On Losing Ground: Kathleen Collins Spins Gold Out of Ordinary Trappings

Losing Ground | Milestone Films
Milestone Films

Losing Ground was first screened in the summer of 1982 at Irvington, New York’s Town Hall Theater. It was a quiet local premiere met with little fanfare, and the 432-seat theater probably seemed to taunt with its roominess. In 1983, the film received another public showing on a lowkey Monday night in the dead of January. It was selected as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s Cineprobe series. The New York Times published three sentences of coverage on the event. And then, somehow, one of the very first fictional features by a Black woman was lost in space and time. 

This dreary series of dud screenings might seem to imply a similarly bland film, but that couldn’t be further from the case—it was more so a trouble with timing. Losing Ground was, then, a premature siren call for those seeking stories of complex Black women with quiet affinities for plants and the color blue in all its shades. When Kathleen Collins died of breast cancer in 1988, she left behind a trail of unfinished magic. A number of her projects were left incomplete, but Losing Ground is what her finished magic looks like.

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In the film’s opening scene, we meet Sara Rogers in her element. Wearing a smart blazer and a pair of oversized frames that cover the majority of her delicate face, she commands a room of college students as she rationalizes the works of Camus, Sartre, and Nietzsche. Sara makes bold statements like, “natural order has been violated,” and “human existence must be without rhyme, without reason” as her class looks on in rapture. This magnetic lecturer was played by Seret Scott—a noted stage actress at the time and a peer to Collins. Scott’s respite from the theatre to play the leading lady in Losing Ground was almost certainly marked by the fact that her dear friend Kathy was at the helm.

In her early notes, Collins first describes Sara as “a stunning woman.” She refers to “Creole features and color…live eyes, playful yet intense energy.” Scott undeniably fits the bill. In the opening scene, Scott plays a convincing professor to “row after row of Black male students, all wearing glasses, all looking exceptionally scholarly,” as outlined by Collins in the margins of her director’s script, which she reserved for her prolific aesthetic choices. To Collins, subtle details—like all of the extras donning glasses—were crucial to her storytelling and she toiled over them the way Sara pores over existential philosophers. Sara’s students are enamored by her. One walks up to her podium at the end of class. “I got hold of the book on Genet,” he says with eager eyes. His body language suggests he’s been at the edge of his seat all class, just waiting to share a moment with his professor. And she not only obliges, but matches his enthusiasm.

“Good,” she says, “It’s the finest analysis of being an outsider I’ve ever read…there are books that can make a difference in a life.” Entranced, the student says, “You’re so full of life!” And though he means it, the student stammers to move past this moment that teeters on the brink of suggestive. Sara doesn’t mind. In fact, she seems to enjoy innocent exchanges like this one. Despite her pensive demeanor, the moment one of her students approaches her for conversation—or later, asks her to be in his film—she responds with an openness marked by an instant relaxation of her tense, dissertation-laden shoulders.

Kathleen Collins felt a similar responsibility to her own students. “The commitment to teaching, for some reason, has remained with me in spite of, I suppose, my heart being very much committed to making films,” she said during a live interview at the time of Losing Ground’s release, “but the teaching is still very much a part of it.” This particular interview is special because it details Collins’ relationship to teaching and filmmaking, but even more so because it’s one of the rare bits of publicly available footage she left behind when she died at the early age of 46. This conversation is part of a series of seminars Collins led at Indiana University in the early 1980s, upon the invitation of film theorist, archivist, and professor Phyllis R. Klotman. The two women were often in conversation, but what’s notable about Klotman is that she founded IU’s Black Film Center/Archive, which was an early preserver of significant research and archival material related to Collins, including the 16mm print of Losing Ground. Collins tells Klotman that, while teaching film classes on aesthetics came second-nature to her, it was the production classes that gave her pause. She had to figure out a way to teach film production using the dynamic techniques with which language is taught. 

Kathleen Collins
Kathleen Collins

In order to help her students develop a film vocabulary, Collins went back to basics. Beginning with the early mechanics of silent film, she worked her way up to more modern works. One of the best examples is her lesson on Edwin Porter’s 1903 film The Great Train Robbery, which is often credited as one of the earliest known narrative films. In 14 scenes that add up to just about 11 minutes, The Great Train Robbery follows a group of bandits who have staged a gutsy train hold-up. Collins uses the film to discuss the inherent connection between language and technology. She explains this notion to Klotman in the way she might describe it to her students—some of whom are in the audience during this live taping at IU: 

What happens in that movie is, in the beginning, he does a usual stationary camera; the actors become overly dramatic because there’s a distance between them and the camera. The camera isn’t moving and it’s silent, therefore, their gestures have to be bigger than life. Then at one point, there’s this funny little moment when the “bad guys” are running away down the hill and the camera—you almost feel like it’s an instinct—it starts to pan with them. It starts to move with them and suddenly, your involvement changes. Your involvement changes from just simply being an objective observer to someone saying, Oh look at those guys going down the hill. And that’s a technological advance. In other words, they had to find a pivot on which the camera could swing, in order to be able to get it to move. And you can go on from there indefinitely. They had to develop a wheel of some kind, on which you could place the camera in order for it to begin to dolly. They had to invent a zoom lens in order for [the camera] to be able to move in and out. But each one of those technological advances was actually dictated by some emotional need.

Emotional need is also what seems to invariably motivate all of Collins’ projects. Losing Ground, in particular, displays her preoccupation with aesthetics, which draws from an implied desire to humanize her characters—nearly all of whom are Black or brown.

Two years after the film’s narrow debut, Collins spoke to a class of Howard University students about representation of the Black experience. She says, “If you’ve been the notion of sin incarnate and you’re now trying to correct that balance, what do you do? You make Black people into saints.” Of this extreme binary, she says, “Neither one is reality. Both are tracks to dehumanize you.” Losing Ground is a complete departure from the saints vs. sinners trope that Collins warns of. Instead, it focuses on that aforementioned emotional need and offers a study of complex individuals in the midst of respective existential crises.

Sara and her husband Victor (played by prolific actor, playwright, and director Bill Gunn) portray a Black marriage that was, and continues to be, a rare tableau on screen. Collins was attentive with her couple and didn’t box them into a relationship that read as too one-note. The pair has a blithe way of addressing each other that makes it tricky to discern how each is feeling about the other at any given time. Sara is self-serious and studious. She’s consumed by her dissertation on a state of being she calls ecstatic experience—a euphoria brought on by a level of self-actualization that she has, perhaps, never known. Victor is a mercurial abstract painter, who becomes hell-bent on trying his hand at more figurative work—so much so that after he sells one of his floor-length abstract paintings to a major museum’s permanent collection, he suggests that the pair spend the summer at a country house in upstate New York, where “all those Puerto Rican ladies live in those old Victorian houses.” Sara is unamused by Victor’s flight of fancy, but nevertheless, acquiesces to a summer away.

Losing Ground

Victor finds a young Puerto Rican muse named Celia (Maritza Rivera) to paint as he moves away from abstraction. The two of them together test Sara’s patience. She worries she’s too uptight and craves the artistic temperament that her husband and Celia have, but she characteristically lacks. Collins, whether pulling from her own experience or that of her friends, delves into Sara’s psyche in a tender manner seldom afforded to fictional Black film characters. Sara is naturally provocative in the lecture hall, but that spark never seems to translate when she steps out from behind the podium. So when a creative opportunity arises, she flings herself into the project without hesitation. George (Gary Bolling), a former student of Sara’s, has recruited her to be in his senior thesis film. He also recruits his uncle Duke (Duane Jones, best known for his role as Ben in Night of the Living Dead).

Prior to shooting the student film, Sara meets Duke in a library during one of her exhaustive research visits. He wears a majestic cape and looks altogether anachronistic. He tells Sara of his past lives and explains that this is the first iteration in which he is Black. “I must have built up a lot of karmic debt,” he jokes. This summons one of Sara’s unruly, coquettish laughs. It’s jarring to witness how quick wit can undo her serious demeanor in one foul swoop. But this isn’t an isolated incident. Sara’s giggle creeps up whenever she experiences flattery from her students or exchanges one-liners with her husband. It’s a reminder that she does, perhaps, have a chance at ecstasy trapped somewhere deep beneath her overwhelming glasses and coiled nature.

Sara begins to accept that her intellectual quest for ecstatic experience would require her to get out from behind her books. It’s a task that proves less difficult than expected as she grows weary of her philandering husband’s thinly-veiled attempts at passing Celia off as a mere subject for his figure painting. She can see that the pair has a palpable chemistry—though mostly propelled by lust—and a matched fervor that bounces off the stone walls of the summer country home. Sara isn’t as bothered by the flagrant cheating as she is by her inherent lack of an artist’s zest for life. Collins deflects from Victor’s infidelity with intention. This is not a film about a woman scorned, but one about a woman in search of ecstasy mined from within herself. In an exasperating moment, Sara asks Victor, “If I did something artistic like write or act, would that get me a little more consideration?” Sly as ever, he responds, “If you were any good.” Victor’s cavalier attitude towards Sara’s sincere crisis of identity only further catapults her out of her comfort zone.

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During the final act of the film, in a scene that takes place on the top floor of the summer home one night, Victor is drunk and engaged in sloppy dancing with Celia. Sara is also there. And Duke, who she’s brought along to show Victor that she could be brash, too. When Celia has had enough of wino Victor, he steals his wife from Duke. Moments later, he tosses Sara aside and says, “I always forget you can’t dance.” But Victor is sorely mistaken. He hasn’t seen what the rest of us have—that Sara is a natural dancer.

George first marvels at his professor through a tiny viewfinder that he angles toward Sara, who’s sitting in her office. In his eyes, George has found the perfect shot. “I got you in a close-up,” he says, “you look just like Dorothy Dandridge, Bright Road, MGM 1953.” Whether it was blind luck, instinct, or just the lens of puppy love, George saw Sara exactly how she wanted to be seen. He saw the star quality that lurked just beneath the surface of her subdued disposition. Between her artist husband and actress mother, Sara was always the reliable one who balanced the eccentricity in the room. Little did they know that she’d longed for a bit of limelight herself.

With Duke as her screen partner, Sara shim shams and boogies at dusk in silent Vaudeville numbers under George’s spirited direction. In each sequence, she’s dressed in bright, skin-tight leotards paired with a slinky wrap or flowy scarf that cascades down her neck. If it wasn’t evident before, Sara has the lithe body of a dancer—and when her character battles another dancer vying to steal her man, we see that she has the skill set of a professional dancer, too. She is radiant as the end-of-day sun hits her just so.

In one scene, George’s animated camera—which the actual film’s camera mimics in a rather meta moment—pans to find the perfect shot. Sara and Duke stroll along a row of trees that have been planted on the perimeter of a rooftop parking lot. Duke slows his gait and looks at Sara, “Are we supposed to talk?” Though George is making a silent film, this is unequivocally a walk-and-talk scene. Sara understands the significance of this technique. She says it has “something to do with the relationship between the characters, the space, the light.” She suggests that an arresting atmosphere can advance a story just as much as dialogue can.

Sara’s perception of compelling surroundings was colored by Collins, who was careful to avoid the stodginess of traditional storytelling. The end of Losing Ground is as ambiguous as its beginning and middle. The film is less concerned with plot and more so driven by intense feelings that suffuse each scene with an almost visible glow. Through Sara and Victor, Collins manifests the tumult of an academic and a creative experiencing growing pains, both in their marriage and as individuals. Neither party is all bad or all good; instead, their relationship is nuanced. There’s understood infidelity, an occasional disdain for the other’s chosen field, and communication that is at times so direct, while at others nonexistent. Collins forgoes a linear story structure in favor of rich character development. Perhaps this stems from the idea that the more we get to know a person, the more readily they reflect the human condition. There’s a relatability in the character of Sara that transcends plot points and elicits a curiosity about one’s own search for ecstatic experience. 

To Collins, even color is a character. In Losing Ground, the color blue—in all its varied shades—deserves a cast credit of its own. It’s hard to imagine a world in which Collins didn’t plan all of the instances of blue in her film; the whole thing feels like one big, deliberate study in blue. This primary color moves the plot along, sets the tone of each shot, and elicits a capital-“M” mood that afflicts the audience early on and remains for the duration. The many different blues in Losing Ground capture a yearning for change, a quiet melancholia, a lightness, a calmness, a seriousness—even the early stages of self-actualization.

It’s no wonder designers gravitate toward this hue—it’s reliable and has a flexibility of meaning affected by, as Sara says, the characters, the space, and the light. And Collins, an expert wrangler of the latter three, knew that blue could stir in the same way Sara does with her first dance number. Or like Victor, when he captures Sara’s essence in a charcoal drawing as she poses for him against an open window one night.

A Selection of Blue’s Appearances in Losing Ground:

  • The royal blue auditorium seats in which Sara’s students sit during her philosophy lecture in the opening scene
  • The steel blue canvas purse with the wooden handle that Sara wears to the library when she meets Duke for the first time
  • The periwinkle, knee-length summer dress Sara wears to her mother’s house
  • The periwinkle dress shirt that Victor wears, with the sleeves rolled up to his wiry biceps
  • Sara’s powder blue, matronly nightgown reserved for nights spent with her studies
  • The cerulean Victorian house featured in the film’s very first still of Upstate New York
  • The baby blue Buick that Victor drives around Upstate New York, looking for Puerto Rican women to draw
  • The way the camera captures New York’s shadow and light play, which makes grey corners turn a smoky blue
  • The hazy blue of dusk when George films Sara and Duke in the parking lot
  • The teal of Celia’s blouse when Victor first kisses her at the dining room table, by indigo candlelight
  • Duke’s azure linen pants paired with a robin’s egg blue shirt, which he wears on his overnight visit to Sara and Victor’s rented summer house 
  • The navy blue sleeping bags from a wine-fueled night spent under the stars, that turns into a morning full of reality checks
  • The icy blue water in the summer house pool that Victor wakes up and jumps into on that morning of reality checks

Losing Ground | Milestone Films

Collins also has a knack for finding beauty in the mundane. An early draft of a short story found in her composition book from 1974 reveals an enchantment with a potential connection between emotion and everyday objects. In her story (it is unclear if this is a work of fiction or taken from her life), Collins ruminates on “the brightest, most cruel red lipstick” that a woman in a five and dime tries to sell her. In another story, Collins’ notes show a scrupulous decision-making process about whether or not her character should imagine herself as a nun in a blue habit. This deep concern for aesthetic accoutrements in a story’s tangential stream of consciousness is a testament to Collins’ cinematic way of looking at the world. She spins gold out of the world’s ordinary trappings.

In Losing Ground, it seems there’s almost a romance to the way set props are arranged in each scene. The establishing shot of Sara and Victor’s apartment settles wide on a common room bursting with Spider plants, overgrown Monstera Deliciosas, Victor’s massive abstract pieces, and ruby red leather chairs scattered about. But if you look closely, there are all sorts of little tchotchkes that appear to be positioned with care. Collins creates a sensibility that extends past “artist” and “academic.” The arrangement of Sara and Victor’s things does allude to the latter, but there’s an inexplicable mood that washes over the room—something like-minded individuals can attest to, but have trouble pointing out. These days, every plant nursery in town is perpetually out of Monsteras. “Swiss cheese plants make people feel good,” a woman said to me once when I asked if she had any in stock. She didn’t. A new generation is figuring out what Collins already knew to be true: there’s magic in everyday aesthetics.

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It’s never mentioned in the film if Sara, too, feels moved by the color blue or if her search for ecstasy is peripherally fueled by the hard-to-point-out charm and seduction of seemingly hum drum objects. However, Sara radiates Collins. Even Collins’ own daughter Nina thinks so:

She was distant and spacey but also colorful and vibrant with a crazy loud laugh and a lot of power. Powerful sadness but also powerful energy in general….[she] wore flowing silk skirts with leotards…Tina Turner blaring from the stereo…mom danced around like a madwoman, skinny arms and legs flailing. 

This memory of Collins describes what seems like an evolved version of the Sara we see in the film. Not the Sara who walks into a phone booth one distressful afternoon to say, “I’m on shaky ground.” But instead, the Sara who finally gets taken over by an ecstatic experience when she dances with Duke for the first time, her billowing neck scarf framing each of her liberated movements. Maybe Sara is a previous iteration of Collins. From one of her many lives. Whatever the case, the parallels are undeniable.

Seret Scott certainly felt her character’s closeness to Collins, discussing it at length in a rare interview exclusive to the film’s DVD special features. “A lot of Kathy is in all of the work she wrote, and I say that now in retrospect because her way of coming at the work—anything she wrote—was so very different from what I was used to. The work that Kathy was doing had some kind of place that I had to find every single time.” A pattern in Collins’ craft seems to be this underlying current of mystery that remains indescribable. Even Scott, who witnessed it first-hand, couldn’t quite define the specificity with which Collins could conjure up a sacred space in time. “She would find those things, like little buttons, that make a difference.”

Collins was a scavenger for hidden gems disguised as plants, periwinkle dresses, and books by Genet. She gleaned beauty, romance, and, of course, ecstasy from within the cracks that everyone else was too busy jumping over. Losing Ground is a prime example of the wondrous places those unassuming cracks can lead you to. What’s shocking is that it didn’t see a theatrical premiere until 2015—33 years after its initial release.

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Losing Ground | Milestone Films

Dennis Doros and Amy Heller—the husband and wife duo behind Milestone Films—distributed the restoration of Losing Ground after Collins’ daughter, Nina, managed to rescue the original negative and create a new digital master. Milestone was established in 1990, but since 2007, its mission has been to restore and internationally distribute films “outside the Hollywood mainstream.” As Doros and Heller put it, “We like to mess with the canon.” Which makes it all the more fitting that they’d task themselves with making a case for Kathleen Collins—a filmmaker left out of the canon.

According to Milestone, after Losing Ground’s initial 1982 premiere and 1983 follow-up, it appeared once on PBS’s American Playhouse and then faded into obscurity, not unlike Collins’ legacy. In 2015, when Losing Ground lived to see another day, screenings were met with stunned admiration. Critics found it hard to fathom how a film made three decades ago could still seem so fresh. The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody, perhaps the first person to review Losing Ground, described the film as “a nearly lost masterwork…Losing Ground plays like the record of a life revealed in real time.”

Elizabeth Alexander, president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation—the nation’s largest funder in arts and culture and humanities in higher education—found herself relating to that life revealed. She writes of Losing Ground as a wish-fulfilling entity. “It would be many years before I would have the revelatory experience of seeing Losing Ground and encountering this extraordinary Black female protagonist who was dazzlingly familiar to me.” When she finally did have the opportunity to attend a screening of the film during its re-release, she rejoiced. In her excitement she asked, “Oh, and did I say everyone in the movie would be beautiful, in the quotidian way of Black people who are lit from within by the power of living in the free zone of ideas and creativity?”

Alexander isn’t alone in being doubled over with joy after viewing Losing Ground. For a lot of Black creatives, it’s a rare moment of on-screen relatability that’s long overdue. Despite not getting the wide release it deserved in the 1980s, the film still feels groundbreaking in this current climate.

Losing Ground introduced Sara and Victor several years before Cliff and Clair Huxtable became household names as a couple who had it all on The Cosby Show. They represented the upper middle class Black intelligentsia of New York, which until then had been uncharted territory in mainstream media. Before Cosby found himself in his current sordid state, his sitcom used its platform to show America (and the world, via syndication) that Black people can own fancy Brooklyn brownstones, be doctors and lawyers, collect art and vintage jazz records, wear designer clothes, and sustain a love that’s equal parts pragmatic and passionate. And a love that doesn’t end in dramatic death at the hands of poverty or gang violence, in the trite way many Black narratives in film and television have often been wrapped up in the past.

A growing coterie of rising Black women filmmakers like Mati Diop (Atlantics/Atlantique), Tayarisha Poe (Selah and the Spades), and Channing Godfrey Peoples (Miss Juneteenth) are sharing even more nuanced portraits of Blackness to audiences wider than ever before. Despite the dreaded gatekeepers, there’s a discernable cultural shift and an inkling of an interest in these rare depictions of Black womanhood that extends past a starved audience of Black women, desperate for a break from the monolithic figures they’ve been force fed for so long. However, Losing Ground is a reminder that Kathleen Collins was already itching to dismantle tired ideologies long before hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter, #OscarsSoWhite, or #BlackGirlMagic existed. Her creative foresight suggests that she must’ve been something of an oracle. Or maybe Kathleen Collins was simply a woman who wanted to tell her complex stories—as others before her, and those who’ve come after her. Losing Ground is an heirloom for Black women. It’s proof that we’ve always craved three-dimensional characters to look up to and sophisticated storytelling to relate to.