Personal Problems | Chicago Reader

Personal Problems

Best known for the eccentric vampire movie Ganja & Hess (1973), Bill Gunn finished out his brief, ill-starred screen-directing career with this "experimental soap opera" (1980), shot on analog video and based on a story idea by novelist Ishmael Reed. A captivating snapshot of Harlem in the days leading up to Ronald Reagan's inauguration, it presages Spike Lee's movies with its warm jazz score and Tyler Perry's with its feminine emotional perspective. Its two completed parts (the second beginning with a recap of the first) unfold in long, semi-improvised takes that lovingly record the insights and antagonisms of a Harlem emergency-room nurse (Vertamae Grosvenor), her family members, and their immediate social circle. Like Reed, the heroine is a product of the Great Migration, having moved north from South Carolina, and though she still pines for Dixie, her nostalgia begins to sour after her no-account cousin from back home arrives in New York with his wife and moves in with the nurse and her irritable husband. Gunn is an artist badly in need of rediscovery, and this new 4K restoration is a major event.

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