Carlos Valladares’s review published on Letterboxd:
UPDATE 4/16/2020: watch this before anything else: vimeo.com/203379245 — then read this from my friend and comrade Yasmina: www.nybooks.com/daily/2020/02/29/kathleen-collinss-ecstatic-self-discovery/
If there was any justice in this world, Kathleen Collins' Losing Ground would be screened at every cinémathèque, taught in every humanities class, and canonized on every "100 Best American Films" list. That it isn't signifies an immense failure of our culture, a culture that routinely refuses to support artists like Collins, who has more soul in her index-finger than most filmmakers today in their hands, feet, eyes, philosophy text-books, view-finders, and cinephilic knowledge combined.
It was made in 1982, but it was only released last year, in 2015. Milestone Films (who also restored and released African-American auteur Charles Burnett's masterworks) has done the world a huge service by resurrecting this unjustly buried film from its grave of obscurity. When Collins (a professor, playwright, and director) died in 1988 of cancer, American Independent Cinema was robbed of a great poetic voice. Yet we needn't mourn the stifling of that voice. It's already present here. Now, this film will no longer languish in the obscure hell in which it has remained enclosed for the past 35 years.
This soul-stirring treatise on race and gender is shot from an exceedingly and embarrassingly rare point-of-view in American cinema: that of the black American woman. Our protagonist, Sara (Seret Scott) is a straight-laced, committed philosophy professor. Her husband Victor (Bill Gunn) is a laid-back, eccentric, struggling black artist. She works tirelessly to be taken seriously in academia and as a human being, committing herself fully to a passion interpreting the works of Kantian and Nietzschian thought. It is rather lofty and heady from our (the layperson's) perspective; but we can tell it brings Sara immense pride to be able to engage with these thinkers.
But, the struggles of being a black woman in America—her identity, her racial background, her sense of autonomy—are constantly being called into question by the circumstantial artistic, social, and political milieu she's up against. Victor only sees her as a mere muse; he thinks his job is to be the sole creative outlet in the family. He never truly sees Sara as a collaborator, let alone an independent artist of her own right. Sara is, time and time again, seen as object and caricature; never as complex, breathing human. After class, a young black student raves on and on about her passionate lecture; she is genuinely moved, but immediately he notes, "You're terrific; your husband must sure appreciate you." Collins switches the mood of the scene beautifully; from bashful student-teacher idolization to an uncomfortable, perplexingly sexual flirtatiousness. You can feel the stifling dankness of the lecture hall.
All of this comes undone as the film goes on. The first half is stagey, stilted, mannered as all hell--Collins here shows Sara's creativity stifled under the subtle yet strong arm of the husband, who can't deal with two creative talents in the family. But wait! a big break for Sara: despite some initial hesitancy, she accepts a role in a young black student director's production. In this proto-Spike Lee's impassioned pitch, Sara is to play "a tragic mulatto" in an avant-garde art piece. Her co-star is the student director's uncle (Duane Jones of Night of the Living Dead fame) Here, Collins' deliberate homage to her cinematic influences is made clear. Jones is playing an analogous role to Fritz Lang, the wisened old mentor being asked to play himself in Godard's Contempt (another frightening and masterful look at the disintegration of a marriage juxtaposed to the shooting of a film). If you've seen Romero's frightening parable—not frightening because of zombies, frightening because of its observations on race in America—you'll know why he is so perfect in the role he plays in Losing Ground.
When she's on the movie set, Sara, previously reserved and repressed because her husband makes her feel like she can't engage in artistic pursuits, is freer. More open. A wily creative force. On the set, she's treated as Being on a set where she is seen as an independent artist, working with people and not simply for people, being on the autonomous set that Fassbinder so elegantly championed and satirized in his Beware of a Holy Whore (1971)—this all helps Sara learn a lot about herself, and gives her the courage to confront Victor's philandering behavior in the film's brutal and breathtaking ending. Sort of like the Do the Right Thing escalation of conflict—happens so fast and yet so well-developed, it is utterly believable, there is no turning back past this point—a confrontation between Sara and her husband Victor's beatnik philandering is jaw-dropping in its suddenness, its viciousness. Here, Sara's pent-up anger finally reveals itself after being stifled under layers of reservation and self-doubt caused by her patriarchal society. In this moment, she proves the theories she reads are not mere theories; that she can compete with the male-artist-husband—that she can, indeed, rise above him—by putting her ideals into definite practice.
The film's clearly political call-to-a-conscience-revolution is never didactic, though. Losing Ground works on many levels, not only on the social, but also on the womanist, the artistic, the humanistic. Collins culls from Godard's rigidly linear tension in Contempt (1963) and Rossellini's atomized, aimless angst in Journey to Italy to create a wild product harmonized with her experience and knowledge of black femininity. Midway through the film, we are treated to a scene of a Latino abstract artist named Carlos, who Victor visits for "mentorship" and "advice." Victor is jealous of Carlos's ability to never draw representations of things. Carlos: "I'm not interested in reflecting reality." Victor: "So where do you draw from?" Carlos: points to his head. A similar process is happening with Collins's movie: her observations are clearly grounded in experience, yet there's a looseness and a free-form eccentricity to most of it that tells you she prefers to deal with things in the abstract. Collins' filming of a vibrant Hispanic barrio—a quick establishing shot of a carniceria that hits you right in the gut due to its quotidian beauty—respects Setting to a radical degree. The people she films are the people Bill paints. Collins is equating herself to Bill's noble, artistic pursuits. Yet she is not above condemning Bill for what he represents: patriarchal arrogance, a perpetuation of rape culture, and a distortion of what is championed in black masculinity.
There are two scenes that I can't get out of my mind: the final 5 minutes, of course, but also a scene where Victor dances with a Puerto Rican he is drawing. It is so simple and clean and pure—her dressed in blaring red-and-yellow, he in a checkered purple flannel, them dancing to the beat of New York salsa as a ocean laps upon the shore in immediate background, space collapsed into one. It smacks a smile on your teeth and leaves a tear in your eye.
Please, watch this movie. It is a film that rewards rapt attention and close inspection. It is a film which will live on for ages to come. It has not gotten attention for its sketched-out beauty, but no matter; film-studies (and the film canon) is still young, still developing, and there is time yet to include this among the finest achievements of American independent filmmaking. Burnett is nodding his head on earth towards Collins; Cassavetes is smiling in heaven with her.