Some might be surprised to hear that some Blacks didn’t wait around a hundred years for Hollywood to act right when depicting Black life, or spend their careers begging for the segregated industry to give them Oscars. Things haven’t changed all that much since the times of D.W. Griffith. Though there might be a breakthrough from time to time, the typical role for Black, Latina, and Asian-American actresses is that of a prostitute or maid.
The men are thugs or addicts. One might say that things are worse. Griffith never depicted Black males as incestuous, which, according to novelist and essayist, Diane Johnson, writing in the Times, fascinates largely White audiences. Between the early 1905s, and 1952, an estimated 500 “Race Films,” meaning that they were produced and scripted by Black Americans ,were shown. Most of these films were lost, but some have been preserved and can be seen on BET, YouTube and Netflix.
In the late 1970s, producers Walter Cotton, Steve Cannon and I organized a group of young, gifted people to produce what I called a meta-soap opera entitled “Personal Problems,” we became part of the “Race Films” tradition. One of our actors, the late Jim Wright, even appeared in one of the final Race Films, W.D. Alexander’s “Souls of Sin,” which was produced in 1949. He linked us to Black film companies, Lincoln Motion Picture Company, the Micheaux Film Corporation, and the Colored Players Film Corporation among others.
First there was a radio versionof “Personal Problems,” broadcast on WBAI, followed by a video version. In addition to Wright, the principals were Vertamae Grosvenor, an author whose NPR radio show was called “Horizons”; playwright Walter Cotton and Nina Simone’s brother, musician, Sam Waymon. The director was Bill Gunn (“Ganja and Hess”), whom Hollywood found “difficult.” The score was composed by Carman Moore, who has the distinction of having works premiered by the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony a day apart. Robert Polidori, the cinematographer, and his crew shot the video on two SONY VO-4800 U-Matic 3/4 inch videocassette format portable video recorders. The video was shown on, among other places, KQED TV and WNYC TV in New York. After a flurry of showings elsewhere, 54 tapes were stored in a trunk in my attic for thirty-seven years.
Without the intervention of Jacob Perlin, who is owner of the Metrograph, an indie cineplex on Ludlow near Canal Street, this “meta-soap opera,” might have suffered the fate of other “Race Films.” Faded into oblivion. Jake showed a copy at BAM and was responsible for its showing at Lincoln Center in 2015.
Kino Lorber, Inc. restored the meta-soap opera using technology that wasn’t available in the early 1980s. After thirty- five years or so I am now able to hear the speeches of the characters in a couple of scenes.
It saddens me that Vertamae Grosvenor, Jim Wright, Walter Cotton and Bill Gunn didn’t live to see reviewers praise their idealistic effort because the restored version has received praise. It’s been called “a major discovery,” Art Forum calls it “a startling, totally idiosyncratic work of art.” *
I asked one of the project’s survivors, Robert Polidori, who later became a photographer for The New Yorker magazine and was selected to photograph the restoration of the Château de Versailles, what kind of equipment he would use today. I looked up some of the cameras he cited. I discovered that you can rent cameras that cost nearly $100,000 for under $1000 per day.The amount of money that we spent on the original “Personal Problems” wouldn’t buy a red carpet gown.
The “Race Films” vanished because their producers lacked financing. There were also problems with distribution. That’s no longer an excuse. We’ve come to a juncture in film history where Black, Native-Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans no longer have to rely upon others to define them. As more players are able to tell their stories, from the inside, Hollywood will become like a jeweled dinosaur, unaware that a meteor is about to hit.
Ishmael Reed is Distinguished Professor at the California College of the Arts. His latest novel is “Conjugating Hindi”
*Forthcoming dates for showings of “Personal Problems”
Cleveland Cinematheque, Cleveland,Ohio, June 10,2018
UCLA/Melnitz Movies, Los Angeles,California, June 8,2018
Museum of Fine Arts , Boston, Mass. June, 1,6,8,13,14
If you wish to book Personal Problems in your city contact KinoLorber.com