Losing Ground

Losing Ground ★★★½

It’s such a delight to see African-American characters through an African-American director’s lens. There are no stereotypes, and this is a story that, while not devoid of racial commentary or subtext, could have been applied or adapted to people of any race. These are just normal, intelligent characters dealing with life, and more specifically, their marriage. The film has got a heavy indie or low-budget feel to it, suffers from below average production quality, and a slow pace especially early on, but it’s worth sticking through. The character portraits director Kathleen Collins gives us are strong, and there is a lovely sense of quiet realism here.

The plot is fairly simple; a married couple move to the country, and the husband (Bill Gunn) begins carrying on with another woman. He’s an artist, and his wife (Seret Scott) is a philosophy professor. She in turn starts getting involved with another man when she begins working in one of her student’s amateur movies, and the making of this is a bit like a film within a film, with its parallel themes. The husband has no issue with applying a hippie mindset to openly spending time with the other woman and introducing her to his wife, but he gets a little rankled when it’s the other way around.

Seret Scott is a joy to watch here, and I love how her character unfolds over the film. Ironically as her husband pursues artistic ecstasy or perhaps even sensual ecstasy, she’s researching ancient texts and philosophical writings about spiritual ecstasy. She has this fantastic exchange in the library with a stranger (Duane Jones) she’ll later meet again in the student movie:

Jones: What’s the thesis of your paper?
Scott: That the religious boundaries around ecstasy are too narrow. That if, as the Christians define it, ecstasy is an immediate apprehension of the divine, then the divine is energy. Amorphous energy. Artists, for example, have frequent ecstatic experiences.
Jones: That’s a lucid approach; it’s definitely pre-Christian. Christianity has had a devastating effect on man as an intuitive creature, wouldn’t you say?
Scott: Who are you?

I just loved that exchange, and wish there had been more like it. As the film lays the groundwork for us in Scott, showing us her in the roles of teacher, researcher, wife, and daughter, we see that despite her success in life, she still bumps into boundaries. Most notably that’s with her husband, who moves them despite her preference for the city, and then applies the double standard to getting involved with others. There is another moment revealed when she says “When I was little, mother used to say, oh, she’s busy building her castles reaching up, up, up to some white private sky,” and Collins accompanies it with a shot just on her during a toast, where her expression betrays pain mixed with wistfulness.

As Scott plays the ‘other woman’ in the student film, we get to see another side of her character, and I loved the scenes where she dances with Jones and then later kisses him warmly after a long walk. Because of the time Collins has invested in her to make us understand that she’s intelligent, thoughtful, and caring, seeing her (quiet) passion in combination with these things is much more compelling.

If you’re looking for an indie film that focuses on characters and is told from a very underrepresented part of society, this is definitely your film. I certainly liked it, but would have liked it more had it been a little more fleshed out or polished. It’s a gem in the rough though, and it’s unfortunate that Kathleen Collins didn’t get a chance to make more.

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