Praise for “Losing Ground” and Black Female Film Pioneers Is Long Overdue

There’s a scene in Ava DuVernay’s 2012 film, Middle of Nowhere, where main character Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi) sits on a bus with bus driver-turned love interest Brian (David Oyelowo), and tells him that she likes “independent films” that are usually screened at theaters on the “Westside,” and not in their South Los Angeles neighborhood. Later, they sit watching a foreign film in a small theater on their first date. This meta discourse is refreshing because it reflects the very foundations of DuVernay’s film; an intimate character study exploring the interior conflict of a black woman caught between two lovers.  It reminded me of a scene from Kathleen Collin’s 1982 feature film Losing Ground, where Duane Jone’s character Duke comments that he never thought he’d see the day “when a negro directed a film.” He says this between takes, while acting in one of his nephew’s student films.

In both films, the directors are conscious of the kind of work they are making, and directly comment on the barriers to access that have impeded and enabled their careers. DuVernay is often lauded as a pioneer of black women’s cinema, forging a distinct path with her own distribution company, AFFRM, while making films that privilege the complex lives of black women and black people. Just this year, Ava Duvernay became the first black female director to have her film nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.  But, while many people know about DuVernay, Gina Prince-Bythewood, and Shonda Rhimes, their predecessors often go unmentioned in mainstream discourse. Why?

Perhaps it stems from the relatively new existence of “black women’s cinema.”  It was just 33 years ago that Kathleen Collins directed Losing Ground. Collins is considered one of the first African-American women to direct a feature film, with The Cruz Brothers and Ms. Molloy (1980), based on a short story by Henry Roth. But while her second film, Losing Ground (1982), should have been hailed as the moving, original work it is, the film faded into obscurity after screening at a few festivals. It never saw theatrical release and Collins tragically died of cancer in 1988, at age 46. Now, Collins is finally being recognized for her stunning contribution to contemporary American cinema. This summer, the Film Society of Lincoln Center  screened a retrospective on New York’s black independent film movement, with a twenty-day theatrical release of Losing Ground.

The film centers on a philosophy professor, Sara (Seret Scott), who sets out on an extensive research quest to understand “ecstasy,” while her husband Victor (Bill Gunn), a successful abstract painter makes a big sale to a museum, and suddenly wants to paint people. After he suggests they leave New York City for a summer in the country (upstate New York), he is enticed by the colors, weather, and Puerto Rican women in the new environment, and soon pursues a dancer named Celia (Maritza Rivera). Aware of, and angered by, her husband’s new love interest, Sara agrees to take on a role in one of her student’s short films where she’s able to tap into the ecstasy that she so eagerly sought in books and theory, and understand the unbridled passion that consumes her husband, her actress mother Leila, and soon, herself.

Losing Ground was a smart dramatic comedy about black people at time when that was neither expected nor supported by Hollywood, let alone by a black woman. Black people’s presence in films were often based in spectacle or servitude to a main white protagonist, as we saw in 1990’s Ghost and 1989’s Driving Ms. Daisy. Kathleen Collins presented a self-sustaining black couple whose conflict didn’t stem not from poverty, violence, or any other exaggerated stereotype usually associated with blackness, but from a shift in how they saw art and passion functioning in their relationship.

Shot on film with lush and vibrant reds, dazzling natural light, and keen attention to medieval and contemporary architecture that helps frame many wide shots, the film is on par with many films of its time, specifically the work of Woody Allen, which utilizes self-reflexivity as a storytelling tool. In Losing Ground, Collins seems to be interrogating the very tropes that could cheapen a story like hers. There’s an ongoing discussion of the “tragic mulatto” by Sara, her mother, and Victor as they poke fun at its relationship to their lives and work- her mother as an actress, and Sara as fair-skinned African American woman. However, Collins never allows her story to be dictated by that trope or any related stereotype. Her characters never become what they would be in other movies of that time or currently- magical negroes, over-sexualized vixens, tragic mulattos, asexual mammies, or the like. They, instead, engage with the existence of those labels, laugh at them, and move away from them.

Through out the film, we see and feel a growing chasm between Sara and her husband Victor, which only grows wider when they travel to upstate New York. In one scene, Sara and Victor have dinner together in their new “country” cottage, and struggle to communicate, though they are sitting right across from one another. The camera reflects this struggle with long pans across the table, alternating between the frustration and annoyance in each character’s face. It is exhaustive, as Collins probably intended it to be. It is an illustration of two people at a crossroads.

In another scene, Sara dances in a bright pink leotard and light pink scarf wrapped around her neck, opposite Duke (Duane Jones), an elusive middle-aged actor who also agrees to star in the film, which is a remake of the song “Frankie and Johnny.” Sara moves with freedom and grace against a backdrop of tall, gray New York City buildings, and begins to build an organic connection with Duke, who allows her to open up and explore the physical ecstasy she is denied by her husband. This film provides a subtle, yet deft commentary on “theory versus physicality,” or “the abstract versus the physical.” What appears abstract or theoretical to Sara becomes physical and urgent when she allows her film “character” to feel the emotions that exacerbate her marital issues.

Later, when she introduces Duke to her husband at a botched summer get-together, she dances stiffly, and he comments: “You never could dance.” It’s a painful moment that further illustrates how Sara’s lived reality is starkly different than the one she creates in her student’s film. With Duke, she is physical. With Victor, she is theoretical. Can she exert the power and urgency of her physical existence to her philandering husband, and will he recognize it?  Will she recognize it?

As I sat watching this film in a huge, empty theater at AFI Silver in Maryland, I couldn’t help but wish more people were watching it with me. I couldn’t help but wonder how different film school would be if directors like Kathleen Collins and Charles Burnett were given the same recognition as Woody Allen and John Cassavetes. So why do the black, female pioneers of filmmaking go largely unheralded? White men working in the film industry at the same time were able to make more films—something that access and privilege make possible. But it’s bigger than that. Recently, we’ve seen a widespread push by the ACLU, media outlets, and women filmmakers to investigate and correct long-standing, systemic sexism within the film industry. This movement was fueled by a study conducted by the USC Media, Diversity, and Social Change Initiative led by Dr. Stacy Smith, and found that female filmmakers face barriers to getting their films distributed, and in obtaining jobs to direct larger, big-budget films. That’s due partly to a perception that female directors make films for a smaller or less significant portion of the marketplace, and have a lack of ambition to take on directing jobs.

While the findings were shocking to many, especially female filmmakers who’ve worked many years trying to direct larger films, only to be passed over for their male counterparts, it underscores an extremely troubling reality for female filmmakers. And while the discussion has been primarily centered on “women” filmmakers, the realities for  “women of color” filmmakers, and specifically black women filmmakers, can be even more troubling, considering the intersectional space they occupy in terms of race, gender, and representation. Some of our most celebrated “cinematic gems” feature black women as singing mammies (Gone With The Wind), and hot-headed, fast-talking divas in need of love. Kathleen Collins, Julie Dash, Euzan Palcy, and other early black female filmmakers, made films that resisted the very foundations of American cinema.

Thirty years ago, these black women confronted a hostile media environment to create human portraits of black life. Losing Ground stands as a bold testament to black, womanist filmmaking, and to American filmmaking, as a platform that we all stand upon. 

by Nijla Mu'min
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Nijla is a writer, filmmaker, and essayist whose work can be found at www.nijlamumin.com.

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