Kathleen Collins in New York | Credit: Mark Reid
There’s no need to tell you that there have always been independent black filmmakers, long before Spike Lee burst upon the scene in the mid-1980's; too many to mention just a few. But one significant name, who, until recently, had been overlooked, was playwright/professor/poet and filmmaker Kathleen Collins, perhaps because her list of film credits consists of just two pictures, and that she died relatively young, at the age of 46, in 1988, after a long battle with breast cancer.
Of the work she created, the feature film that made her a name was 1982's "Losing Ground," which, as critics note, "changed the face and content of the black womanist film." Yet, for over 2 decades, "Losing Ground" remained mainly unseen by the public. As other films of its ilk have experienced over the years, it was considered by film distributors at the time to be too radical, too difficult for audiences to comprehend, believing that there wasn't an audience for a film based on the lives of black intellectuals and artists.
It did travel the international film festival circuit in the early 1980’s, and yet, surprisingly, it was never screened publicly in New York City until 2016. However, it was rightfully praised by the few who saw it at the time of its initial tour - a film that can legitimately called a landmark in the history of black independent cinema.
"Losing Ground" is, in effect, a film-within-a-film, revolving around Sara (Seret Scott) a university professor who finds herself in an emotional and spiritual crisis, when she discovers her husband Victor’s (Bill Gunn, the director of "Ganja and Hess") infidelities.
As a way to cope with her situation, and to find herself again, Sara agrees to act in a student’s film project, which very much reflects her own personal situation – "a moment of profound and shattering emotion that calls her ordered intellectual existence into question."
"Losing Ground" was revolutionary in its time (and is still very much today), as the first film that was set in the world of the well-to-do black intelligentsia, not far removed from Collins’ life. And, in fact, many have speculated, including Collins, that the film’s refusal to succumb to the usual black stereotypes and negative imagery, is what caused it to be ignored by the media (including the black media), and was never released theatrically, except for a one-time only showing on a local New York PBS station.
However, almost 30 years after Ms. Collins’ death, a new restored print of "Losing Ground" was released by Milestone Films last year, in theaters and on DVD and blu-ray, rediscovered and widely acclaimed as a revelatory film that needed to be seen and discussed, including right here on S&A . The filmmaker’s daughter, Nina Collins, along with Milestone, worked with DuArt Film to rescue the original 16MM negatives, and remastered the original soundtrack to create new digital masters.
And in a nice surprise just last week, Milestone released online a mostly unseen archived 2-hour video conversation from a filmmaking and screenwriting lecture at Howard University in 1984, during which Ms. Collins gave an interview, and fielded questions with filmmaker Haile Gerima's (who is not seen in the video but heard off camera).
Of course, being a professor herself at City University of New York, Collins naturally knows how to hold the students (and our) attention, being, as you will see, such a passionately intense person. But what follows is not just a simple discussion of how to write a screenplay, or direct a film. Instead she talks in depth about how to delve into the psychology and motivations of the characters while invoking references to various other subjects, including French and Russian literature, and religion; she also talks about her own filmmaking technique, as well as her background and various personal experiences that informed her work, while facing barriers she encountered as a black woman, an artist and intellectual.
It's a fascinating lecture that comes with a sadness as you watch it, realizing that such a profound talent and human being left us too soon. One wonders what other films she might have made if she was still with us today.
Watch the 1984 Kathleen Collins interview from Milestone Film & Video below: