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Barely released in 1982 and all but unseen for over three decades, Kathleen Collins’ “Losing Ground” was a rare instance where the matter of a middle-aged black woman intellectual’s interior life is generously examined — and illustrated in rich symbolistic terms. It brings to life the dreams and disappointments of talented, educated black women who in the shadow of patriarchy. It’s a challenging and unpredictable movie that deserves the enthusiastic reception that met its rediscovery five years ago.
Philosophy professor Sara Rogers (Seret Scott) and her bohemian artist husband Victor (Bill Gunn) rent a summer country house to celebrate his museum sale. But what was to be an idyll summer (she’s researching “ecstatic experiences,” and he’s living them) is challenged where their conflicting intellectual and orgiastic pursuits collide.
Chaos and confusion disrupt her carefully ordered life, when her painter husband — possibly experiencing a mid-life crisis of his own — takes interest in one of his young subjects. Sara gradually drifts even further into herself, if only to escape the realities of a crumbling marriage. She pursues her research into the religious and philosophical pathways, and her search to find them in her own life. When she agrees to perform in a student’s thesis film, she’s charmed by her costar. The plot of the student film, a retelling of the song about doomed love titled “Frankie and Johnny,” mirrors the troubles in her own marriage.
At the beginning of “Losing Ground,” Sara’s priorities are limited to academic pursuits. She has a habit of intellectualizing experiences instead of just simply experiencing them. By the end, she finds some release: Acting in the student film brings out an impulsiveness in her personality that she had previously suppressed, as she begins to bond closely with her acting partner, while easygoing husband Victor becomes immersed in an extramarital affair, as they drift further and further apart. Collins balances out these circumstances with heady debates about abstract concepts and concrete realities in art and life.
The film ends with no easy resolutions, and its sobering and abrupt finale might have foreshadowed Collins’ own tragically shortened career.
One of the first narrative features written and directed by an African-American woman, “Losing Ground” followed a previous decade in American cinema dominated by blaxploitation machismo. It may seems like a bit of an oddity for a film with a black woman lead, given the arty references and cerebral humor that make it more of a sibling to Woody Allen’s brand of bourgeois dramedy. It’s teeming with big ideas about life and death, and makes absorbing psychological observations, but entirely devoid of pretentiousness.
Sara is a thinker whose intellectual passions mimic those of Collins, who engaged in numerous intellectual pursuits herself. She attended Harvard and the Sorbonne, earning a master’s in French literature in her early 20s, and was a college professor as well. It’s all evident on the screen. So it could very well be that Sara was in some ways Collins’ unflattering self-portrait.
Themes explored in Collins’ own work include issues of marital strife, male dominance, freedom of expression and intellectual pursuit. Her protagonists are typically incredibly self-reflective women who move from a state of subjugation to empowerment, as is the case with Sara Rogers.
That “Losing Ground” still feels fresh, over three decades later, is not only a testament to its timelessness — it’s a sad indicator of how scarce complex depictions of the inner lives of black women in contemporary American cinema remain to this day.
Sara’s plight is less fascinating than the way Collins characterizes her as the center of a quiet storm of dreamlike interruptions, including her interactions with a seemingly mysterious stranger – a charming out-of-work actor played by Duane Jones, best known for the original “Night of the Living Dead,” and one of the principal characters in Gunn’s “Ganja & Hess” – who revels in a similar kind of intellectual vigor, and who’s introduced into Sara’s life at an opportune moment, in her search for “ecstatic experiences.”
The film is so beautifully shot that Collins credited cinematographer Ronald K. Gray for his “cinematographic direction,” and the film never looks cheap despite its modest $125,000 budget.
As an East Coaster, Collins didn’t emerge from the celebrated L.A. Rebellion film movement of the time, but her work certainly contributed to a new generation of upstart African and African American filmmakers responsible for an emerging “Black Cinema” that acted as an alternative to dominant classical Hollywood moviemaking – especially where representations of people of African descent were concerned. And for a black woman, that was a noteworthy feat, when black women filmmakers were all-but invisible.
“Losing Ground” is an art film, but its artiness is easy to succumb to. It’s an inspiring work of cinema, portraying intellectuals of African descent without succumbing to caricature, bombast, or camp. And it has almost nothing to do with race.
While “Losing Ground” is a rousing experience, the story behind it has a sadder ending. Collins and her two male leads, Bill Gunn and Duane Jones, died decades before the film was rescued by the filmmaker’s daughter, Nina Collins, who restored it from the original negative to create a beautiful digital master. Milestone Films would premiere it in 2015, at Lincoln Center, as part of a survey of independent African-American cinema produced in New York between 1968 and 1986. But Collins wasn’t around to see any of that. She died of cancer in 1988 at just 46 years old, and it was the only feature she lived to make.
“Losing Ground” is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel.