It’s easy for someone who has never made a film to underestimate the difficulty of producing one, especially the challenges of a feature film. Even with the conveniences of modern filmmaking, digital cinematography and distribution, editing programs that are cheaper than ever, a feature film is still an enormous undertaking.
So Kathleen Collins deserves respect for managing to produce her feature film Losing Ground even before you consider that she achieved this in 1982 as an independent filmmaker. But what earns her place in history is that when she wrote and directed Losing Ground, she was one of the first African-American women to produce a feature length drama.
Born in 1942 and raised in New Jersey, Collins attended Skidmore College. She was class president, wrote editorials for the Skidmore News, and majored in French. In 1962, she met leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee on campus. Collins became active in the Civil Rights Movement, traveling to Georgia to help register voters and she was arrested twice for her work with the Albany Movement. In an article in the Jersey Journal, it was reported she spent part of her time in jail teaching the other prisoners about civil rights and voting registration. She earned her BA in philosophy and religion in 1963.
She then became a teacher, working at a high school teaching French during the day while attending Harvard in the evenings. In 1965 a scholarship gave her a new opportunity, and she left for Paris to attend Paris-Sorbonne University, where one of her classes focused on film adaptations of literature and she discovered an interest in film. A year later she earned an MA in French literature and cinema.
Returning to the U.S., she worked at the New York public broadcasting network as an editor on programs like American Dream Machine, The Fifty-First State, and Black Journal. After leaving the network, she continued to work as an editor while also writing her own stories. She finished her first screenplay in 1971, but was unable to pursue the project at the time, saying “nobody would give any money to a black woman to direct a film. It was probably the most discouraging time of my life.”
Collins had two young children she was raising as a single mother when she became a film history and screenwriting teacher at City College at the City University of New York while also working as an assistant director on the Broadway productions of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and The Wiz.
In an article for Vogue, her daughter remembers that “the dominant sounds of my childhood are of my mother’s IBM Selectric II clattering away behind her bedroom door; film swishing through the Steenbeck editing machine that sat in our dining room; and, occasionally, Tina Turner blaring from the stereo while she danced like a madwoman in the living room.” Kathleen Collins was a woman who “wrote incessantly.” In addition to her films, she was also an accomplished playwright, with her works including In The Midnight Hour and The Brothers.
One of Collins’ students encouraged her to direct her own projects and she wrote and directed The Cruz Brothers and Mrs. Malloy, based on a story by her friend Henry Roth. She put together $5,000 of investments by friends and a line of credit from DuArt Labs as production funding and filmed on location in Rockland County, New York. She later said, “It was awful doing a movie for $5,000. It was like going down a terribly long tunnel…but we did it.” The film won first prize at the Sinking Creek Film Festival.
Shortly after that success, she began work on Losing Ground. She raised a larger budget this time, with a final budget of $125,000. The film stars Seret Scott as Sara Rogers, a philosophy professor spending a summer at a country house with her artist husband while searching for “ecstatic experiences.” Critic A.O. Scott called it “a story of emotional distress and creative striving among the black intelligentsia, with the wobbly marriage of a painter and philosophy professor at its center.” The film also starred Bill Gunn and Duane Jones.
While Losing Ground was well received at international festivals, and won first prize at Figueroa Film Festival in Portugal, it did get not a distribution deal and did not screen in theaters.
In an interview shortly after finishing Losing Ground, Collins talks about how she had previously been offered a job at a major network as a producer and had rejected the opportunity. “I did consciously turn that job down. I did say that I don’t really feel that whatever creative work that is going to come out of me will come out successfully if I have to work off other people’s formulas…I don’t think I would have ever gotten the chance to direct at all; I would have never gotten the chance to write my own scripts…I consider it a necessity that I do it independently. And I can’t imagine ever veering from that.”
Tragically, Collins died of breast cancer in 1988 at the age of 46 before much of the world became familiar with her film work. She had kept her illness a secret from her family until only a few weeks before her death, leaving two teenaged children behind. Her daughter Nina Collins gathered up her mother’s writings and other work and stored it for many years, finding it too painful to revisit at first.
In the early 2000’s, when Nina wanted to explore her own history, she opened up the archive and began sorting through what she found there. There were unpublished plays and stories, unproduced screenplays, and VHS copies of her mother’s films.
Rewatching Losing Ground as an adult, Nina said the film “was particularly accomplished, visually striking, and intellectually fresh. I felt a new admiration for her and wondered idly if it would ever see the light of day.” A few years later, the lab that was storing the original print of the film contacted her because the storage fees had not been paid. She was able to get those original prints back, and began the process of having them restored. Milestone Films agreed to distribute both of Kathleen Collins’ films, and in 2015 Losing Ground was screened at Lincoln Center as part of a series called, “Tell it Like It Is: Black Independents in New York: 1968-1986.” Collins’ film, which hadn’t been released in her lifetime, would open the festival over thirty years after her death.
There were many favorable reviews, with the New York Times calling it ““highly cerebral, thick with abstract and erudite dialogue and also full of charm and sensuality…” The New Yorker says it is a “nearly lost masterwork” and The Boston Globe said, “Losing Ground astonishes with its assurance, subtlety, and style. The dialogue scintillates, the characters are rich and well played.” They also praise Collins’ editing style, and said it was “a film not only ahead of its own time but ours as well.”
IndieWire described it as a “must-see” and said “That “Losing Ground” still feels fresh, over 3 decades later, is not only a testament to its timelessness, but also is sadly indicative of how scarce complex depictions of the inner lives of women–specifically black women–are, in contemporary American cinema; especially when handled with such majesty and artiness.”
Nina Collins has also helped with the publication of a book of short stories penned by her mother, Whatever Happened To Interracial Love? which was released in 2016. Kathleen’s legacy lives on not just in her daughter, and through her daughter’s dedication to remembering her mother’s work, but also in her granddaughter who Nina says “thinks she may want to be a film director one day.”
Written by Mary Ratliff