Anticipation and longing.
That’s what so many within the black independent film community have been feeling ever since the seminal film Losing Ground was directed by Kathleen Collins. Some folks had known Collins, who died at age 46 in 1988. Others had moved in her orbit as students, or as crew on the set of her film. Across the decades, scholars and curators and filmmakers alike have referenced Collins’ groundbreaking film about a black woman intellectual with an artist husband on a quest for sexual liberation. Everyone knew about this mythic film.
But almost no one had seen it.
Including me. As an emerging filmmaker in the ’90’s, I felt I’d found a kindred spirit after chancing upon an interview with Kathleen Collins in Black Film Review. She was so erudite, so passionate, so inspiring about the life of a woman artist. I used her quote as the opening for my short film, Creative Detours (“If there is any way in which women tend to be self-destructive, it’s in the area of creativity, where they actually feel their own power and can’t either acknowledge it or go to the end of it… They get scared…they detour out of respect for their own creativity”).
Later, I felt empowered to portray a film-within-a-film for my feature, Naked Acts, because I knew that Losing Ground included a film-within-a-film. I felt empowered to tell the story of a community of black artists and actors because I knew another black woman filmmaker had done just that. And I felt empowered to explore a black woman’s inner life and sexuality on the screen because I knew Collins had already ventured to do so.
The parallels continued: I too was a CUNY professor taking the means of production into my own hands, spurred by the belief that I could contribute to my generation’s black-film movement. Learning that Collins had been one of the first African-American women to write and direct a feature film, I thought of her as my guardian angel — and that spurred me to become one of the first African American women to write, direct and self-distribute a film. I was deeply inspired by Losing Ground. Yet, ironically, I hadn’t seen the film.
As the opening night film for the extraordinary series, Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, 1968-1986, Losing Ground had its long-awaited, along-overdue theatrical release last Friday at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater. You could feel gratitude and excitement amidst the sold-out crowd. Thanks in large measure to the efforts of Collins’ own daughter Nina Collins, distributor Milestone Films, and Creatively Speaking’s Michelle Materre (the dedicated curator who has supported me as well as dozens of other black filmmakers), Losing Ground was rescued from a film vault, where it had languished for 33 years, and is finally getting its due on the big screen.
Was it worth the wait? Absolutely. Collins’ film is both a time capsule and a timeless gem. It tells the story of a Philosophy professor and her painter husband, whose marriage has reached a complicated crossroads; they leave the city for the country and while there, the two experience individual and collective re-awakenings. Collins casts the formidable playwright/ filmmaker/actor/novelist Bill Gunn alongside the charismatic actor and filmmaker Duane Jones to delve into everything from the power of art to the complexity of modern marriage to the mother/daughter bond to the student/professor relationship to the contrast between abstraction and reality to the journey of a woman’s sexual evolution. In doing so, Collins puts images on film of intellectual and artistic African Americans that simply had not been seen in a pre-Cosby Show, pre-Spike Lee era. She is, in short, a seminal American filmmaker and Losing Ground is radical and disruptive and wondrous –a stand-out star within the canon of 1980’s independent cinema. It’s sad, really, that we didn’t get to see this film when originally intended. As Seret Scott, the film’s lead actress, said during the opening night’s Q&A: “The images in this film are images we should’ve grown up with.”
Thankfully, audiences can see those arresting images now. If you haven’t yet, you’re in luck: the film’s run has been extended due to popular demand. Losing Ground screens every day through Feb 19 — with multiple weekend screenings. Check out other films in the series as well: You don’t want to miss this sprawling survey of black narrative and documentary film made across 14 key years in American cinema history.
The best thing about Losing Ground‘s long-awaited release is that a new generation of independent filmmakers can be influenced by its complex storyline, rich portrayals and distinct style.
And I am beyond grateful that I finally got to see the film that inspired me to make my own.