Losing Ground

Losing Ground ★★½

Losing Ground is the final film offering from Kathleen Collins, an educator, writer, and burgeoning director before her untimely death in 1988. Though this film was completed in 1982, it did not receive a theatrical release until Collins’ daughter rescued the original 16mm print from a then-liquidating DuArt film processing lab in 2010, and restored and reissued her late mother’s legacy in 2015. The film enjoys the cultural and historical distinction of being one of the first feature-length narrative films directed by a Black American woman since the 1920s, both impressive and telling of the ever-disadvantageous position of BIPOCs within this (and essentially any) industry. Film Society at Lincoln Center screened the film in 2015, and its delayed launch onto the arthouse world stirred critics to uncommon excitement, eliciting enthusiastic praise from many camps. 

In my anticipation of watching this feverishly lauded piece of cinematic history, I perhaps should have tempered my expectations—the film that I experienced unfortunately didn’t reach the euphoric zeniths of others’ estimations. Though I tried to meet the movie on its own terms, I couldn’t ignore its deficits and sometimes glaring drawbacks—even on the rubric of a low-budget indie picture, despite acknowledging its importance as a mile marker of filmmaking for BIPOC and womxn.

Losing Ground is a quixotic look into the interior lives of black intellectuals Sara (Seret Scott), a tense, sensible philosophy professor and her impulsive, inconsiderate husband, abstract painter Victor (Bill Gunn), and their diverging psychologies as they quarrel through his mid-life crisis and her numinous awakening.

Sara is slight, almost diminutive despite her mental acumen, but her persona never reaches the breadth of her intellectual prowess—she acts timid and nearly childlike with naïveté and self-consciousness when navigating interpersonal exchanges with her students, her husband, even her aging actress mother. She is scarcely confident in her own professional and intellectual capabilities (despite her unsettlingly and uniformly adoring student body) because of her husband’s—and to a lesser extent, her mother’s—ridicule and dismissal of her decidedly cerebral pursuits.

When one of Bill’s paintings is purchased by a museum for their permanent collection, it mobilizes an examination of the truth and purity of his artistic output and a hastened abandonment of his current nonrepresentational style in favor of more figurative subjects—namely the young, attractive Puerto Rican women in a nearby suburban area outside the city. His quest for identity and validation is also fueled by an intake of messaging that virility is the lynchpin to inspiration, which thereby entitles him to expressing this masculine potency at will.

The story is molded around implied infidelities and unexplored self-doubts and anxieties. The screenplay, also written by Collins, is my major complaint—it’s not only unnatural but succumbs to caricature and bombast, without the wit to venture into full camp or satire. I would have responded to more humility and reflection in the script—with dialogue resembling humanlike exchange, instead of the affectedness of the characters’ masturbatory diatribes. 

The narrative also features an egregious student film-within-a-film subplot that hampers the thrust and is sadly crudely staged. Ironically, DP Ronald K. Gray was a former film student of Collins’; not surprising given Losing Ground’s overall innocuous yet rudimentary cinematography. Casting was another conspicuous deterrent for me—while I thought Bill Gunn deftly navigated stilted lines to deliver a convincing performance, nearly all of the other principals were stage actors. The performances of Seret Scott and Billie Allen (who plays Sara’s mother) are particularly theatrical, their myriad of experience in the theatre not translating to the subtlety needed for the screen. The remainder of the cast appear to be non-actors, excepting film and stage veteran Duane Jones as Duke, the unemployed actor who stalks around the campus where Sara teaches in a laughable cape and fedora, seemingly using cryptic religious philosophy as a flirtation device.

The mere existence of this film is a triumph in representation, especially at a time when BIPOC and womxn were largely denied opportunities and funding, but its racial and gender consequence are mutually exclusive from its narrative and technical inadequacies. I feel lucky to have seen this resurrected, ephemeral artifact, I only regret my admiration for its content doesn’t match that of its prestige.

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