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With: Seret Scott, Bill Gunn, Duane Jones, Maritza Rivera, Hilda Vargas, Michelle Mais, Noberto Kerner, Billie Allen, Gary Bolling
Written by: Kathleen Collins
Directed by: Kathleen Collins
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 86
Date: 04/05/2016

Losing Ground (1982)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Art and Life

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Kathleen Collins's Losing Ground (1982) should be better known than it is, at least historically, given that it is — by some accounts — the first feature-length film made by a female African-American. Collins deserves credit for that, even if it's shameful that it took some 87 years after the invention of film for it to happen, and equally shameful that no one even knows about it. I hadn't ever heard of it, until 2016 when Milestone Films released it on DVD and Blu-ray.

I can't find much information on Ms. Collins, other than that she died in 1988, of cancer, at only 46 years of age. She studied at Skidmore College and the Sorbonne, and worked as a teacher. She was perhaps better known for her plays than for her film work. I'm not exactly sure how Losing Ground might have been shown in 1982, but it seems that it was never shown in theaters (until 2015). Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust is considered the first feature-length film made by a female African-American that actually had a theatrical release, and a New York Times obituary claims that Losing Ground was shown on television.

It's clear from the start that Collins was highly educated, as some of the dialogue in Losing Ground is very brainy and academic. It opens with a beloved professor Sara Rogers (Seret Scott) teaching to a class of smitten college students. Later, she works on her thesis, something about ecstasy in Christianity or something, and a mysterious man in a hat and cape called "Duke" (Duane Jones, from Night of the Living Dead and Ganja and Hess — who also died in 1988) enters into a highly esoteric discourse about her topic.

It turns out she's married to an artist, Victor (Bill Gunn, the writer and director of Ganja and Hess — is there a pattern here?), who was originally working in abstracts and has now decided that he wants to paint people. After selling a painting to a museum, he decides to take a summer house in a nearby small town, one filled with Puerto Rican girls worth ogling. Sara isn't so hot on the idea, since she requires a big city library for her thesis, but she goes along. A film student wants Sara to act in his thesis project, so when Victor becomes involved painting and hanging out with a pretty local girl, Celia (Maritza Rivera), Sara goes back to the city to make the film. And "Duke" is in it too!

Collins wrestles heavily with the basic ideas of head vs. body, the intellect vs. the instinct. She comes up with some interesting images from dancing at a party, to a more imaginative one: the fivesome spends the night in sleeping bags near a swimming pool, and the magic-shell game of wet people climbing back into sleeping bags makes for a tense moment. Perhaps most striking of all is the final moment, involving a gun.

It would be hard to sell Losing Ground as a major film in and of itself; it's very low-budget and a little awkward here and there, and a little obvious in other places. Sara wears big glasses, buttoned-up dresses, and pinned-up hair to suggest her braininess and being out-of-touch with her sensual self; yet the students still seem to think she's an angel and not a drip.

But as a piece of history, it's essential. Remarkably, Collins simply tells a story of African-Americans. She does not tell a story about the condition of being African-American, about discrimination or alienation or anger. It barely comes up. (Sara's mother is a stage actress who wishes she could play a more "real" role.) This is the opposite of what many other African-American films had to go through to be noticed in the 1980s and 1990s; they had to show the exact condition of the African-American as the "other."

Losing Ground is a movie about smart, creative people having some trouble in their lives; it can be written about in film studies classes, or it can be enjoyed by smart, creative people everywhere. Milestone's two-disc Blu-ray set includes a remastered transfer of the film, plus a commentary track by Professors LaMonda Horton-Stallings and Terri Francis, a trailer for the 2015 theatrical release, Collins' previous film, the 50-minute The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy; video interviews with cinematographer Ronald K. Gray, actress Seret Scott, and Collins' daughter Nina; an archival interview with Collins, and more.

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