Spotlight: Kathleen Collins
When I think back, the dominant sounds of my childhood are of my mother’s IBM Selectric II clattering away behind her bedroom door; film swishing through the Steenbeck editing machine that sat in our dining room; and, occasionally, Tina Turner blaring from the stereo while she danced like a madwoman in the living room.
Writer, editor, director, activist, academic. For a short period, in late-twentieth century New York, Kathleen Collins was all these things. Furiously ambitious, restless and driven, Kathleen was a hive of creative activity during her brief adult life, churning out plays, short stories, screenplays and films. Through her art, she sought to reflect experiences that she rarely saw in books, on stages or on screen, holding up a mirror to the diverse intellectual and artistic community that surrounded her. Her writing and filmmaking capture a myriad of perspectives, but often circulate around a key central question – how to live, love and create as a Black woman in the United States.
During her lifetime Kathleen’s work was seen by only a limited audience. When she died young it seemed likely that she would be forgotten, a rapidly fading ghost remembered only by her admiring peers. But while the story of Kathleen Collins has a familiar shape to anyone with an interest in the lives and legacies of female artists, it also has a bittersweet coda. Her story is one of loss, but also a triumphant tale of discovery and restoration. Ground lost and ground regained.
Kathleen Collins (nee. Conwell) was born on 18 March 1942 into a comfortable, middle-class New Jersey home. Her father Frank was a mortician who progressed to become a school principal and later the first New Jersey African-American state legislator. Her mother Loretta, had originally come from Gouldtown, one of the oldest Black settlements in the country and a historic haven for interracial marriages. Young Kathleen was academically talented, going on to major in French at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs. Here she became active in the Civil Rights movement, spending the summer of 1962 in Georgia, where she travelled door to door registering Black voters and was arrested twice. After graduation, she won a scholarship to pursue a masters in French Literature at the Sorbonne. It was while she was in Paris, living amidst a filmmaking revolution with the birth of New Wave, that Kathleen first became fascinated by cinema.
On her return to the US, Kathleen settled in New York, where she began juggling a multi-stranded career - editing films, teaching at the City College, directing plays and writing - and began raising a family with her first husband Douglas Collins. That marriage was troubled and ended in separation, leaving Kathleen struggling to balance the busy life of a single mother with her ever growing artistic ambitions throughout the 1970s. Kathleen’s daughter Nina remembers her mother at this time as a tightly wound ball of creative energy, a whirlwind of “sad glamour” sat at her editing machine or typewriter with her afro, short skirts and high boots.
As early as 1971 Kathleen had written her first screenplay but was discouraged when she discovered how difficult it was to persuade funders to give a Black woman money to direct. She persevered however and completed her first film The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy in 1979, on a tiny budget of $5,000,.
An adaptation of a short story by Henry Roth (with whom Kathleen co-wrote the screenplay) The Cruz Brothers is an eerie magical realist tale that runs at just under an hour. The plot centres on three orphaned Puerto Rican brothers, living shabbily in semi-rural upstate New York, who form a strange bond with an elderly White woman when she employs them to renovate her family mansion. Narrated by the brothers’ dead father, the film is a curious but beguiling mix of gothic atmosphere with winning goofiness. It’s also an intriguing introduction to some of the key themes and visual hallmarks – lush, bucolic imagery, dance and theatricality, marginalised communities in non-stereotypical spaces - that Kathleen was to develop more fully in her next feature. The Cruz Brothers was a struggle to make for such a tiny budget (Kathleen later described making it as “like going down a terribly long tunnel”) but was a modest success on the festival circuit and established Kathleen as a filmmaker. The stage was set for her masterpiece.
Set over the course of a long hot New York Summer, Losing Ground (1982) is the story of a prosperous Black couple, Philosophy Professor Sara (Seret Scott) and painter Victor (Bill Gunn). At a grand holiday rental in a leafy Latino dominated suburb upstate, the impulsive and passionate Victor paints and begins an affair with a young Boricua woman, while Sara, increasingly torn by the conflict of her cool intellectualism with her internal passions, escapes the tension through trips back to the city. There she agrees to take part in a film being made by one of her students, playing a “Tragic Mulatto” opposite handsome actor Duke (Duane Jones). As Sara splits her time between their upstate retreat and inner-city shoot, the film-within-a-film love triangle begins to disturbingly echo her troubled marriage, building to a tense climax.
Losing Ground is a landmark for a number of reasons. Although it never secured a distribution deal, it did attract a limited audience at selected screenings and was well-regarded within academic and intellectual circles. As a result, Kathleen Collins can arguably lay claim to be the first African-American woman to direct a feature film released in the US, laying the groundwork for Julie Dash to become the first African-American female director of a theatrically released feature with Daughters of the Dust in 1991.
Watching Losing Ground today, what’s initially most striking is the film's freshness. It’s a beautiful, breezy watch propelled by a lilting, talky energy. Set across one hot summer, it captures the intensity of summer in the city: the vivid colours, the gorgeous light, the sense of sensual possibility. You can feel the influence of French cinema in the film’s focus on the tangled psychology of relationships, and in the interweaving of witty, probing dialogue with dense symbolism. The bohemian setting reflects the world of Black and Latino artists and intellectuals that Kathleen was part of in New York, a furiously creative community struggling against their constant marginalisation. It remains unusual to see Black middle-class lives on screen, and even more unusual to see these lives depicted entirely removed from White scrutiny or concern. It is also, notably, a film in constant dialogue with Black artistic history. The sharp script is packed full of references to movie stars such as Dorothy Dandridge and Pearl McCormack (an actor who starred in several films directed by Oscar Micheaux, one of the first African-American Hollywood directors). There are tongue-in-cheek swipes too at the limitation placed on such artists, cast as track stars and tragic anti-heroines in “thoroughly coloured plays”.
It is similarly refreshing to see a story that focuses on a Black woman’s existential crisis. Kathleen uses her eye for seduction and ear for wit to absorb us into a story that is in fact saturated with despair. Sara is a woman searching for meaning, struggling to reconcile her cold professional life and frustrated desires with her husband’s instinctive, selfish passion. Sara’s search for ecstasy takes her to the dusty philosophical texts in the library, to an encounter with a psychic, a visit to a church and emotional infidelity with Duke, but all these encounters leave her unsatisfied. The failure of this search, the film’s careful symbolism implies, is at least partly due to the impossibility of Sara’s identity. As a Black woman in North America, Sara will never be allowed to live within her many complexities, Beautiful and intelligent, spiritual and intellectual, artistic and logical, Sara is just too contradictory a character to exist. It is only by reducing her to archetype – frigid academic, beautiful muse, object of desire - that Sara can exist at ease with the men around her.
The connections between Losing Ground, Black film history and New York’s creative community are cemented by the film's cast. Seret Scott was established on the theatre scene as an actor and director and had worked as an acting coach for The Cruz Brothers. Bill Gunn, a vocal advocate for Kathleen’s work, was an established writer, actor and filmmaker himself. Like his director, Bill was a polymath underappreciated in his lifetime, although he has since become something of a cult hero. He is best remembered for the experimental blaxploitation horror Ganja and Hess (1973) which starred Duane Jones in the lead. Like Kathleen, Duane had studied at the Sorbonne before establishing himself as a key figure on the theatre scene as an actor and artistic director. Nonetheless, Duane is best remembered today for his lead role in George A Romero’s original zombie film Day of the Dead (1968), which made him one of the first Black actors to headline a horror film.
The interconnected lives of the key collaborators at the heart of Losing Ground comes with a sad twist. Kathleen had first fallen ill after wrapping the shoot for The Cruz Brothers, and with her shrewd eye for the symbolic she seems to have associated her illness with this realisation of her creative ambition. She was reminded of her heroine Lorraine Hansberry, the exceptionally gifted playwright whose own genius had been cut short by cancer at the age of 34, a connection she elaborated on in a 1989 interview:
The older I get, I have this feeling of being very connected with Lorraine Hansberry. I’ve never found another Black writer who I felt was asking the same questions I was asking until I started reading her work.... She died very young, and she died basically eaten up. My theory is that she was not only way ahead of her time, but that success came at a time when she was not able to absorb it without its destructive elements eating her body up.
Kathleen’s long awaited fulfilment of her artistic ambitions coincided cruelly with the decline of her health. In the decade following her debut, Kathleen achieved her dream of directing a feature, made her masterpiece, and secretly struggled with breast cancer. She died in 1988, aged only 46. In a tragic coincidence, Kathleen’s death was to be followed closely by those of two of her key collaborators. Within a year of her passing, Duane Jones and Bill Gunn both also died suddenly, struck down well before their time.
In the decades following Kathleen’s death, she was largely forgotten. While her work had been well regarded by her peers, Kathleen had never secured wider distribution and very little of her writing was published during her lifetime. She would likely have disappeared from view entirely if it weren’t for the intervention of her daughter. Two decades after her mother’s death, Nina Lorenz Collins opened a trunk she had saved of her mother’s short stories, diaries, correspondence, and films and was struck by the quality of what she had found. As America entered the Obama era, Nina realised that she had uncovered a rich seam of lost artistry, hidden stories which now just might find the audience they deserved. She organised a restoration of her mother’s 16mm reels and secured a distributor. In 2014, Losing Ground was chosen to open a major season at the Lincoln Centre in New York and hailed as a major rediscovery. In 2016, Kathleen’s short story collection Whatever Happened to Interracial Love was published for the first time to wide critical acclaim.
Nina had succeeded in finding her mother the audience she had always craved, restoring Kathleen to her rightful place in history, a missing link in the story of film. Thanks to Nina’s intervention, Kathleen’s life, work and death has become public knowledge, and she has swiftly assumed a position within the canon. The story of Losing Ground, has become one not of loss, but of triumphant rediscovery . Now that Kathleen has, with such celebration and fanfare, regained her position in film history and in the canon, we hope she can stay there. Once found, never to be lost again.
“In my day there was no such thing as a Negro film director,” says Duke in Losing Ground, suspiciously surveying a young filmmaker. It’s a portentous line that anticipates the arrival on the scene of a new wave, spearheaded by a young director who was to redefine independent filmmaking. In 1989, shortly after the premature deaths of Kathleen Collins, Bill Gunn and Duane Jones, a bold new generation exploded into the mainstream. The release and success of Do The Right Thing heralded a changing of the guard. Spike Lee’s third feature established the young upstart as the foremost chronicler of Black lives in America, a position that arguably he still occupies to this day.
While Spike inevitably dominates this discussion, his emergence coincided too with a string of Black female filmmakers debuting across the 1990s, the likes of Julie Dash, Cheryl Dunye, Kasi Lemmons and Leslie Harris. That these women, despite their early promise, have generally struggled to make more than one or two feature films across their ongoing careers, poignantly echoes a recurring theme in Kathleen’s work – the devaluation of work made by women of colour. Nonetheless, whether consciously or unconsciously, all these filmmakers, male and female, are building on the foundations she laid. We can trace her lineage stretching through the work of Spike, Julie, Cheryl, Kasi, Leslie, and today Barry, Ava and Issa. Kathleen Collins may, for a while, have been forgotten, but in truth the ground she captured was never lost. It was just buried, waiting to be found, and reclaimed once more.
Ashley Clark, Sight & Sound, “A Short History of Black US Indie Cinema”
Criterion Channel, “A Legacy a Landmark”
Kathleen Collins.org, “About”
Nina Lorez Collins, Vogue, “How Kathleen Collins’s Daughter Kept Her Late Mother’s Career Alive”
Vinson Cunningham, The New Yorker, “Kathleen Collins’ Otherworldy Women”
Yasmina Price, The New York Review of Books, “Kathleen Collins’s Ecstatic Self Discovery”
Gwendolyn Audrey Foster. Women Film Directors: An International Bio Critical Dictionary. “Kathleen Collins”
Kathleen Collins, Whatever Happened to Interracial Love.