Making ground: remembering Kathleen Collins

As the reputation of Kathleen Collins’ enrapturing, semi-autobiographical Losing Ground finally grows, nearly 35 years after its release, it’s also time to honour its late maker and her all-too-brief career.

Kathleen Collins in New YorkMark Reid

▶︎ Losing Ground is available on Blu-ray and DVD from the US distributor Milestone Films.

Born in 1942 in Jersey City, USAKathleen Collins was raised in a religious home, and grew up with no special connection to cinema. In 1963, after receiving her BA in philosophy and religion, she became an active part of the African-American civil rights movement, joining the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and organising voter registration drives in the Jim Crow south. In 1966, the year following the passage of the Voting Rights Act, Collins travelled to Paris to study at the Sorbonne for an MA in French literature and cinema, focusing on films that had been adapted from novels. Her love for the art form blossomed, and she developed a particular affection for the talky, languid relationship dramas of Eric Rohmer (“That’s the only person who’s ever influenced me cinematically,” she would later tell an interviewer, “because of his respect for language”). Between 1965 and 1967, Collins also worked as a translator for Cahiers du Cinèma in Paris.

Back in America, while studying for a doctoral degree in theology, Collins worked as a researcher in educational television. By accident, she stumbled into the cutting room, and editing became both her first practical filmmaking obsession, and her ticket to a profession – she soon received her union card and became one of a tiny handful of black editors in New York. At the same time, Collins also wrote plays and short stories which frequently explored themes of male dominance and emotional impotence, and struggles for freedom of intellectual pursuit and expression for women.

In the early 1970s, as film courses became more widespread, the experienced Collins found herself in demand; in 1974, shortly after the end of her first marriage, she took a role as professor of film history and screenwriting at the City University of New York. As years passed, Collins considered adapting several of her own stories, but didn’t yet trust herself to make the emotional leap of directing her own material. Encouraged by one of her students, Ronald Gray, Collins worked with Ukranian-born American novelist Henry Roth on a film adaptation of his short story The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy, about three Puerto Rican orphan brothers hired by a mysterious, geriatric Irish lady to renovate her crumbling mansion in Upstate New York.

The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy (1980)

Shot in gauzy tones by Gray, and clocking in just shy of an hour, the film (completed in 1980) is a moving, enigmatic puzzle; part-wry comedy, part-oblique ghost story – the eldest son seeks counsel from his dead father, a garrulous offscreen voice. Collins was criticised in some quarters for not focusing on the African-American experience for her for her first film, but it was a vital learning curve nonetheless. Alongside Gray, she soon began work on her next film project, Losing Ground, a semi-autobiographical drama with a title borrowed from her own collection of short stories.

This mesmerising, lyrical film, released in 1982, is a study of the strained relationship between philosophy professor Sara (Seret Scott, a long-time friend and associate of Collins) and her mercurial painter husband Victor (Bill Gunn, a playwright, and director of films including 1973’s cult vampire classic Ganja and Hess). Buoyant following the acquisition of his work by a museum, Victor implores Sara to join him for a summer retreat in upstate New York. She acquiesces, but when they reach their destination, matters are complicated by Victor’s roving eye – he instantly embarks on a serious flirtation with a beautiful Puerto Rican dancer – and Sara’s commitment to her academic research on the pursuit of the ‘ecstatic’, a state stubbornly at odds with her bookish, serious persona. It is an ultra-rare example of a feminist film focused on a complex, intellectual and sexual black female character.

Losing Ground (1982)

Although Losing Ground never received a full theatrical release, it won awards on the festival circuit and became the first feature-length drama directed by a black American woman. Few people knew, however, that Collins had been privately battling cancer. As her illness worsened, she continued to work on plays (1981’s In the Midnight Hour, 1982’s The Brothers), screenplays, and what would have been her debut novel, Lollie: A Suburban Tale. Sadly, she passed away in 1988 at the age of just 46 in Nyack, New York, leaving behind her second husband, a daughter, two sons, and two stepchildren. (Less than a year later, Gunn died at 54 from encephalitis, also in Nyack.)

Losing Ground (1982)

For over two decades, Collins’ films were little known outside academic and black cinephile circles. Ironically, it took the decline of celluloid to catalyse the restoration of her work and profile. In 2010, on the eve of closing of its processing lab, Manhattan’s DuArt Film and Video contacted Collins’ daughter, Nina, about the recovery of her mother’s film prints. Nina assumed the task, working closely with New Jersey-based distribution company Milestone Films on the restoration.

Losing Ground was selected as the centrepiece film of a season of black New York independent cinema that ran at the city’s Film Society of Lincoln Center in February 2015, and garnered a raft of deservedly strong reviews. With the current home release (c/o Milestone) of Collins’ two features, it is to be hoped that she will serve as an inspiration to a new generation of filmmakers.

Kathleen Collins at the editing table