Life in a different light
I wanted to be sure that for this last week of Women’s History Month, I found an outstanding film from a Black female director. In combing through lists and writing, something you may already suspect or know became acutely clear: There is a dearth of female Black voices in cinema, historically and presently. I started to write about Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (Martha Coolidge, 1999), but for all of its many virtues (The first screenplay by the great Shonda Rhimes, a strong, early Halle Berry performance, exquisite period design) it can’t quite seem to get out from under the White-washing that is inevitable for so many Black stories attempting to find their way to the light and be earnestly told in Hollywood. I’d still recommend giving it a watch (it’s on HBO Max), especially in conjunction with this week’s recommendation, but be mindful of scenes that shift to a White perspective.
Luckily, despite what we’re typically exposed to via the mechanisms of a centuries-old, patriarchal, capital machine (aka US Capitalism), there are places we can go to find artwork that may have once been lost. Today’s film, for example, never even received a theatrical release; it was largely overlooked until restored and re-released by the director’s daughter in 2015. One such place you can find gems like this is the Criterion Channel. I recommend giving it a try, you’ll find some wonderful and thought-provoking films in there, along with thousands of commentaries and extras that help deepen one’s understanding and appreciation of film. Sadly I am not getting paid to promote the Criterion Channel this aggressively. You’ll also need it for this week’s movie night:
Losing Ground (Kathleen Collins, 1982) is a masterpiece. There’s no other way to put it. If you choose to get together with a group of friends and watch this, I have no doubt that you will easily spend an hour afterwards prying for meaning in the dense dialogue of this screenplay. Collins, among the first Black American women to direct a feature length drama, died of breast cancer in 1988. This was only the second film she had made, or would ever make, and it was firing on multiple cylinders. Six cylinders to be specific:
We open on a college professor named Sara (Seret Scott) as she is schooling college students in philosophy. One could immediately get lost in trying to suss out Collins’ meaning in the lecture material; Nietzsche, Camus, the nature of chaos, the absurd universe being the only logical universe, etc. Seret Scott commands in the role of Sara from the outset; comfortable, confident, and in control of her class. Sara heads home after work to find her husband, Victor (Bill Gunn), in great spirits; standing on a painter’s ladder. He asks her to get the bottle out of the fridge so they can toast his good news. He’s just sold a large work to a museum’s permanent collection. He exclaims “Your husband is a genuine Black success!” They share a kiss that extravagantly and unsettlingly resembles The Kiss by Klimt. Victor wants to celebrate his success with a two week retreat upstate. Sara objects: “Is it near a library?”
The friction of our two leads steadily builds for the remaining two acts of the film; two immensely talented and hard-working people who, choosing to prioritize their careers, can’t let off the gas. Every day is a compromise, and a distance between them grows.
Once upstate, Victor is free to pursue his artistic growth (his relationship with “purity” is ending, to hear him tell it) and Sara decides to relent and be an actress in a senior project for one of her students, George. (Gary Bolling) George tells her she could “be the next Dorothy Dandridge.” From here, Victor and Sara’s lives will mirror each other in more ways than they would’ve guessed, and the film drives steadily towards its climax.
The camera work in this film is tight and controlled. Slow and steady zooms bring us closer to characters as they get lost in their thoughts: our frame of view gets smaller, but their frame of mind expands to consider their lives. When something pulls the character out of their trance, the camera pulls out, making the world we perceive bigger, and their’s smaller; we see the room as they see it; feel it as they feel it. We’re in their reality. The acting and the direction of the film is natural and at ease. It won’t be long before the aspect ratio and music of an 80’s indie film feel as normal as any aspect ratio or music you’d encounter. The sun-bleached colors of a warm and humid east coast pop on the screen. It’s hard to overstate how good this screenplay is. Losing Ground is bursting with intelligence, ideas, philosophy, theology, pain, and cutting dialogue. It’s no surprise that Kathleen Collins cut her teeth as a playwright before getting into filmmaking. It’s a bit of a surprise how masterful her skills behind the camera were from the outset. Sadly, Collins lost her battle with breast cancer in 1988, at the age of 46. It is an incredible loss. It’s not hard to imagine an alternate universe where Collins is considered one of our greatest living directors and screenwriters.
The title Losing Ground might be as close as Collins comes to making a blunt statement on the state of Black culture in the late ’70s and early ‘80s of America. Early on in the film when Sara must choose between accompanying her husband to upstate New York and delaying her studies, or focusing on herself and her career, we get a sense of the difficult choices that minorities in America have faced for centuries; the effort it takes to get ahead in life and pull your family out of a cycle of institutional oppression doesn’t leave a person time for much else. Black communities, if not all minority communities, often don’t have the luxury of internal disagreement and divide; any rift is seized upon by those in power to further oppress; they must unite and work together to make up the ground they’ve lost over centuries.
At 86 minutes long, Losing Ground adheres firmly to Billy Wilder’s 10th rule of screenwriting: when the story is over, get out. The climactic ending may sneak up on you, but in its convergence of themes, characters, and story; it may also blow you away.
Written and Directed by Kathleen Collins