Forgotten Filmmakers: Kathleen Collins’s Losing Ground

One of the first feature films by an African-American woman is Kathleen Collins’s 1982 masterpiece Losing Ground. The film is unique in many respects, not least for its centralisation of the black bourgeoisie. Losing Ground is a rare example of a feminist film focused on a complex, intellectual and reserved black female protagonist. Through its central characters, Collins explores the fundamental conflict between passion and rationality, the visceral and the abstract, moving away from clichés to explore the human condition.

While critically acclaimed, winning multiple awards on the festival circuit, it was not given a theatrical release and so remained a hidden gem until its recent restoration.

Losing Ground’s director Kathleen Collins was a renaissance woman: a translator for French film journal Cahiers du Cinema, a playwright, author, philosopher, theologian and activist, one of the first black film editors, an academic, as well as a screenwriter and producer. She studied at the Sorbonne and at Skidmore College in New York, later becoming a professor of film production and history at the City University of New York.

Collins was part of a wave of black independent filmmakers in the 1980s, making work which challenged the overproduced racial myths of much mainstream cinema, and which revealed the complexity of modern lives. These films were the first major collection of work by independent African-American directors since the early twentieth century ‘race movies’ where black people acted in, produced, directed and distributed their own films to be screened in black cinemas under segregation, making films which challenged the mainstream racial politics of American cinema. The new wave of black directors in the 1980s challenged the 1970s Blaxploitation focus on black men as misogynistic, aggressive and hypersexual, and moved black women from the margins to the centre, while also affirming the right of black directors to explore complex characters and capture life beyond the ghetto. Collins’s first film, The Cruz Brothers and Miss Molloy, explored the relationship between a wealthy elderly Irishwoman and the three Hispanic brothers she hires to work on her house. One of the brothers converses with their dead father, while she seems haunted by her past. For a film dealing in mortality, the impact of the past on the present and migrant narratives, it’s refreshingly funny.

Losing Ground is a film about a black female philosophy lecturer’s existential crisis, as she comes to question her marriage to an artist ruled by his passions. The film stars Seret Scott as Sara and Bill Gunn as Victor (Gunn was also a playwright, and in 1973 directed the independent black vampire classic Ganja and Hess, recently remade by Spike Lee).

Losing Ground addresses the common themes of love, loss and infidelity, but is most interesting for doing so through the eyes of an independent woman, who brings an intellectual and creative tone to a familiar narrative of middle-aged ennui. As such, the film takes an intersectional approach, bringing together questions of gender, sexuality, class and race, as the protagonist explores different aspects of her identity.

Losing Ground centres on a summer in the life of the couple, as Sara and Victor retreat to upstate New York for the summer. Victor has just sold a painting to a major museum and is eager to work away from the city. Sara is writing an academic piece on the emotional and intellectual parameters of ecstasy, examining its role in religion, art and sex. While Sara spends her time in libraries, Victor finds a muse in Celia, a beautiful, local Puerto Rican dancer. When Sara decides to try out acting, art beings to imitate life as she falls for her older, onscreen lover, using him as a way to push back against her husband’s humiliatingly open infidelity.

In many ways, the film is about a woman trying to reclaim her sexual self, outside of its relationship to her husband, her society or the stereotypes imposed upon it. Here the interior is made exterior as we hear Sara’s thoughts on her research into the ‘ecstatic experience’.

We are also made witness to the male gaze and its constructions of femininity through Victor’s artistic process. It is notable that Collins includes a student film shoot within the film, a work which plays on the ‘tragic mulatta’ stereotype and uses expressive dance. Usually, in films which operate via the male gaze, this dance sequence would be used to reduce the female body to a sexual commodity through a series of shots of legs, arms, bust and face, designed to seduce and be consumed by the spectator. Collins challenges this common trope: here the black female body is not fragmented, rather we see her full body as she moves, establishing her autonomy. Indeed the film is an attempt to move away from reductive representations of black women as hypersexual jezebels or asexual mammies, as abusive, drugged out welfare queens or abused, impoverished victims. These mainstream stereotypes are referenced within the film by Sara’s mother Leila, who as an actress bemoans the limited depictions of black women on stage and screen. Here Collins provides a broader gaze on gender and race, a set of lightly drawn but three dimensional representations which attempt to depict the fullness of one’s being and affirm the importance of self-determination.

Collins’s work is highly influenced by the 1960s French new wave movement, particularly Eric Rohmer whom Collins called her greatest cinematic influence “because of his respect for language”. This influence is evident in both the decision to narrate Sara’s internal dialogue as she develops her theoretical approach, and in the marked visual shift of her movement from repressed wife to autonomous, sexually liberated equal. Like Rohmer, Collins went on to influence a new generation of filmmakers, opening the doors for black women choosing to work behind the camera, from Julie Dash to Ngozi Onwurah, both through her teaching on cinematic language and through her film work. Yet decades later, we still have a fairly limited array of black female representations in Western cinema, and indeed black female directors, although the success of films like Hidden Figures and filmmakers like Ava DuVernay, suggest that this is changing.

Like much of the French new wave, Losing Ground is about the pursuit of freedom and self-expression; it is a tribute to independent thought and actively lived lives. The film challenges our prejudices, inviting us to question our understanding of love and morality, as well as female spectatorship and the construction of black female subjectivity onscreen. As such, Collins’s film is a philosophical enquiry into intersectional feminism, racial representation and the film essay. In centralising the black female gaze, it is a fitting tribute to the female experience and the universal right to self-determination, as well as an important counterpoint to a cinematic legacy of underrepresentation.

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