Credit: Milestone Films
by Selina Lee Featured Film Kicking the Canon Kicking the Canon

Losing Ground — Kathleen Collins

May 30, 2022

Forgotten for several decades after its 1982 release, Kathleen Collins’ Losing Ground was rediscovered in 2015, leading to a flurry of posthumous critical attention that befits its status as the first feature-length drama directed by a Black woman since the 1920s. Filmed on a shoestring budget, it chronicles a few weeks in the life of Sara (Seret Scott), a brilliant, buttoned-up philosophy professor, and her husband Victor (writer, actor, and director Bill Gunn), a brash and freewheeling painter on the up-and-up. At Victor’s insistence, the couple decamps from New York City to a house up the Hudson River, where Victor can paint the lush scenery — and dabble in portraits of beautiful local Puerto Rican women. Meanwhile, Sara toils at the local library researching a paper on ecstatic experiences, knowing that her detached academic pursuits come a distant second to actually living and embodying the topic. Both are attractive in their own way, if incongruously matched: about five minutes into the movie, one of Sara’s male students hits on her and another, George, begs her to star in his senior film thesis. Victor, with his easy smile and insouciantly unbuttoned shirts, has the confidence and charm to collect muses without a second thought to their, or his wife’s, feelings on the matter.

Losing Ground’s central tension revolves around its principal characters’ differences: Sara is steady and rational while Victor is carefree and happy-go-lucky. Unsurprisingly, her analytical coldness is frequently at odds with his impulsive need for instant gratification. Neither character is perfect, and both have their moments of cozy affection and off-putting selfishness. Their mutual love and respect is obvious, though they frequently exchange, and laugh off, the sort of barbs that would send many couples to bed fuming. Frequently mediating this tension is Sara’s mother Leila, a stage actress who loves but doesn’t seem to fully understand her daughter. As a fellow artist, she has more in common with her son-in-law and patronizingly dismisses Sara’s academic ambitions as “building castles in the sky.”

Throughout the film, Collins plays with the idea that creative pursuits are somehow more worthwhile than intellectual ideas; many of the people in Sara’s life seem to believe that Victor’s paintings are more impressive than anything she can produce, no matter how deeply researched or astutely observed. In one painful scene, she asks Victor “If I did something artistic like write or act, would that get me a little more consideration?” Victor can’t seem to help himself when he replies “If you were good.” Even while teaching, she can’t get away from students who praise her lavishly before immediately asking about her husband, as if his approval is the bellwether for her success. At the same time, Victor and his mentor, Carlos, discuss their art with a shared aesthetic vocabulary that’s not so far removed from Sara’s philosophy lectures, though neither seems to have made much effort to understand their spouse’s passion.

As Victor spends more time painting a local woman named Celia (Maritza Rivera), Sara impulsively decides to star in George’s thesis film after all, to prove something to both herself and Victor. The filming reconnects her to the Duke (Duane Jones, who also starred in Gunn’s cult vampire movie Ganja & Hess), a mysterious man she met in the college library. An out-of-work actor who studied for the ministry, she is drawn to the Duke’s regal bearing and highbrow intellect; at last, she’s met someone who not only respects her mind, but understands it. George’s film is based on the pre-1920s folk song Frankie & Johnny, in which a woman, played by Sara, shoots her cheating husband, played by the Duke; per his instruction, it’s also, somewhat inscrutably, a take on the tragic mulatto archetype.

The entire principal cast is Black or Latino, and Sara and Vincent in particular have no qualms discussing their racial identity with the sort of broad generalizations that have fallen out of fashion among modern critics and artists. Victor, after celebrating the acquisition of his work by a museum, crows triumphantly, “Your husband is a genuine Black success!” He also takes to heart what he hears on the radio: “No demand can be considered appropriate of [the Black artist] other than one simple, clear message: that he interprets that which is real to him in a meaningful way.” For a good-natured philanderer, this certainly sounds like a free pass to all sorts of physical and emotional dalliances. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the Duke’s wryly self-deprecating comment after listing off his past lives: “Apparently, this is my first incarnation as a Negro. I must have built up a lot of karmic debt.” Collins doesn’t dwell on the reality of Black Americans needing to “work twice as hard to get half as far”; her characters are talented, successful, and ambitious. Yet Sara, despite her artist husband and actress mother, can’t seem to find, or be open to, the aesthetic fulfillment she so desperately craves.

The film reaches its fiery denouement when Sara, the Duke, Victor, Celia, and Carlos come together for a tense, impromptu party in the summer house, during which jealousies boil over and Sara explodes. Later, at the film shoot, Victor arrives in time to see Sara’s character in her full glory. In skintight bodysuits and sheer flowing skirts, she’s a far cry from her prim professor persona, though it’s unclear if this performance is a turn towards artistic triumph or just that: a performance. After dancing with the Duke, she shoots him for leaving her for another woman. Tears streaming down Sara’s face, the credits roll. It’s an ambiguous ending for a measured but enigmatic film that withholds easy answers or clear-cut judgments. Sara and Victor are neither heroes nor villains, and their Blackness is acknowledged without being fetishized or satirized. The shaky ground Sara finds herself on is like the rumblings of a distant volcano: the explosion of a self, or a marriage, that rearranges the future, with thrilling, devastating results.

Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.