In his novel All the Rest Have Died (1964), about his experience as a young actor in New York, Bill Gunn wrote, “I was always only slightly aware of the injustice the Black artist suffers while trying to create in a white world. But I had been enraged and close to insanity because of injustices done to myself and to others in American society, realizing finally that I could not function in such a state without committing murder. I proceeded to use personal ambition as a protection against what would eventually destroy me: my passionate distaste for such things as stupidity and poverty of self-respect.” It was this distaste that made him unfit for the commercial film industry, where for decades Black actors have been subjected to the stupidity of producers and directors who assign roles that challenge their self-respect.
Gunn did reach the top, though. In the late sixties and early seventies, he was a Black screenwriter in a field that is still largely white. He was the second Black director in Hollywood, after Gordon Parks. He wrote The Angel Levine, starring Zero Mostel and Harry Belafonte, and appeared in movies with Natalie Wood, Robert Vaughn, Yul Brynner, and Joanne Woodward. But after making his 1970 directorial debut, Stop!, which included explicit scenes of same-sex intercourse and was never released by Warner Bros., Gunn’s career in Hollywood entered its decline.
I was attracted to his work because, unlike some of those who demean themselves by accepting roles that cater to a crossover audience, he was picky about how Hollywood used his talent. For producers, too picky. They demanded that he coast along with the familiar roles that have been assigned to Black people since the beginning of film: anti-Black propaganda disguised as entertainment. Therefore, he was considered difficult.
Before Robert Townsend and Spike Lee satirized the situation of Black actors in Hollywood in their films Hollywood Shuffle (1987) and Bamboozled (2000)—a situation that could apply to television and Broadway as well—Bill Gunn wrote his protests. When Sam Dodd, the character who stands in for Gunn in his 1981 novel Rhinestone Sharecropping, suggests to a sleazy producer that there might be a role for a Black actress in his movie, the producer snaps, “It’s not a porno film.” Apparently, audiences have an insatiable appetite for Black actors who are portrayed as pimps and prostitutes.
Black actresses still play maids and prostitutes in film and television, and though there is more work for Black performers now, Hollywood is as segregated behind the camera as it was when Gunn struggled there. As PopMatters reported this year, UCLA’s 2019 diversity report found that “even though Hollywood is responding to the success of Black-cast films and series by hiring more actors of color, the underrepresentation behind the camera makes clear that many of these minority characters are being written by white writers.” This explains the offensive, often disgusting roles that Black actors and actresses are hired to perform.The article also notes:
According to the Directors Guild of America, in 2017 (the year Get Out premiered), just five percent of the 237 film directors were African American, while 91 percent were white . . . Overall, Black writers accounted for less than 5% of the 3,817 writers across the shows, despite Black people making up 13% of the population.
In Hollywood, Gunn was hampered by third parties interloping on his vision. This led to confrontations with producers that, on one occasion, turned violent. Their aim was to comfort white audiences with the usual Black stereotypes that entertain them and reinforce their superstitions regarding Black life. As we learn from accounts in Rhinestone Sharecropping, Gunn was the butt of jokes and a hapless whipping boy for the same vulgar Hollywood types who were exposed by the scandals involving Harvey Weinstein. They called Gunn “blackbird” and other racist names. Stop!, which had a million-dollar budget, brought him only $12,000 and left him in debt. The producer, David Begelman, and an associate skimmed $300,000 from the film’s budget and made a naive Gunn take the fall by setting up a bogus company and installing him as president. He objected to the final cut of Stop! and was asked to return the $25,000 advance on a three-picture deal, with interest.
Producers and critics didn’t know what to make of his second film, the masterpiece Ganja & Hess. It was a distinctive take on the vampire genre, and it confused audiences because the Black characters were so refined. Hess—played by Duane Jones, star of George A. Romero’s horror classic Night of the Living Dead—is not a drug dealer but an anthropologist living in a swell house on the Hudson. Instead of getting blood in the usual crude ways, he finds ingenious methods of obtaining his supply. Ganja, a vamp played by Marlene Clark, is surprised that he possesses a house full of art and music ranging from early blues to classical. At first, she mistakes him for the servant of a white man. Though she finds out that Hess has murdered her husband, she ends up marrying him.
Barriers were broken in the film, including sexual ones. Ganja has love scenes with Hess and a male dinner guest (Richard Harrow) that include toe fetishism, which many in the early 1970s would have found perverse. The movie ends with the guest, now among the undead, displaying his genitalia, a rare image in movies of that era.
I can imagine the producers cringing while watching the final cut. How would they make a profit off this art film? They had wanted a Blaxploitation movie, and Gunn seems to make mocking reference to that in one scene, giving those producers the finger. They probably missed the dig.
American critics ignored the honor that the film received at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973. Gunn expressed his frustrations in a letter to the New York Times that year. It opens with a challenge: “There are times when the white critic must sit down and listen. If he cannot listen and learn, then he must not concern himself with black creativity.” Clearly angry, he called a white critic’s treatment of Ganja & Hess criminal, noting the critic had stayed for twenty minutes and still wrote a review of the entire film.
Hollywood’s assessment of Gunn is summed up by an outburst from a crass bottom feeder in Rhinestone Sharecropping:
I told them this guy writes the best goddamn dialogue in Hollywood today. Black or white. But he’s got to write so people can understand him. He’s got a lesson to learn and nobody’s gonna learn it for him. You gonna be a highbrow, you gonna be left out.
I was living in the El Cerrito Hills, a suburban community located outside of Berkeley, when the idea of producing a parody of soap operas came to me. It might have had something to do with the treatment I got from Hollywood when some producers there expressed interest in my novel Yellow Back Radio Broke Down, a western. Producer Chuck Barris, of The Gong Show, flew me to Los Angeles to talk about movie possibilities. He put me up in the Beverly Hills Hotel. Not once did we have a conversation about my novel. Next, Ivan Dixon and Quincy Jones were interested, and producer Michael Dayan even had a script written and offered me thousands of dollars. I thought that I’d get a stereotype-free film if I placed the novel in the hands of Black producers. But I turned down the Dayan offer only to have Quincy Jones back out of the deal.
I had learned from Black nationalists in New York that if you wanted to control your creative output, you had to produce it yourself. Instead of continuing to only write articles that agitated for change, in the midseventies I too wanted to offer an alternative to the degrading roles that Hollywood and television assign Black actors.
Along with my publishing partners at the time, the late Steve Cannon and Joe Johnson, I decided to do something about it. Lucky for us, Bill Gunn was available. We had little money—$40,000—but had an outstanding cast and crew. The result was Personal Problems. While Gunn’s previous creations had been stunted by producers who attempted to commercialize him, I insisted that he be given total control over this film. Leading our cast were Vertamae Grosvenor (who wrote the classic Vibration Cooking, performed with the Sun Ra Arkestra, and later became an NPR commentator), Sam Waymon, Walter Cotton, and Jim Wright. The famed photographer Robert Polidori led the crew. We weren’t aware that some of those who appeared in our film would become prominent, going on to star in movies and television series, or that Bill Gunn would become an icon.
I am listed as a writer on Personal Problems, but I was also the executive producer. I guided the project by writing a treatment that Gunn and the actors used as the basis for their improvisations. I paid the actors, the ground producer, and the crew, and I raised the money by writing grants. Since then, I have spent thousands of dollars to support Black and Puerto Rican theater. My plays have provided actors with the kind of roles that Hollywood has denied them.
The idea for the project originated in the kind of calls that I received from friends and strangers in the late 1970s, informing me about career updates, prizes won, or personal problems. I called Steve Cannon, my publishing partner at the time, and suggested that we create a radio soap opera for his show on WBAI-FM New York. This evolved into a rarely shown thirty-minute video version, which was directed by Gunn and photographed by Bill Stephens’s “People’s Communications Network.” The backdrop was the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident; a radio report from the disaster plays in the background as scenes unfold. The video cost $5,000.
With a larger grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Gunn continued to direct. Now that our actors, producer, crew, and director were settled, we produced the three-hour version of Personal Problems, which has since been hailed as a classic. In this feature, the only scene included from the earlier version is a monologue by Sam Waymon.
We viewed ourselves as part of the “race films” tradition, which extends back to the early 1900s and consisted of Black filmmakers who weren’t willing to wait around for Hollywood to act right. Most critics can only identify one Black filmmaker from this period, Oscar Micheaux, whose films I saw as a child at a segregated theater in Buffalo, New York. But there were many others. Our link to this tradition was Jim Wright, who had acted previously in W. D. Alexander’s Souls of Sin and in Orson Welles’s all-Black version of Macbeth.
This was a pirate video. We ignored the rules. Without asking the manager’s permission, we filmed a party scene in a suite I rented in the Gramercy Hotel. Though we called it a “meta–soap opera,” the movie is hard to categorize. It confused people. After a screening at the New School of Social Research in New York, the audience members of the Black cognoscenti were baffled. At a showing at the Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley, some members of the audience walked out—I have a photo of their exits. A white feminist accosted me at a showing in Rochester, New York. She argued that the lines I’d given to the women in the café scene were sexist, though it was the women actors who had created their lines.
We knew that we’d made a mark when, after a showing on WNYC TV, Vertamae Grosvenor boarded a bus and the driver greeted her by her character’s name, Johnnie Mae. We had more success among the grassroots than with the elite. After the showing on WNYC in New York and KQED in San Francisco, I was selected by the National Endowment to tour with the video. Our confidence buffeted, I asked to present Personal Problems to representatives from PBS for a possible broadcast. Two of the network’s Black personnel watched it, and one of them berated it. She seemed to bear a personal animus toward Gunn and inexplicably brought Kathleen Collins into the discussion, dismissing both filmmakers as members of “the Hudson River School.”
I returned to New York. I was very depressed. I knew that the commercial channels would never take a risk on Personal Problems, the first Black-produced soap opera. We thought that PBS would be our key to a national showing of the video. WNYC approached us about doing a series. We turned it down. We weren’t interested in the money. We wanted a larger audience. The actor Calvin Lockhart had even committed to appearing in future episodes.
There were a few showings after that. One was in Appalachia before an all-white audience. These working-class whites seemed to identify with the Black working class as depicted in the film. But in the late 1980s, the tapes went into a storage room trunk. There was a screening in 1991 at the Whitney Museum’s Bill Gunn retrospective, but the film did not fully emerge until the 2000s, when Jake Perlin, then a curator for BAMcinématek in Brooklyn and now the artistic and programing director at the Metrograph, revived interest in it. Had it not been for Perlin, who arranged to have the fifty-four ¾-inch tapes digitized, 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.
Two people who are still around forty years after the production of Personal Problems are actor Sam Waymon and crew director and cameraman Robert Polidori. Polidori first met Bill at a showing of Ganja & Hess at the Museum of Modern Art. He told me he had been struck by two things. “The imagery was beautiful, and it had an Italian kind of surreal feeling about it, like a Luchino Visconti or a Michelangelo Antonioni film.”
“Bill was interested in improvisation, which made it a little harder to shoot, but he’s not a cynic like Godard. Both Bill and I were interested in astrology. Our signs were Cancer. Bill always wanted to get a certain feeling and he used this phrase that he would use all the time. He would say, ‘Just get into your head for a little while there. Just be yourself. Just get into your own head.’ Bill would set up scenes as an experiment. He’d set up tensions and see how the tensions turned out. He’s an impressionist. He’s curious about the nature of the people or the place itself.”
Robert remembered the first day of his collaboration with Gunn. “There was a preproduction meeting before we started shooting, but there wasn’t a whole lot of that. I decided that this was going to be a lot like jazz music, like jamming, so I came up with the idea that we could use simultaneous cameras because I didn’t know where the action was going to go. I realized most of it was going to be done in interiors and that there was a really small budget.”
Robert said that he was surprised by “the sentimentality of the characters.” I asked him what he meant.
“In most American films, the characters are cool, and they underplay their emotions or either hide them or deny them. It’s not cool in America to show your sentimental love. In almost every scene of this film the emotion and love are pouring out between all of the actors.”
“How did Bill treat the actors?” I asked.
“There was a lot of collaboration. Bill was not the kind of director who was bossy. He was quiet on the set. He wouldn’t want to lay down a certain psychological power so that certain emotions could come out.”
“Outside of the corruption, why do you think that Gunn had such a hard time in Hollywood?”
“The way Hollywood works, they don’t like improvisations. They want the movie to follow a map. They get everything preplanned and precut so they can shoot with one kind of camera. You’re not jamming anymore. You’re playing the preset song, so the actors don’t get to take off. They have to mimic, so it’s robotic. But I was filming Personal Problems like improvisational jazz.”
After my conversation with Robert, I talked to Sam Waymon. I asked, “How did the idea of a soap opera strike Bill?”
He said, “It appealed to him. He saw it as trailblazing. It was also the first time he had total freedom over a project. He had problems with the producers of Stop! He was the first Black director who was given a full budget for a motion picture. That was unheard of back in those days. Ganja & Hess was a catastrophe in a lot of ways. We had a budget for $97,000. Kelly-Jordan, the producers, wanted any kind of Blaxploitation film that was going to be commercial. They wanted another Superfly. They put up the money. When we shot the film there were two negatives. We took one negative and gave it to the Museum of Modern Art. They put it in the archives, which is where it is today. Then there was another negative, which was cut up by Kelly-Jordan two or three times and had different titles.”
“Why did Bill leave Hollywood?”
“Because he couldn’t stand the mothers. He was different. He didn’t want to become jaded by living in Hollywood. He was also a playwright. He did plays in New York on Broadway.” Those included Marcus in the High Grass (1959); Johnnas (1968); Black Picture Show (1975); Rhinestone (1982), a musical based on Rhinestone Sharecropping; Family Employment (1985); The Forbidden City (1989); and Celebration (1967).
“Did you ever think Personal Problems would become a classic?”
“No. I didn’t know it would become a classic, but I did know that it would be around for a while, and during the early ’80s, I knew it would have a legacy somehow. I didn’t think it would come to this. Bill did.”
After a representative from Kino Lorber viewed the film and the company improved the quality, Personal Problems made its New York premiere at the Metrograph theater and was declared one of the best films of 2018. Artforum and Vanity Fair were just two of the media outlets that praised the achievement.Vertamae, Walter, Jim Wright, and other cast members didn’t survive to see their triumph. I thought of their belated success in 2019, on a train traveling from Washington to New York. In 1980, I had taken the same trip. I had been angry, depressed, and hurt. PBS had turned down a showing of our film. Nearly forty years later I was making this trip with sadness and pride. Thanks to curators Domini Artis and Peggy Parsons, Personal Problems screened at the National Gallery of Art.
A series of Bill Gunn’s films is playing on the Criterion Channel now through January 31, 2021.