in Criterion Month

Losing Ground (1982)

I’m happy to bring our weekend of women directors to a close with Kathleen Collins, a trailblazer whose second film, Losing Ground, is considered to be the first feature-length movie directed by an African American woman. Although that credential is somewhat debated, as some point to directors of the silent era while others say it was the commercial distribution of Daughters of the Dust (which I’ll get to in a few days) that made Julie Dash the one to finally brake that glass ceiling, nonetheless it is obvious and irrefutable that Collins had an immense talent and her career was cut tragically short.

Like so many of the directors I’ve covered during this marathon, Collins sounds like a supremely impressive person. While she was working on her undergrad degree at Skidmore College in the early Sixties, she became involved in the Civil Rights Movement, and was arrested twice for trying to help get out the vote in Georgia. She taught French at a high school in Massachusetts while working on her graduate degree at Harvard, then earned a scholarship and graduated from Paris-Sorbonne University in France with a MA in French literature and cinema. This brought her to New York, where she was a professor of film history and screenwriting at City University and started working on her own screenplays on the side.

That film was The Cruz Brothers and Mrs. Malloy, adapted form a short story by Henry Roth. According to the IMDb, it tells the story of three brothers who go to stay in Rockland County, New York, after their father’s death during a bank robbery. While there, they are hired by an elderly women (presumably Miss Malloy) to renovate her house so she can throw one last party. I mean, that sounds great. I assume the reason it’s not considered her first feature is that it’s just not quite long enough, coming in at 54 minutes. I’d like to watch it but the only place I’ve found the movie is from Collins’ original distributor, Milestone Films, who want $250 for it. Once again, praise be the Criterion Collection.

Losing Ground was Collins’ second film, which never found domestic distribution but did garner acclaim internationally. At the same time, her two most well-known plays came out, In the Midnight Hour and The Brothers were released. Unfortunately, Collins died of breast cancer just a few years later, in 1988. She was only 46 years old. She left behind a wealth of unpublished work to her daughter, who has subsequently worked to get it published. It wasn’t until 2015 that Losing Ground was restored and re-released, to massive critical acclaim. Some critics go as far as to call it a lost foundational piece of Eighties independent film canon.

The marriage of Sara (Seret Scott) and Victor Rogers (Bill Gunn) forms the core of Losing Ground. The story begins at the end of the school year. Sara is a philosophy professor who is looking forward to spending the summer researching a paper on ecstatic experiences. After her last class, two of her students approach her and flirtatiously explain how much they loved the class and how lucky her husband must be. Victor is, in fact, quite lucky, as he’s just sold one of his paintings to a permanent installation in a museum. To celebrate, he plans for the couple to rent a house in Rockland County where he can paint. Sara knows the library there won’t have the books she’s looking for, but he convinces her to drive into the city a couple days a week to make it work. She agrees.

Victor quickly becomes infatuated with a the local women, walking around sketching them all day until he finds his muse, Celia (Maritza Rivera). Jealous and uncomfortable about Victor and Celia intense relationship, Sara decides to stay in the city and take up one of her student’s offers to act in his avant-garde student film. It turns out Sara does have a bit of a chip on her shoulder because she feels her academic achievements are given the same reverence as artistic ones, especially because her husband is a painter and her mother (Billie Allen) is a retired actor. But the chance to act is liberating for Sara, especially because it gives her a reunion with Duke (Duane Jones), the director’s uncle who is acting in the film and had also met Sara once before in the library.

It all comes to a head when Sara invites Duke to return to the rented house with her. Things become even more complicated when Victor’s friend and mentor Carlos (Noberto Kerner) also visits and starts flirting with Celia. What can I say except that these five adults found themselves on pretty shaky ground? No but seriously, this is a powerful story about marital malaise, like the real movie Symbiopsychotaxiplasm was making a farce of. It is a discredit to our nation and culture that Losing Ground basically disappeared for over 30 years instead of getting the fate it deserved. Which is probably a limited theatrical release where it would have been a critical darling that probably did OK but was mostly ignored by people who just wanted to see Rocky III.