Our minds are intricate. Our desires are complex. We are gorgeously contradictory in our epistemologies. We were not invented yesterday.
―Kathleen Collins, Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?
Black women filmmakers—not invented yesterday and invented by no one but themselves—have persistently been making imaginative work in spite of the many obstacles and restrictions they’ve faced. The sixty plus films included in a recent series at Film Forum, “Black Women: Trailblazing African American Actresses & Images, 1920–2001,” exemplify their innovative and lasting legacies. One of these, Losing Ground (1982), by the filmmaker, playwright, and novelist Kathleen Collins, is a particularly incandescent example of filmmaking as a process of defiant self-creation.
The series, curated by black film historian Donald Bogle and artist and archivist Ina Archer for Film Forum, favored the catalog of 1920s to 1960s “classical Hollywood,” featuring Hattie McDaniel, Dorothy Dandridge, Josephine Baker, and many others. Bolstered by the mythic force of their star power, these black women actors remarkably subverted racist and reductive storylines through the nuances of their performances. Their boundary-breaking careers developed in a Hollywood overrun with limiting and dehumanizing caricatures and almost exclusively controlled by white direction and production. It was only beginning in the 1960s, with the rise of black independent cinema in the US, that filmmakers like Kathleen Collins were increasingly able to make films portraying black people, and black women especially, free from institutional racism and sexism.
The year Losing Ground was made, 1982, marks an important point in the Film Forum series—the beginning of an era of movies not only featuring black women performers, but also written and directed by black women filmmakers. The works included in this particular part of the series serve as historical markers: Daughters of the Dust (1991, Julie Dash) was the first American feature directed by an African-American woman to receive a general theatrical release; The Watermelon Woman (1996, Cheryl Dunye) was the first feature directed by a black lesbian; Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. (1992, Leslie Harris) and Eve’s Bayou (1997, Kasi Lemmons) were two of pitifully few films before the 2000s that took black girlhood as a serious subject; and, lastly, the only non-independent film in this list, Down in the Delta (1998) was the only feature film directed by Maya Angelou. Despite their historical importance, these films were more than aberrant inaugural events that overcame the structural biases of the mainstream film industry; they were artistically accomplished and part of a cumulative objective that films made by black women become ordinary occurrences.
Losing Ground, Collins’s second film, failed to get distribution within her lifetime (she died of breast cancer at forty-six in 1988), and only gained a theatrical release in 2015, thirty-three years after it was made. Milestone Films’s release catalyzed something of a rediscovery of Collins’s work as a writer as well as a filmmaker, thanks to the dedicated efforts of her daughter, Nina Lorez Collins. The first collection of Kathleen Collins’s writing, Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?, reviewed in these pages by Vivian Gornick, was released in 2016, and a second, Notes from a Black Woman’s Diary: Selected Works of Kathleen Collins, was published just last year.
Losing Ground opens with Sara (Seret Scott), a philosophy professor—a role still rarely played by black women—lecturing before a chalkboard, followed by a counter-shot showing her audience of rapt students. In this first scene and throughout the film, Sara demonstrates a complete mastery of the traditionally white canon of Western philosophy. The drama of the plot stems from her frustration with the limitations of academia, which drives what she calls her search for ecstasy—the desire for a fuller, more sensual life. While Sara’s middle-class stability contributes to this feeling of being stifled, it also gives her exploratory latitude. The urgency of her search is exacerbated by her deteriorating marriage to the impassioned, egomaniacal painter Victor (Bill Gunn). His decision to rent an upstate summer home and dismissive responses to Sara’s concerns about how the move will interfere with her work are compounded by a contempt for her interest in what he considers to be his domain—art.
The way toward a liberated, fuller life for Sara turns out to be through cinema itself. Ironically, the academic world she seeks to escape also provides the way out when one of her students, George, convinces her to act in his movie. In a clever technical foreshadowing, we see Sara doubled through the monocle he holds up as he tells her, “You could be a movie star, professor. Dorothy Dandridge, Bright Road, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer MGM 1953.” Initially skeptical, Sara eventually agrees to perform in George’s film.
This is how a philosophy professor in search of ecstasy becomes a movie star. Losing Ground is delightfully irreverent, saturated with bright colors, vibrant interiors, and lush greenery. The scenes set upstate especially convey a whimsical yet biting riff on a pastoral. Between country and city, Sara’s experiments with re-writing her relationship to herself undergo a choreography of improvisation and exchange, foremost with Duke (Duane Jones), her acting partner, a dapper and mysterious man in a cape. The two flirt between takes, sharing interest in the rapturous possibilities of pre-Christian theology. But Sara’s conversation with her actor mother Leila (Billie Allen) is just as important. Leila’s amusing and sensual personality is conveyed with one-liners like “I’d love to play a real sixty-year-old Negro lady who thinks more about men than God,” as she provides precedent, maternal guidance, and inter-generational wisdom to Sara’s search. As they giggle over Leila’s past flings, Sara is inspired by her mother’s wistful narration of the doubleness of acting: “When I’m acting really well it’s like that […] I’m in complete control, yet gone.”
In the next scene, Sara moves to George’s playful directorial guidance: “And reverse. Yeah. And walk around. And, bump, bump and stay. And boogie, boogie, boogie, boogie.” Exuberantly dancing with Duke, in a tangle of autonomy and surrender, Sara seems finally to achieve her desire to be enraptured, to “lose control…fling myself about.” Her newly accessed abandon is tracked through her changing clothing—she goes from being literally buttoned up, wearing only muted colors, to low-cut leotards, dramatically slit skirts, and bright dresses. Sara doesn’t, however, make a one-time flip from high-neck to décolleté, or from academia to acting. In fact, throughout, in tandem with her larger search, she is working furiously on a paper about ecstasy in philosophy.
Similarly, the film refuses a clear distinction between aesthetics and politics. While Collins was herself politically active, and crucially participated in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and voter registration movement in Albany, Georgia, Losing Ground elides politics in the formal sense. Yet the themes of authorial, intellectual, and expressive legitimacy that pulse through Losing Ground form their own political statement— reinforced by her decision to focus the film’s story on the daily routine of a middle-class black couple. During a 1984 masterclass at Howard University, Collins spoke about white producers who questioned the legitimacy of her characters, saying, “We don’t know any black people like that. We don’t know any black women like that.”
Losing Ground breaks not only with stereotypical depictions of mainstream movies but also the over-corrective reaction to them, what Collins called the demand for “mythical black people.” At Howard, Collins asked, “How do we divest ourselves from the need to make ourselves extraordinary?” Hollywood metrics, organized around the star, required that if a black woman appeared as a protagonist at all, she could not be just some “ordinary” woman. But the radiant Seret Scott was all but unknown outside her theater career. Her relative anonymity was itself an important artistic claim for Collins, as Losing Ground critically pushed back against facile depictions and monolithic reductions of black people in the mainstream cinematic canon.
Indeed, the idea of a stable, single canon has always policed the borders of experimental projects such as Collins’s. This is one revelation of Saidiya Hartman’s book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (2019), an examination of radical, everyday black intimate life in Philadelphia and New York at the beginning of the twentieth century. Hartman draws on lost and partially recovered archival materials to illustrate the lives of black urban women searching for new ways of living freely—stories that have historically been neglected, forgotten, or erased.
The work of black women in American film has in fact always been less about canons than archives—prioritizing the recovery of such omissions in order to disrupt dominant structures. The projects of recent black women filmmakers like Ja’Tovia Gary’s Giverny I (Négresse Impériale) (2017) and Garret Bradley’s America (2019) show this continuing evolution. Their exquisite films weave archival fragments into their contemporary footage to generate new visual meaning. That Losing Ground is both a predecessor and, in the sense of release and sensibility, a contemporary to these films is fitting.
Collins’s film ends with the last scene of the student movie in which Sara stars. A vaudeville comedy, it is based on the American ballad “Frankie and Johnny,” in which Frankie finds Johnny with another woman and shoots him. Sara’s husband, Victor—who, like Johnny, has been romantically involved with another woman (his latest muse) and yet feels threatened by Sara’s co-star—shows up for this last take. In the final minutes of Losing Ground, Sara, playing Frankie, shoots her onscreen partner while Victor looks on. Whether her streaming tears are effective acting or a reaction to Victor’s presence and his painful affair is not resolved. There is no answer to the question of their fractured marriage, nor is this a definitive final step in Sara’s process of transformation. Collins’s deft touch allows this stunning final scene to exist with multiple, even contradictory, emotional textures. It is on-the-nose symbolic revenge, absurd melodrama, and an exultant and believable moment of release and self-assertion for Sara.
In this way, Losing Ground exemplifies how black women on both sides of the camera experiment with possibility, complexity, and ambiguity to challenge the frame. With Stuart Hall’s notion in mind, that evolving identities are shaped and formed by acts of representation, the making of a film and the making of a self are here intertwined and mutually reinforcing. This final scene of Collins’s film emphasizes how the interior process and exterior manifestations of self-creation are totally routine, impossible to categorize, and always unfinished. About Losing Ground, Kathleen Collins said, “No one is going to mythologize my life. No one is going to refuse me the right to explore my experiences of life as normal experiences, neither outside nor inside.”
“Black Women: Trailblazing African American Actresses & Images, 1920–2001” was at Film Forum from January 17 through February 13. Losing Ground is available on DVD and blu-ray from Milestone and on The Criterion Channel.