Skip to main content
The Ruby is a catalyst for creativity and a home for making art at Duke.
Date & Time
November 8, 2018 at 7:00 pm
Free; no reservations required
Film Theater at the Rubenstein Arts Center
2020 Campus Drive
Durham, NC 27705

Personal Problems
(Bill Gunn, 1980, 165 min, DCP)

Bill Gunn (director of Ganja and Hess) teamed up with writer Ishmael Reed to produce what Reed has called “an experimental soap opera,” an intimate epic focused on the everyday struggles of a black working-class couple and their friends and family. Originally produced as a pilot for PBS in 1980 but never given a proper release until now, Personal Problems is the result of a bold collaboration between a coterie of major 80’s artists.

The central character is Johnnie Mae Brown (Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, a member of Sun Ra’s ensemble, among many other pursuits), playing a nurse who is having an affair with a musician (Nina Simone’s brother Sam Waymon). Her husband (Walter Cotton) is carrying on his own affair, and the cast of illustrious performers and spiraling storylines only extends from there. Reed himself makes a memorable appearance as a restaurant owner who expresses his support for Ronald Reagan to troll an insufferably judgmental white radical, who harangues Reed for being part of the “oppressor class.”

For all its topsy-turvy soap plots set in the nightclubs and cafes of Harlem, the film unfolds in breezy 90 minute episodes, full of spirited improvisation (the actors had final say over their lines) and the ghostly camera effects produced by the ¾” tape format favored by video artists of the day. Carefully restored from the camera originals to its full 165 minute running time at last, Personal Problems presents another first opportunity to see one of the most fascinatingly experimental works of 80’s cinema.

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

For more info on the series, please visit:
Precarious Living: Recent Rediscoveries in American Independent Film


Presented by

Tune into events & opportunities!

Sign up for our newsletter