As we navigate this period of renewed conversation concerning diversity in movies, we would do well to educate ourselves about a woefully little-known figure named Kathleen Collins. Collins was a playwright, professor and filmmaker whose remarkable Losing Ground (1982) was the first feature helmed by an African-American woman and a touchstone in the independent movement of the 1980s. The significance of Collins’ achievement is tremendous, not to mention tragic: Collins died at age 46 in 1988, abbreviating what would surely have been a marvelous career. But I hesitate to recommend Losing Ground on account of the precedents it set, because this is as immensely charming and complex a film about adult relationships as you’re likely to find in any category. The film was never given a proper theatrical release and was in danger of being forgotten. Happily, it’s been given its DVD and blu-ray world première thanks to the laudable efforts of Milestone Films.
Both a breezy dialectic inquiry into conflicting values and a double-portrait of a middle-aged Manhattan couple at a crossroads, Losing Ground introduces us to Sara (Seret Scott), an academic with a gift for stimulating the minds—and arousing the libidos—of her students, and Sara’s husband Victor (Bill Gunn), a painter. Victor makes a sale to a major museum, an event that prompts him to secure a summer home in upstate New York and shift from abstract to figurative painting. Wandering the town near his luxurious rental, Victor finds himself rejuvenated by the discoveries he makes, chief among them an irresistible young Puerto Rican named Celia (Maritza Rivera), who becomes the subject of both his painterly gaze and carnal desires. Sara, meanwhile, wants to focus on an ambitious research project on ecstasy. Yet as Sara comes to feel increasingly distant from Victor, she finds herself drawn into an endearingly goofy experimental student film project inspired by the folktale of Frankie and Johnny, in which Sara plays alongside the ruggedly flamboyant Duke (Duane Jones, best remembered for his lead role in Night of the Living Dead).
Collins realizes her smart, resonant material with the lightest of touches, her camera highly responsive to subtleties of behaviour and sun-dappled environments. Though Sara relies heavily on her intellect to contend with her marital dilemma, body language is crucial to Collins’ understanding of character, most obviously in the playful use of dance in the film-within-the-film. Living spaces are richly indicative of relationship dynamics, particularly in the couple’s Manhattan apartment, overwhelmed by Victor’s paintings, a place to which Sara seems forced to conform. Clothes also offer fascinating contrast: Sara’s buttoned-up, almost Victorian work attire versus Victor’s sexy-lazy shagginess, or the diaphanous scanty costumes Sara will adopt for her acting gig. All these elements speak to Collins’ rigorous conception of the ways her characters assume roles dictated by gender, race and class. Sara, for one, seems to epitomize confidence as a respected black female professional, yet her status is complicated by Victor’s sense of sexual and creative entitlement as a successful black male artist. I can think of very few films that take on the more problematic side of black masculinity with the level of sensitivity that Collins displays here. (Though watching this aspect of Losing Ground at play makes me want to revisit John Singleton’s Baby Boy.)
Losing Ground is so easy to watch you could nearly forget how brilliantly layered it is. Thankfully, Milestone’s bounty of supplemental interviews, commentary and other extras serve as excellent, informative reminders. See this movie. V