was produced. It debuted with a bang with showings at the George Pompidou Museum after which there were showings at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, KQED TV San Francisco, and the Roxie Cinema in San Francisco. The National Endowment for the Arts selected Personal Problems as one of those projects to tour select American cities. It was shown in Buffalo, New York, a town in Appalachia, Los Angeles, Rochester and elsewhere. WNYC proposed a series based upon Personal Problems, but nothing came of it. I traveled to Washington, D.C. and showed Personal Problems to members of PBS TV’s staff. One of those present made disparaging remarks about our director, Bill Gunn, and filmmaker Kathleen Collins, and rejected Personal Problems. She went on to have an important role in Ken Burns's The Civil War, which repeated the message of Birth of a Nation, which viewed the war as an act of Northern aggression. For this effort Ken Burns was honored by the Sons of the Confederacy.
A showing of Personal Problems at the New School Of Social Research was applauded by some, but puzzled others, who were among the Black artistic and intellectual elite. They weren’t accustomed to this kind of hybrid. The Kitchen distributed it to select audiences. There was a showing at the Whitney Museum as part of a Bill Gunn retrospective, but otherwise the project lay fallow for decades. Gunn’s own problems with Hollywood were voiced in his novel Rhinestone Sharecropping, and his play Black Picture Show, both of which were published by Steve Cannon and me.
Our meta-soap opera made an immediate connection to the Black public which had been exposed to hurtful stereotypes from such Nazi sympathizers as Walt Disney. The morning after the video was shown on WNYC TV, the co-star, Vertamae Grosvenor, was greeted by a Black bus driver who addressed her by her character’s name, Johnnie Mae. Hollywood, which catered for decades to Southern audiences, would not accept a script about ordinary Blacks and their day-to-day struggles. Hollywood was where the only role available to a great Jazz artist, Abbey Lincoln, was that of a maid.
Black intellectuals like Walter White, Marcus Garvey, Lena Horne and Paul Robeson tried to persuade Hollywood to act right for decades. Walter White, one of those leaders of the NAACP who have opposed the stereotypical depiction of Blacks, tried to persuade Darryl Zanuck to base his movie on W.E.B. DuBois’s classic movie about Reconstruction called Black Reconstruction. Instead, in order to achieve sales in the South, he chose Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind, which is even used by universities and colleges to inform students of that period. This masterful piece of propaganda perpetuated the myths of the contented slave, the merciful slave master, and even proposes that the White underclass suffered more than those who were enslaved. This is the Hollywood that glorifies Confederate terrorists and mass murderers like Jesse James whose gang was led by a psychopathic Confederate, William Quantrill of Quantrill’s Raiders. In the classic Western Shane, the Confederacy is romanticized. This is the Hollywood that prefers script writers who haven’t a clue about Black life over the great James Baldwin. Columbia Pictures blocked his every attempt to create a Malcolm X like the one whom he befriended. The producers considered his script to be “inflammatory” which means that it would make a White audience uncomfortable. He wrote bitterly about his Hollywood experiences in The Devil Finds Work. The rejection by Hollywood affected his physical and mental health. He tried to form an independent film company, but chose incompetent partners. He tried to negotiate with a Hollywood which regards Quentin Tarantino as an expert on Black history.
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. The project began when I called Steve Cannon, the leader of a Lower East Side arts factory who was recently dubbed by The New York Times as “The Emperor of the Lower East Side,” a description that they borrowed from me, and told him that people were calling me about their personal problems and that we should do a parody of the soap opera called Personal Problems. Steve had a show on New York’s WBAI at the time and I persuaded him to begin episodes on his show. Walter Cotton was someone whom I knew in Buffalo, New York. One day in 1962, a few months after I had arrived in New York, I was walking across Washington Square Park on the way to work and saw Walter sleeping on a park bench. I invited him to bunk in the room that I had in the Midway Hotel, a rundown cockroach infested dump located in the West 90s. We became close friends. Walter had come to New York to try his chances in the theater. I chose Walter to produce Personal Problems, both the radio and television versions, and it was through Walter’s connections that some of the leading Black actors joined the project. Some were well known. Others would achieve fame on television and in film.
Poet Joe Johnson brought us director Bill Gunn, and Kip Hanrahan, producer of the Conjure series that includes concerts and CDs based upon musicians interpreting my songs and poetry, brought us photographer/videographer Robert Polidori. The first version of Personal Problems was produced by Bill Stephens of Peoples Communications in 1979. Stephens also had a role in the radio series, as well as my former student Terry McMillan, who later achieved fame as an author. One of the supporting stars of Personal Problems is singer Sam Waymon, who appeared in Gunn’s horror classic, Ganja and Hess. I also chose the late author and actress Vertamae Grosvenor, who was considered one of the most versatile of American performers, besides being a writer, dancer, author and a singer with the legendary Sun Ra Arkestra. For his part, Walter was able to recruit Lewis Musser and John Di Benedetto who had performed in his play “New York City is Closed.” Thommie Blackwell, Marsha Schwann, Barbara Montgomery, Renauld White, Mizan Nunes, Stacey and Christy Harris were also brought aboard by Walter.
As a bridge to a former generation, the father was played by Jim Wright, a veteran of the famed Orson Welles 1936 Macbeth produced by the Federal Theater Project. He played Dollar Bill in W.D. Alexander’s Race Film, and Souls of Sin, which was produced in 1949. Leonard Jackson had starred in the film Five On The Black Hand Side, based on a work by Charles Russell. The music score was composed by Carman Moore, who later would conduct his compositions before prime ministers including Mikhail Gorbachev and who received a commission for new work from the president of Costa Rica. He has the distinction of having works premiere at the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic a day apart. Robert Polidori, who would be described as one of “most esteemed practitioners of large-scale photography,” led the production crew. Polidori has received the admiration of filmmakers for the photography that he designed for Personal Problems. Because of his art, Polidori was selected to photograph the restoration of the Château de Versailles.
Had it not been for Jake Perlin, who arranged to have the fifty-four ¾ inch tapes stored in a trunk in my storage room digitalized, Personal Problems would have suffered the same fate as most of those films produced by Black filmmakers from the early 1900s to the 1950s: wearing out until vanishing. It was Jake Perlin who revived interest in the project by having it screened at BAM and Lincoln Center. Jake is a throwback to those who view film as an art form and not a place where people can passively receive large screen video games that blast them out of their seats. Where films can’t be made unless they have a profit-making star.
Personal Problems could not have been done without ¾ inch technology and the dedicated actors, crew, composers and videographers who made sacrifices to achieve one of the best and most sophisticated portrayals of Blacks yet done.
Black actors continue to beg Hollywood to act right. Even those films that have all Black casts are managed by those who have never been profiled racially. Hollywood ain’t going to change. Just as revolutions in print technology opened the door for more authors to bypass the Manhattan publishing establishment, revolutions in video and film technology made it possible for producers like Steve Cannon, Walter Cotton and I to enter the field. We are part of a tradition. Pearl Bowser and others have uncovered the hidden history of independent Black films which were produced outside of the Hollywood system and designed to “counter prevailing caricatures of African-Americans on film.” Between 1909 and 1954, 125 companies produced hundreds of silent movies. Always under-financed, the introduction of sound put these companies out of business, because of the financial strain that went into producing talkies.
In 2018, the distribution and equipment problems that brought the production of “Race Films” to their end have been solved by online distribution. Now, through the support of Kino Lorber, and the restoration efforts of Bret Wood, using technology that was not available in the early 80s, Personal Problems will be available to wider audiences. The fact that Personal Problems was originally done for $40,000.00 will be an inspiration to younger Black, Brown, Yellow and Red filmmakers who protest their stories being framed by the tired and worn clichés.
Black, Hispanic, and Asian American actresses no longer have to appear in films and television series merely as prostitutes or maids and minority men, no longer pimps and thugs. Hollywood will become a bejeweled Dinosaur unaware that a meteor is about to hit.
Visiting Scholar, The California College of the Arts