The Motion Picture Academy’s snubbing of Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” (2014) demonstrated the industry’s disdain for non-white, non-male filmmakers. But perhaps some progress has been made. DuVernay didn’t have to wait 33 years for her film to be released. Made in 1982, Kathleen Collins’s “Losing Ground” — her first and only feature and the first feature film ever made by a black woman (she died in 1988 of cancer at the age of 46) — has finally emerged from obscurity.
As a directorial debut, “Losing Ground” astonishes with its assurance, subtlety, and style. The dialogue scintillates, the characters are rich and well played and Collins’s inspired mise-en-scene and shrewd editing (cutting just a moment before expected, and to a new scene that is unexpected but apt) underscore a four-handed love/hate story that has almost nothing to do with race. Instead, Collins explores the fundamental conflict between passion and rationality, the visceral and abstract — or as Nietzsche, whose name gets tossed around a bit, might put it, the Dionysian and Apollonian.
Sara Rogers (Seret Scott), a philosophy professor, tends more to the latter. She first appears on screen dressed in school-marmish attire lecturing about existentialism. So rapt is she in her subject that she is oblivious when a student blatantly hits on her after class. When another student, a film major, tells her she has the presence of Dorothy Dandridge and that he wants to cast her in his senior project, she giggles and refuses.
Her passion is abstraction, or abstracting passion. In the library she researches a paper about the aesthetic significance of ecstasy. That’s where Duke (Duane Jones), a dapper, graying self-described “out of work actor and itinerant preacher,” appears out of nowhere, accosts her, and, in effect, tells her to lighten up.
Sara’s husband, Victor (Bill Gunn), in contrast to Sara’s Apollonian intensity, is a laid-back Dionysian. A painter, he has abandoned the “purity” of abstraction to resume figurative subjects. This means he is going to start hanging out in the Puerto Rican part of town and paint pretty girls.
There is a history of philandering hinted at, and it looks like it is about to resume. Perhaps in retaliation, Sara agrees to be in the movie — and her costar turns out to be the mysterious Duke, who is the student filmmaker’s uncle. The resolution of the subsequent romantic rectangle involves a delicate play of wit, insouciance, and rage.
Collins’s debut was a film not only ahead of its own time but ours as well. As Duke says in one scene about his filmmaker nephew, “When I was his age, there was no such creature called a Negro movie director.” Not much has changed since.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.