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Losing Ground: Kathleen Collins’ Gutting, Trailblazing Glimpse of One Black Woman’s Journey

ES Staff  |  Indie Dramas

Sara (Seret Scott) cries out in anger to her attractive painter husband Victor (Bill Gunn), "Nothing I do leads to ecstasy." You haven't noticed that you remain in a trance? a solitary, euphoric trance of some sort. It's similar to residing next to a musician who spends the entire day blowing his horn. Victor's response, which we are unable to see, is as follows: "What's the matter? You were let down by Hegel and the boys? Victor looks uninterested in Sara's job as a professor of philosophy. His tone betrays both his disdain for his wife's intellectual endeavors and his dislike of their emotional constraints.

The two are utterly incompatible. The art of Victor is sensual, whimsical, and abstract. He works unusual hours and dressed casually in T-shirts and trousers. His art is largely inspired. With her conservative attire of long skirts and lovely blouses, Sara thrives in a teaching environment. The first thing she asks about when Victor offers renting a property upstate for the summer is the location and collection of the closest library. She decides to write a critical essay on the euphoric experience, perhaps a little motivated by her husband's artistic satisfaction. And as a result of her studies, her marriage and she are falling apart.

Losing Ground, Kathleen Collins' second feature film, did not receive a theatrical release after its 1982 festival debut. (It would take Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust almost another decade to become the first narrative feature directed by a Black woman to receive a theatrical distribution in the US.) It appears that viewers were perplexed by a movie directed by and starring a Black educated woman in a difficult marriage.

Losing Ground is a Black movie unlike any other of its era, with a pace and aesthetic influenced by the naturalistic arthouse movies of the '70s. The film was restored in 2015 thanks to Nina Collins's work, and Milestone Films released a hardcopy edition the following year. The National Film Registry added it in 2020. And now, in 2022, this extremely remarkable movie celebrates its 40th anniversary at a time when resources like Maya Cade's Black Film Archive and platforms like the Criterion Channel are working hard to give the acclaim that legendary Black films have long earned.

Scott does a masterful job of portraying Sara as a Black woman desperately striving to maintain a façade of respectability, even as it threatens to stifle her more vulnerable sides. Although it's an academic assignment, Sara seems to be using her paper as a chance to express a more assertive, sexual side of herself. Victor, who is mostly focused on himself and scarcely notices his wife's unease, is perplexed when she purrs, "I could be another Dorothy Dandridge." Victor struggles to picture Sara as a seductive woman.

He teases her all the time, and it looks like their main sexual activity is sparring. He asks her as she stands for a painting, "Are you attractive, or is it just the light? There is no denying Sara's beauty with her doe eyes, big lips, and slender frame, but Victor likes his wife to be constantly on the hunt because of how inconsistent his affections can be. Sara sees a chance to travel the way her husband travels when she meets the enigmatic Duke (Duane Jones). Victor starts pursuing Celia (Maritza Rivera), a free-spirited Puerto Rican lady who has become his new muse, as she spends more time with Duke and Victor spends more time with Duke.

Collins's larger collection of fiction and screenwriting features characters named Victor and Duke who both resemble men. Since she passed away from breast cancer at the young age of 46 in 1988, most of this material remained unpublished for years before being compiled in the books Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? (2016) and Notes From a Black Woman's Diary (2017). Men are shown in these tales as being attractive, intellectual, enigmatic, and ultimately unreliable beings who are prone to depression and suicide.

Like Sara, many of Collins' female protagonists struggle to handle tense relationships with such males, including lovers, husbands, fathers, and uncles. The stories, which primarily take place in the 1960s and 1970s, offer a fresh perspective on the Civil Rights Movement and its aftermath by highlighting the struggles of women to balance activism, love, and sex at a pivotal juncture in history. Black women have a tough time negotiating racial and gender inequality at the same time because of the contradiction between the carnal and the political, which is especially evident in stories about interracial partnerships. The protagonist in a Collins book is constantly acutely aware of her image.

Even now, Losing Ground feels revelatory, possibly in part because it doesn't care to explain why its characters exist. White individuals are largely absent, allowing the movie to examine blackness from an interior, existential perspective. Collins especially appreciates criticism of how media depicts Black women as being emotionally and intellectually bound to the men in their lives. Sara deliberately rejects her husband's and the rest of the world's limited perceptions of her by seeking ecstasy. A more accurate representation of Black women is one that mixes the sexual and the intellectual, allowing us to be seen as complex persons rather than the obedient wife or clichéd seductress.

Losing Ground can be viewed online through the Criterion Channel, Vimeo, and Kino Now.

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