On a rainy day at the end of March, students huddled into the African American Studies Center to view a showing of Kathleen Collins’ “Losing Ground” (1982), the first full-length feature film to be written and directed by a black woman. The film revolves around Sara (Seret Scott), a philosophy professor beloved by her students and married to a free-spirited artist, Victor (Bill Gunn). Sara, initially characterized as hyper-intellectual and uptight, embarks on an academic journey to discover ecstatic bliss, beginning in textbooks and ending up acting in one of her student’s film, opposite the mysterious and dapper Duke (Duane Jones).
Nina Collins, Kathleen’s daughter, attended the screening and held a Q&A session afterward. “Losing Ground” was the second film Kathleen ever made, and it never had a theatrical release, making almost no money and circuiting through various festivals until it was forgotten. Eventually it was rediscovered and critically acclaimed as a pivotal work of African-American cinema. Although Kathleen Collins died in 1988, six years after “Losing Ground” stopped circulating, a review in The New Yorker made her posthumously famous.
The film itself features many autobiographical elements, according to Nina, and much of it was even filmed in Kathleen’s own house. As a writer, Kathleen tended to concentrate on domestic life and personal relationships, very often drawing from her own experiences. The character of Victor, specifically, had been based off of Kathleen’s real life husband and Nina’s father. In the film, Victor cheats on Sara with a Puerto Rican woman (Maritza Rivera), who he meets while looking for models to paint. Early into the film, Victor convinces Sara to move away from New York and her studies so Victor may paint in Riverside, a Puerto Rican neighborhood, over the summer. Victor is an abstract painter, but switches to landscapes as a reflection of his bright surroundings, whose vibrance permeates throughout the film.
Although Kathleen Collins became the first black female writer-director, it wasn’t until 2014 that a black female director’s film received an Oscar nomination, with Ava DuVernay’s “Selma.” For a 1980s audience, a black female protagonist in higher academia was all but unheard of. Collins herself was a professor, and the university scenes were shot at her own City College where she taught. In one scene, Sara visits a psychic in a moment of curiosity.
“My mother was very interested in psychics and the supernatural,” Nina said. “Sara was very much like a younger version of my mother.”
Sara learns she is going to meet a handsome man in a top hat, and when she hears of her costar, Duke, the semblance of a romance (limited to the confines of acting space) begins. George’s scenes offer witty meta-commentary on the nature of filming. As he tells his camera man to pan down, the actual frame shifts in an usual moment of self-awareness. This gag continues the feature’s ongoing conflation of film and reality. When George tells his lovestruck costars to kiss, they comply all too willingly. The final scene of “Losing Ground” shows Sara’s film character discovering her lover was unfaithful, deciding to shoot him in cold blood. Victor arrives to the set on time to see her revenge, and the film fades as each level of reality superimposes upon one another. The ending may seem trite to a modern audience, but it surpasses many conventions of the era.
Recently, Nina Collins has a published a collection of autobiographical short stories written by her mother, called “What Ever Happened to Interracial Love?” Much of the stories take place ten years prior to the filming of “Losing Ground,” when Kathleen was roughly the age of her character, Sara. True to its title and to Kathleen’s tendencies in her films, the stories focus on love and relationships during her youth. For those curious to learn more about the underrated yet influential filmmaker, it may be worth the read.