On Kathleen Collins’s “Losing Ground”
On Kathleen Collins’s Losing Ground
Early in 2015, Film at Lincoln Center hosted a series titled “Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, 1968-1986,” screening various influential films, such as Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It (1986) and Bill Gunn’s Ganja and Hess (1973). Tucked in there as well were two films by lesser-known film director Kathleen Collins: the fifty-minute The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy (1980), shown on opening night, and the feature film Losing Ground (1982), whose several planned showings led to an extended run in the series by popular demand.1
One of the first feature films directed by a Black woman, Losing Ground is situated in a unique place in history, not only for Collins’s accomplishment in managing to create and partially distribute such a film, but also considering it was nearly lost soon after it was released. After running on the non-theatrical track with some success featuring the interior explorations and emotional catharsis of a female Black professor, Losing Ground slowly faded away, in part due to the Collins’s early death, at forty-six, in 1988. Years later, her daughter Nina Lorez Collins came across the film’s negatives and embarked on the mission to restore the film. She succeeded—in 2015 the restoration was finished and the film was reissued under Milestone Films.2
Losing Ground’s themes are no less radical. Sara (Seret Scott), a professor of philosophy in New York, senses a lack in her own life and begins an avid exploration of ecstasy. She prioritizes and explores her interiority while reflecting on the cracks in her marriage with the free-spirited and philandering painter Victor (Bill Gunn), who has insisted on a summer vacation upstate where he paints the Puerto Rican locals. An impulsive decision to partake in a student’s thesis film provides Sara a role with a physical complement to the intellectual and academic side of her exploration. Losing Ground is measured and deliberate with well-placed comedic trims; it finds its rhythm and progression more so in the cresting, falling, and reforming intimate conflicts of Sara than it does in the actions of the characters. Through this rhythm, Collins presents a beautifully radical meditation on self-knowledge and finding a personal harmony that insists on taking a moment to refuse the totalizing force of the external weights and pressures of society (namely here the discrimination a black woman faces) without impractically throwing them away or denying their impact, and thus giving way to liberating possibilities.
The film’s focus on Sara’s burgeoning awareness of her intimate surroundings and slowly peeling back these layers, reflects both in the content and the production/distribution history of the film. For the content is fairly comprehensive and straightforward—the film follows her subjectivity and interior reflections and awakenings, while the cinematography reminds the viewers of this subjectivity and Sara’s emotions and liberating journey toward personal ecstasy splash out onto her evolving wardrobe and the colorful lighting, at times even providing dramatic irony and cluing the viewers in on something long before Sara recognizes it.
The consequences of Collins’s determination to portray a unique and personal story on screen manifested in one sense in how others in the industry responded at the time, as the film was repeatedly denied theatrical distribution and only screened on the non-theatrical track. In 1984, Collins recounted that Losing Ground was refused distribution because, as the distributors explained, “We don’t know any Black people like that, we don’t know any Black women like that, [. . .] where’s the racial angle here?” to which, while summarizing this interaction, she retorts that race comes up in an incredible number of ways in the film.3 This error of failing to understand films that decenter race while still engaging with it continues on to today, as several reviews of the film since its 2015 restoration have praised it for not dealing with race.4 That the film’s engagement with race remain invisible to some viewers is symptomatic of Collin’s self-professed guiding principle of refusing to create myths in her art:
The premise of the movie [Losing Ground] is that no one ultimately 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, [but rather] human experiences.5
For Collins, exploring a personal sense of the unique and the individual is the most important organizing factor for her films. She prioritizes the internal sense of self and truths over external spectacle or impressions. This means most obviously refuting stereotypes and caricatures, but also resisting the representational weight to somehow symbolize the entirety of the Black experience in America.6 It is in this vein that Collins’s films served as concrete examples and inspiration for filmmakers like Julie Dash, who first met and was immediately struck by Collins when studying at City College of New York, later saying that Losing Ground “was the film I had been waiting to see.”7 Dash’s labor of love, Daughters of the Dust (1991), would come out nine years after Losing Ground, following years of fighting for funding, and finally, stood proudly on Collins’s shoulders when the film won a theatrical distribution.8 Both of these films deal with race in a similar way—it is not the central focus in the way that it is in other films of the same era, like Do the Right Thing (1989), nor is race a framing plot conceit as in the social-problem films of Sidney Poitier in the sixties—but to say either film doesn’t deal with race would be to dramatically misunderstand them.
Collins’s productive and imaginative way of approaching the individual character in a narrative is perhaps best illustrated by juxtaposing it with W. E. B. Du Bois’s idea of double-consciousness. In his 1903 The Souls of Black Folk, he recounts how a childhood interaction with a young girl led him to realize that she saw him as Other, and subsequently that this Otherness was visually marked on him. This created a haunting state of “double-consciousness, the sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others,” which itself led to a violent split in his internal sense of self and identity that constantly agitated and felt.9 Collins finds a parallel foundation in Sartre’s Saint Genet, a book that is explicitly referenced in Losing Ground with an on-screen discussion in the opening scene and later on, when Sara is reading the book. Collins explained in a 1984 talk at Howard University that Saint Genet provides her grounding principle for all narratives she creates (plays, fictional prose, and films). According to her summary, Sartre’s text deals with how, in Christian societies, there is a split in the psyche between sinners and saints to allow for a revelatory moment of transformation on an individual level, which is then mapped onto a corresponding social imagination. Subsequently, this gives way to the social creation of scapegoats and outsiders, who are then denied normal capabilities and can only exist on the peripheries and as extraordinary (e.g.: they are super-good or super-bad). This view of binary extremes compromises the outsider’s ability to experience certain things, like love, in a healthy way because of the regulation of what is normal—both themselves and their experiences as outsiders and/or scapegoats are always excluded from representations of normalcy and what constitutes everyday experiences and life.10 It then follows that for Collins one of the most radical things she could do as a Black female filmmaker was to make a narrative film that prioritizes and respects the unique and complex circumstances of a specific Black woman according to her own lived experiences, thus synthesizing Du Bois’s racial double-consciousness with the white (and gay) psychic split of saint and sinner in Saint Genet in a way that positions the narrative to approach a truth beyond externally imposed categories, but instead from an understanding of individual interiority.
Sartre’s idea of the outsider is easily mirrored in Sara’s journey in Losing Ground. Sara explores to hopefully reconcile a perceived disconnect between her mind, body, and emotions via interior reflections. The necessity of this journey is signaled at the start of the film, when her students praise her for her intellectual passion but then mention her husband Victor, much to Sara’s confusion. Woven between these opening interactions are scenes of her with Victor in their loft as he proudly announces the purchase of one of his paintings for an unnamed museum’s permanent collection. Visually, he is depicted as Sara’s foil with a relaxed wardrobe and body language, while she has her hair pulled tightly back into a bun with her shirt buttoned to the top; she is coded as a dully academic and uptight character. However, her students’ praise insists on the opposite: she’s an invigorating intellect. Film scholar Geetha Ramanathan interprets the students’ parting notes that mention Sara’s husband as a devaluation of her intellect by necessarily tying it to her husband, thus echoing a social bind.11 Addressing and countering that interpretation, L.H. Stallings uses bell hook’s Teaching to Transgress to propose that Sara’s students’ comments recognize and affirm of her liberating and passionate position in the classroom, and Stallings critiques Ramanathan’s reading as overly simplistic.12
With Ramanathan’s and Stallings’s interpretations of the scene in mind, I would like to propose an alternate reading that synthesizes these two and goes a bit further. Sara’s students offer honest and enthusiastic praises that ultimately aim to express their value of her lively and impassioned intellect. Their deep respect is illustrated, for example, by how the second student takes the news that she’s failed the final—disappointment without the slightest hint of anger or wanting to challenge the professor’s judgement, but instead trusting. Then come the comments about her husband. The first student asks “Your husband really appreciates you?” which he quickly changes to “I bet your husband appreciates you tremendously.”13 The second student thanks her, looking her in the eyes as she says Sara is a “real inspiration,” and then as she’s leaving adds “and lucky with a husband and all.” Both imply that being so lively and intellectual in the classroom must be at odds with her having a husband, but that Sara must have worked it out somehow, leaving a final note of casual envy in the students’ comments. This deeply confuses Sara, wondering aloud after the second student leaves, “What is this thing they’ve all got about my having a husband?” These questions help prompt her examination of interiority and ecstasy because they praise her for a liveliness she doesn’t quite grasp but also question her individuality (particularly as a Black female professor of Western philosophy) by relating her to her husband. Her husband becomes a moment of inquiry both because of the certain social confinements expected at the time which is what the students seem to reference, but also prompts a reflection on the specificity of her relationship with Victor as such.
The central tension is her perception that nothing she does causes ecstasy, which she explicitly complains about several times in various ways, which is then reinforced through her bumpy relationship with Victor. Only minutes into the film, he insists on going upstate together for a month during the summer. While framing it as a kind of celebration for the museum purchase, most explicitly he expresses (and later acts on) his desire to roam around the town, sketching the beautiful Puerto Rican locals. As he arrives into the room he walks up behind Sara, who is neatly seated on the corner of their bed with papers in front of her studying. He steps up onto the bed carelessly, walking practically on top of her work and ignoring her obvious annoyance. Later on, annoyed by his disregard for the real inconveniences the trip would cause for her and her research, she bitterly retorts: “If I did something artistic like write or art would that get me a little more consideration,” to which he cooly replies “If you were any good.” She continues, frustrated and angry: “Nothing I do leads to ecstasy.” He slaps his thighs and turns his palms towards her. “You stay in a trance, you ever notice that? A kind of private, ecstatic trance. It’s like living with a musician who sitting around all day blowing his horn.” This spat signals from the beginning an explicit perception of an unsatisfactory lifestyle, his general disrespect for what she does and her awareness of that, and her frustrated envy as she watches on while he experiences his own private ecstasies from his passions. She explores this envy of others’ private ecstasies in small ways throughout the film as a secondary way of prompting internal revelations. For example, while Sara is upstate, she goes to a psychic and eagerly asks her what she feels when divining the future, a request the psychic ignores and instead insists on the fortune she’s given Sara.
As the film progresses, Sara grows more liberated and relaxed, which is reflected in her wardrobe, as it changes into neons and first looser, then more revealing, cuts. She also spontaneously accepts a previously denied offer from George, one of her students, to act in his thesis film. It’s a silent and highly stylized adaption of “Frankie and Johnny,” the classic song about a woman who shoots her husband when he finds out he’s cheating on her with a woman named Nellie Bly. While filming, she lets herself go as she dances, wears dramatic and sexy costumes, and kisses the actor playing Frankie, Duke (Duane Jones), for the film without hesitation. Her reactions to Victor grow in intensity—where she used to make a face and move on, she now lays it out for him as he acts out more and more drastically. Toward the end of the film and in front of Sara and the others, he makes unwanted sexual advances towards Celia, a Puerto Rican woman whose portrait he’s painting and has been flirting with the entire film, often in front of Sara and their friends, to which Sara had previously remained quiet. In response to this, however, Sara energetically dresses him down: “You think you can go around taking that thing out in front of me? It’s uncalled for for you to fling your little private ecstasies in my face!” He responds sheepish yet angry: “This is not one of your classes, don’t lecture to me,” to which she yells: “Don’t fuck around then! Don’t take your dick out like it was artistic, like it’s some goddamn paintbrush! Maybe that’s what’s uneven, that I got nothin’ to take out!” She runs back inside (to leave for the city) and he sits there like a child.
However, Collins’s portrayal of Sara’s and Victor’s relationship was far from receiving universal praise. In an issue of the Black Film Review commemorating Kathleen Collins, David Nicholson recounts an event during a 1986 film festival in Atlanta where Losing Ground was screened and Collins gave some sort of talk or Q&A afterwards. At this screening, a man asks her if she’s the director and she replies yes. As Nicholson describes, the man then said “‘You’re a traitor to the race,’ and stalked away. And still later, months later, talking to one of our better-known filmmakers whose work has enjoyed national release, this director-writer-producer told me he did not like ‘Losing Ground’ because it was negative portrait of a Black marriage.”14 This brings us back to the issue of representation—yes, the marriage here is not presented in a glowing light, but it also does not demonize nor essentialize Black marriage. Instead what happens between Sara and Victor is allowed to breathe and be complicated. And crucially, Collins does not pass a verdict on the marriage. The ending fits perfectly with the emotional arc of Sara, as it returns to the student film of “Frankie and Johnny” in its climactic moment. Sara, portraying Frankie, has a very different look than at the start of the film: her hair is completely loose, blowing in her face, her dark hair contrasting against the metallic shine of her earrings and her colorful makeup. A thin black choker is tied around her neck with a bright flower tucked under the left side of the choker. The flower is the same ruby red as her low-cut, skin-tight leotard, that is itself clasped by a bright gold belt with an O-shaped gold buckle, fastening a billowing piece of deep purple fabric as a sort of slit skirt. The fabric brushes against her silver bracelet as the wind pushes the fabric back to emphasize the fishnet stockings on her legs. Measured yet obviously deeply emotional, she watches Johnny dance with Nellie against a (non-diegetic) saxophone sound track. Victor pulls up in his car and sprints up the stairs, jogging up onto the set and quietly looking at a transforming Sara. Excited, George shouts the cues as Sara slowly raises her hand up out of frame to reveal a gun, and shoots Johnny, who dramatically collapses. A close-up shows a tear rolling down her cheek as she contorts her face in emotions and lowers the gun. The camera cuts to Victor, who quietly shifts his eyes down, slightly bowing his head in a gesture of thought. It cuts back to Sara in the same emotional close-up, before fading to black, with only the sound of the wind before the credits roll.
Collins offers us no concrete resolution and has no desire to do so, instead favoring the explosive revelation of Sara mirrored in her outfit, the action in the student film, framed by the film’s reality by Victor’s showing up. Victor is given some complexity in that ultimately he did chase after her all the way back into the city and seems to be finally gaining some awareness of her emotions and the overall situation of their relationship and the recent events as it includes and necessarily involves Sara. Still, Collins gives no concrete idea for how Sara’s emotional transformation here might impact their relationship, nor how Victor might have changed (or not) from recognizing and witnessing this moment. But what is clear is that the connection between the student film and Sara and Victor’s marital disputes collapses in its previous form which the allows it to reform and tighten, synthesizing what had been acted out as two separate realms for Sara of the emotionally cathartic melodramatic acting and her bubbling frustrations with Victor. As Sara recognizes her world as a cohesive, single unit, it is clear that this will impact their marriage. This is complemented nicely by a meta-commentary of the possibility for emotional catharsis at many points of a film: its production (via Sara acting in the student film) and its observation (potentially Victor and potentially the audience watching Losing Ground).
Interestingly enough, however, it is also signaled from the beginning that Sara’s crisis is a problem of perception—this is not to belittle her struggle, but to reaffirm her academic joy and lifestyle and that, perhaps in a slightly clichéd sense, shows that what she needed was always around her. For example, returning to the student interactions at the beginning: They explicitly acknowledge her vivacious and deeply intellectual presence in the classroom, as each student seems slightly entranced as they compliment her, yet Sara does not absorb these comments and instead focuses on their remarks about her husband. However, the existence of this passion manifests in the environment even if she’s not aware. Most noticeably, throughout the scene, cinematographer Ronald Gray took care to subtly emphasize the giant red panes of glass in the upper panels of the office walls that emit a deep red glow. As the student stands to compliment Sara’s liveliness, the camera cuts to an angled close-up that on either side of the student’s head behind her is a panel of the red glass.
This pattern of hinted-at dramatic irony continues scattered throughout the film as the audience is clued into the already existing presence of ecstasy in her daily surroundings while she puzzles over where to find it. The visual cues become more telling as the arc progresses, for example, during an emotional and intimate conversation with her mother one night over dinner, the room is bathed in a soft and low fuchsia glow. Sara repeats her desire to “lose control” and let go like Victor does, to which her mother, who is an actress, offers her own example of private ecstasy: “I’m like that, oh yes, when I’m working in character—I’m gone. I lift a finger, turn my head, smile, drop a line. I’m always in complete control but gone.” Her mother recounts a beau who found her backstage like that, “in a trance,” jealously stormed off, and never returned, evoking the tension again that female intellectual livelihood is somehow at odds with having a partner. Sara wistfully recounts remembering her mother like that, adding “The only thing I’ve known like that is sometimes when I’m writing a paper. My mind suddenly takes this tremendous leap into a new interpretation of the material, and—and I know I’m right, I know I can prove it. My head just starts dancing like crazy . . . But that’s so cold Mama, and so dry. How did someone like you produce a child who thinks so very, very much?” She says it and recognizes it—one form of private ecstasy she experiences is among her academic pursuits, echoed in the reds of her office. But she doubts herself and laments a supposed missed possibility, echoing the systematic devalorization of Black women and their intellect, while even using Victor’s words he used describe her face as he sketched her portrait earlier on: “Cold. Analytical.” L.H. Stallings underscores the devalorization of Black female intellect, presenting a deeply insightful reading of the film that builds towards the radical possibility for “redemptive softness” once Black women realize and begin to value the possibility for a connection between their mind and bodies.
Kathleen Collins speaks to her lean into interiority in her interview with David Nicholson for the Black Film Review: “If I favor anything, I probably always favor the internal resolution before the external resolution. Because for me the internal resolution is the most potent in the psyche. [. . .] You don’t get the resolution [of Losing Ground], but you get the explosive moment. After that, the resolution is not your business. In all my work, I take you to the explosive moment, but that’s basically where I leave you.”15 This works in her favor, as it ultimately allows her to construct a story that is deeply personal and much more radically liberating than if she had striven to rehabilitate stereotypes or mythologize the Black female perspective. One way to understand the stakes of this success better is through the lens of bell hooks’ concept of oppositional gaze. Hooks theorizes Black female spectatorship as one that necessarily develops from a critical perspective due to what was available (or perhaps unavailable) from popular cinema at the time. After being conditioned to come to terms with this lack in numerous ways (yielding tactics from masochism to refusal), these same spectators are allowed a revelatory and hypnotic experience when they find authentic representation on screen.16 Hooks explicitly praises Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust but also cites Kathleen Collins among the filmmakers whose work also provide an authentic portrayal of experience.17 Crucially, films like Losing Ground and Daughters of the Dust signal new “points of recognition” that allow Black women to recognize and use the power of representation to constitute new and unique points of identity, empowering them with the possibilities of future representations.18
These ideas of empowered spectatorship and representation allow for a fantastic rehabilitation of the ideas of ecstatic revelation that often exists within glass boxes separate from the majority of the population, dividing minorities up by pushing them out of popular normalcy and into the peripheries but also containing them there through stereotypes. When discussing Saint Genet in Sara’s class, a student praises how the book shows “how a society can impose group definitions that an individual is powerless against.” Collins takes this idea one step further, by providing a particular and specific example of one woman who pushes herself to be reflective of her surroundings and to ground herself, but then to find an ecstatic and transcendental unity via the stability found in her sense of her foundation, allowing for radical possibilities and power on the most intimate level. In her interview with Nicholson, Collins defends the importance of the Black female perspective in terms of a redemption that goes well past the individual: “But the only residual of softness that’s possible in this culture as far as I am concerned is in the hands of Black women. They must have the capacity to forgive Black men,” explaining that Black men in particular have only exercised the little power they have “out of an intense and godawful and nightmarish relationship to the culture.”19 The stakes of the relations between Black men and women are not to be underestimated: According to Collins, “to separate oneself from Black men is to allow America the final triumph of division.”20 Collins’s thinking provides an interesting lens to further nuance an understanding of Victor’s role in the film. Crucially I certainly see no potential in Losing Ground for a reading that obligates Sara to forgive Victor, which most obviously further supported by the ambiguity of the ending. We do not see Sara and Victor discuss after the revelation precisely because the film builds to empower Black women via the specificity and spiritual mindfulness of its representation, a theme that would’ve been devastatingly overshadowed if interior meditations on specific characters morphed into a didactic and external symbol for this idea. Instead, Collins presents us with the much more liberating ending of empowered possibility.
- “Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, 1968-1986,” Film at Lincoln Center, February 2015.
- “Biography,” Kathleen Collins, written and managed by Nina Lorez Collins, 2016; Lorez Collins simultaneously also found and helped publish a collection of fiction short stories by Kathleen Collins, published as Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Ecco Press in 2016.
- “Kathleen Collinsf Master Class, 1984,” at Howard University, Milestone Film & Video on Vimeo, February 9, 2017.
- See, for example: Tambay Obenson, “Stream of the Day: ‘Losing Ground’ Was Not Only Ahead of Its Own Time, but Ours as Well,” IndieWire, April 9, 2020.
- “Kathleen Collins Master Class, 1984.”
- Here I’m specifically addressing the question of race, but this same weight of representation could easily apply to other identities and their corresponding communities as well who as viewers and critics expect narratives that center their identity to somehow address the entirety of that identity, often direct resulting from a poverty of representation, e.g. with this film expecting it to represent the experiences of all women or all Black women, or even all Black, academic women.
- “Tell It Like It Is | Peggy Dammond Preacely, Julie Dash,” UCLA Film & TV Archive on YouTube, 31 July 2015.
- Daughters of the Dust, directed by Julie Dash, Kino International, 1991.
- W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Penguin Group, 1996), 45.
- “Kathleen Collins Master Class, 1984.”
- Geetha Ramanathan, Feminist Auteurs: Reading Women’s Film (Wallflower, 2006), 160.
- L.H. Stallings, “‘Redemptive Softness’: Interiority, Intellect, and Black Women’s Ecstasy in Kathleen Collin’s Losing Ground,” Black Camera, vol. 2 no. 2 (Spring 2011): 53.
- Losing Ground, directed by Kathleen Collins, Milestone Films, 2015.
- David Nicholson, “A Commitment to Writing: A Conversation with Kathleen Collins Prettyman,” Black Film Review, vol. 5 no. 1 (Winter 1988/89): 7.
- Nicholson, “A Commitment to Writing,” 13.
- bell hooks, “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators,” Black Looks: Race and Representation (South End Press, 1992), 130.
- hooks, “The Oppositional Gaze,” 128.
- hooks, “The Oppositional Gaze,” 128.
- Nicholson, “A Commitment to Writing,” 13.
- Nicholson, “A Commitment to Writing,” 13.