Losing Ground (1982): Kathleen Collins’ Impressive Feature Debut (Black Women in Film, Indie Cinema)

Ever heard of Kathleen Collins and her impressive feature Losing Ground?

If not, you should now.  Ava DuVernay, director of Selma and 13th, introduced this 1982 feature on TCM’ “The Essentials” on Saturday, July 20, 2019.  (This wonderful movie was shown again on TCM as part of its series, “Women Make Film,” September 16, 2020).

Written and directed by Kathleen Collins, Losing Ground is considered to be one of the first feature-length dramas directed by a black American woman.

Our Grade: B+ (***1/2 out of *****)

Sara Rogers, a professor who teaches courses on the philosophy of logic, is married to Victor, a successful painter. To celebrate the sale of a paintings to a museum, Victor rents a summer house for them.

Sara is initially annoyed as she had wanted to spend the summer in the city, devoted to researching a paper on ecstatic experiences, and she is now fearing obstacles, such as limited access to books and other materials.

The plan triggers other related anxieties: She feels that her academic work is not as valued as Victor’s work as an artist. Nevertheless, after finding a house, she joins Victor for the summer.

While there, Victor becomes obsessed with painting local women, one in particular, a Puerto Rican woman named Celia.  Jealous, Sara goes back to the city in order to act in a film by one of her students.

In New York, she meets Duke, the filmmaker’s uncle, who plays her love interest in the movie and who is immediately attracted to her.  Sara brings Duke up to the rented house, which now makes Victor jealous. Victor is also jealous when his friend and mentor Carlos starts flirting with Celia.

When Sara sees Victor playing around with Celia, she gets upset and tells him to stop flirting. After leaving him, she talks to her mother about her feeling out of control–losing ground–as all along she’s been being steady and stable.

Returning to the city, Sara completes her final scenes for the film. Victor arrives just in time to watch her character shoot Duke’s character for being unfaithful.

Modest in production values, due to its low budget of about $100,00, Losing Ground is nonetheless impressive, a function of the director’s astute mise en scene and location shootings in in New York City and in Nyack, Piermont and Haverstraw in Rockland County, New York.

While not really an explicitly feminist film, Losing Ground explores issues of race, identity, marriage and desire from a strictly female perspective–the black female gaze.

Sadly, the director died in 1988, at the age of 46, and thus her career was abruptly cut short. Moreover, as the film was overlooked at that time–it never got a legit theatrical release–Collins had never enjoyed the positive critical response to her likable feature. which came decades later (see below).

Fortunately, the director’s entrepreneurial daughter, Nina Collins, took it upon herself to restore the film in 2015, and a showing of the new version at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, did a lot of good for bringing this pioneering feature into the consciousness of a younger generation of critics and viewers.

In 2016, Milestone Films released Losing Ground on DVD and Blu-ray, and it enjoyed streaming on the Criterion Channel.

Note:

If you want to know more about Indie Cinema and Women in Film, please read my book:

Losing Ground is now shown in many classes on “Women in Film” and also shown in retrospectives devoted to that issue.

Original and dealing with an unexplored reality, Losing Ground is a gem of an indie, and not just because it was made by a gifted black woman.  Had the Sundance Film Fest existed in 1982–it would launched under Robert Redford’s leadership three year later–I have not doubt that it would have been included in the Dramatic Competition, as were other interesting indies made by women in color in the following decade.

Cast
Seret Scott as Sara Rogers
Bill Gunn as Victor
Duane Jones as Duke
Billie Allen as Leila, Sara’s Mother
Gary Bolling as George
Noberto Kerner as Carlos, Victor’s friend
Maritza Rivera as Celia

Credits
Directed by Kathleen Collins
Produced by Eleanor Charles
Written by Kathleen Collins
Music by Michael Minard
Cinematography Ronald K. Gray
Edited by Ronald K. Gray
Kathleen Collins
Distributed by Milestone Film & Video
Running time 86 minutes