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Kathleen Collins wrote and directed Losing Ground (1982)—a film about a middle-class Black couple whose marriage is shaken by the lovers’ diverging paths towards self-discovery. Seret Scott stars as the Philosophy professor seeking her artist husband’s approval but discovers new sides to herself that even she did not know she had. This refreshing film explores the human condition of what makes us feel ecstasy in life. (KIZJ: 4.5/5)
Review written by FF2 Media Contributing Editor Katusha Jin
The story begins in the lecture hall of a small college. “Sara Rogers” (Seret Scott) leads her class with an air of decorum, her movements carefully orchestrated and arranged. Some of the students are bored, some are listening to music, but their professor absolutely entices a few of them. At the end of the lecture, a couple of the ogle-eyed students come to thank her, but, to her discomfort, their comments end with how lucky her husband must be. Sara is a successful academic in Philosophy, but she can’t seem to escape having her worth measured in relation to her husband’s. “Victor” (Bill Gunn) is a complete juxtaposition to his wife. He, an artist, is passionate and emotional. After the sale of one of his paintings to a museum, Victor feels led by his art to pursue a different style. He wants to experiment aesthetically and immerse himself in a new space away from the city; he persuades our protagonist to rent out a summer home in upstate New York.
Sara has other goals in mind for the summer break. She is eager to continue working on a paper about the “ecstatic experience” and craves to be near the comfort of the city’s large libraries. It doesn’t help that Victor’s new inspiration comes from the Puerto Rican women who live near their summer home. His latest obsession drives Sara back into the concrete jungle, where she spontaneously agrees to help an old student with a film project. As someone who is used to following a structured plan for everything, this is very uncharacteristic.
The divide between the couple grows as they find themselves emotionally invested in projects and people outside their marriage. Eventually, they’re brought to a point where they must ask themselves what they really want from and for each other. Although the film meanders between the issues in Victor and Sara’s marriage, I see this as a widening crack that reveals the central battle—Sara’s journey down the path of self-discovery in a way that is free from inhibitions and expectations.
The idea of a woman finding herself through the film mirrors Kathleen Collins’s own experiences. She never planned for a film career but gained interest in the cinematic art form while studying French Literature in Paris. After working as a film editor in New York for a few years, she worked at a university, which enabled her to make her own movies with access to university equipment.
There are few films that have made me think so much after viewing it. The way Collins approaches the human need for approval and our constant self-questioning and pursuit of self-improvement makes it a story that will always be relevant. My only wish is that I could have seen it earlier. Collins creates a story that will feed the soul of any artist or any individual trying to understand the artistic process and purpose. It’s regretful that Kathleen Collins’s only directorial feature, which was also the first feature film directed by an American Black woman, disappeared from the film scene for over thirty years.
Losing Ground is an extremely passionate film, reflected even in its luscious color palette. There is so much to do with artistic exploration—a topic director Kathleen Collins frequently revisits in her writing. (Read more about her other works here!) Art drives the change within the characters. Sara’s first-time experience of being an actress in a film reveals aspects of herself she had long buried. It changes her perspective on her writing, her marriage, and what she wants for herself. The ability to freely express a different side of her in front of a camera allows her to break out of the box she has built around herself. As the traditional blouses from her wardrobe change into flowy dresses, the seams of her rigid, old self tear apart to reveal a new woman—one that should not and will not be measured by the approval of her male counterpart.
Middle Photo: Losing Ground original US poster designed by Adrian Rothschild
Photo Credits: Milestone Film & Video (2015) (USA)
Q: Does Losing Ground pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
Yes, Sara and her mother talk about her paper, acting, and art.