Reel Critic: “Losing Ground”


I would like to take this opportunity to discuss a series the Film Society hosted during February, the last film of which was “Losing Ground.” We selected three films (in addition to “Losing Ground,” we screened “Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Revenge” and “She’s Gotta Have It”) in celebration of Black History Month and each had attributes which made for interesting and valuable viewing experiences.

I run the Film Society with Cicely Bernhard ’20, and we had significant assistance in arranging this series from Sierra Jackson ’18. She helped us secure funding and put together the panel discussion for “Losing Ground.” American Studies Professor J Finley and librarian Katrina Spencer generously donated their time to watch the film and discuss it with us at the screening. The discussion afterwards provided unique feedback which deepened everyone’s appreciation and understanding of the film.

“Losing Ground” is a foundational film because it is one of the first feature films directed by an African American woman and as a result explores themes usually left untouched by more mainstream pictures. It tells the story of a black female professor, played by writer-director Kathleen Collins, and her struggles with her love life. She and her husband rent a cottage in the country for the summer, but she is drawn to the personal and professional validation offered by the city.

Predictably, its production value is relatively low, but the camerawork is competent and engrossing in a campy kind of way. Its confidence is endearing in the best sense because it is so sincere. The audience does not need to be told that its content is relatively autobiographical; this distinction is obvious from the first scene. Collins is giving a lecture on some esoteric philosophy, but her camera is not focused on her speech. Rather, it displays the hordes of men watching her speak intently. At first I thought this approach was too heavy-handed to work, that it made its point too quickly and without the appropriate degree of nuance, but as similarly blunt scenes appeared, I felt myself appreciating it more and more.

Some scenes are actually humorous with a real sense of comic intention. For example, Collins decides to act in the film project of one of her students and his performance is so over-the-top, so like a caricature in its depiction of a film student, that several of the film students in the audience, myself included, winced from the resemblance as we laughed at it. The sarcastic wit on display in this and other performances sometimes hurts with its accuracy and honest appraisals of that which it lampoons.

This project, so intensely personal, was not released until 2015. Kathleen Collins died of cancer in 1988, just six years after she completed this film. These two facts have delayed its prevalence despite its importance, not to mention its quality as a cathartic medium for its intended audience. Part of the effort in screening this film was meant to rehabilitate its reputation, because more people deserve to see it. The library now has a copy of the DVD available to be checked out. I would urge anyone interested in this film to try to see it, preferably with other people. It is worth a watch.