I pledged to watch 52 films by women this year, and watched my first this past week. Directed by Kathleen Collins, Losing Ground was also a perfect chance to see a mostly unknown indie film about a black woman directed by a black woman.
Kathleen Collins was only 46 when she died of breast cancer in 1988, six years after she completed Losing Ground, her second and final film. Unfortunately the film was never widely released. But Turner Classic Movies came to the rescue yet again and aired the film last month.
Collins was a pioneer of indie film, and Losing Ground may have been ignored by the media because it never played into popular black stereotypes. (Indiewire).
Who tells our stories?
The experiences of black women are so rich and varied, and rarely in mainstream films is this ever acknowledged. Often reduced to one note characters in classic Hollywood films, it’s taken an unforgivably long time for positive representation onscreen. Thankfully there are black women working in Hollywood today who are committed to telling our collective and individual stories. Ava DuVernay is one of the most prominent, not only directing her own films, but also opening up opportunities for black women and people of color to do the same through Array.
Sara Rogers (Seret Scott) is a philosophy professor: highly intellectual, somewhat stuffy, a woman of strict order. Yet she represents an unapologetic expression of individuality in her oversize glasses and plain, old fashioned clothes. Scott’s svelte beauty prevents her from ever appearing too dowdy though. I loved her hair too. The texture was somewhat similar to mine when it’s pre straightened. I don’t know if that’s a detail anyone else besides a black woman would be able to notice, or if it would even matter, but to me it did. Her hair wasn’t glossy or what would typically pass for acceptable especially for a black woman in a professional setting, but she still wore it that way regardless. And it really suited her.
Sara begins an exploration of the ecstatic experience – purely in an academic sense. She studies the subject through the lens of religion, trying to understand how saints Theresa of Avila and Thomas Aquinas found ecstasy through their encounters of the divine. It’s a fascinating if highbrow topic, and one you wouldn’t expect to be expounded on in a film, but this doesn’t detract from the film’s entertaining value. Even when things get wordy, it’s still highly enjoyable, thanks in large part to the script and the strength of the performances.
Sara continues her research when she and husband Victor (Bill Gunn) spend their summer in a New York suburb. She spends most of her time at the library, while Victor, an artist, wanders through the neighborhood charming the majority Puerto Rican women who live there. One of them, a young girl named Celia (Maritza Rivera) becomes his model, and his attraction and involvement with her begins to strain his already shaky marriage to Sara.
Victor is much more relaxed and open than Sara. I liked this review at The L Magazine, and the description of how Victor “permanently looks like he’s just remembered the punchline of a really funny joke.” That’s such a perfect description. Sara is the rigid mind while Victor is the freewheeling heart. And a marriage between these two disparate identities is still believable. It’s a harmonious contrast.
But Sara begins exploring ecstasy in her own life, away from Victor. It’s a story of awakening passion inside a bright, intelligent woman. A bright, intelligent, black woman. Sara agrees to help one of her students by appearing in his film, much to his delight. His uncle, a wry, dignified older actor named Duke (Duane Jones) agrees to be in the film as well. The two strike up a friendship and their chemistry is enough to make Victor jealous.
Watching Losing Ground was an education because it was shot in a way that I haven’t ever seen. The camera will keep certain things/characters out of frame or move slowly to capture them in the scene. The cinematography is so dreamlike, plunging the film into alternate warm hues. And it fully captures the languorous look and feel of sticky summer days and nights.
I’m no stranger to falling in love with films, but here it was in a completely new way. Not unlike Sara, who uncovers the new in a simple, yet intensely meaningful way.