On June 1, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive hosted a live conversation as part of its ongoing Black Life series, a multidisciplinary series celebrating the work, experiences and artistry of the African diaspora. BAMPFA’s other Black Life events have included artists, filmmakers, dancers and musicians sharing their work, whether that be print work, essays or performance.
In conjunction with this event and as part of the Black Life series, BAMPFA is currently offering a free streaming of the 1982 film “Losing Ground,” the first feature film directed by an African American woman, Kathleen Collins. Although the film was created four decades ago and Collins passed away six years after its creation, “Losing Ground” has only come to the forefront in the 21st century. Collins’ daughter, Nina Collins, restored the film in 2015, unveiling her mother’s work for the world to see. Since then, the film has been in popular interest and was preserved in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2020.
The conversation was centered on Collins’ work, life and legacy. Each speaker at the event had encountered, interacted or brought to life the work of Collins in some way. Geetha Ramanathan, who shared insightful observations about the cinematic, thematic and dialogic choices in “Losing Ground,” also authored a book about Collins titled “Kathleen Collins: The Black Essai Film.” Another speaker, Eisa Davis, codirected the premiere of Collins’ play,“Begin the Beguine: A Quartet of One Acts,” for Performance Space New York.
Early on in the event, Dawn L. Troupe, co-director and star of the Oakland Theater Project’s “Begin the Beguine,” shared her heartfelt appreciation to Nina Collins for letting “her mother’s spirit live again” by reissuing not only “Losing Ground” but also publishing some of her mother’s other unseen work, including short stories and plays.
“Losing Ground” follows the story of a Black philosophy professor, Sara Rogers (Seret Scott), and the tension in her marriage with her artist husband Victor (Bill Gunn). Rogers remains the subject of “Losing Ground” as she navigates how she views herself as an intellectual in academia compared to her husband’s artistic, flamboyant life path. Throughout the film, Rogers is working on a research paper about ecstatic experiences, something she desperately yearns for and envies.
A topic of interest at the event was the way Collins portrayed women such as Rogers in her work. Ramanathan noted that all the women in Collins’ work appear to be searching for something and asked Troupe, who has played four women written by Collins, what she thinks that thing is. In response, Troupe said “To hear God’s voice, stillness, self-awareness, to have an identity other than the ones ascribed to us.”
Collins’ Black characters subverted stereotypes perpetuated by the media and entertainment, which was possibly the driving force behind the 4o-year delayed recognition of “Losing Ground.” Nina Collins described how when her mother screened the film, distributors questioned the authenticity and Blackness of the characters, doubting that the characters on screen were real Black people.
Collins’ work so effortlessly conveys how characters’ — and real people’s — Blackness does not take away from their ability to live full, human lives unbound by stereotypes. “Losing Ground,” beyond its historical significance, is cinematically and culturally significant because it challenged expectations of what Black characters should be and do on screen. The film is exactly the representation people have so desperately sought and still seek now, but it never hit upon mainstream popularity during its original run.
As reiterated by the speakers during the event, Kathleen Collins’ work was ahead of her time. Although the widespread awareness and success of her work has been a long time coming, the dissemination and celebration of Collins’ work through BAMPFA’s Black Life series and her daughter’s restoration efforts not only allow audiences to learn about Collins’ artistry, but about the world around us and the stories we share — and don’t share.