Kathleen Collins was one of the first Black women to direct movies in Hollywood, and we can still learn from her
Too often, pop culture flattens Black women into tired stereotypes. The white gaze turns Black women into background static at best, reductive and dangerous caricatures at worst. In many cases, Black women are effectively and completely erased from the narrative, as though we never existed in the first place. For writer, director, producer, and playwright Kathleen Collins, creating art—whether that be through the medium of film, theater, or novel—posed an opportunity to defy the conventions imposed upon Black womanhood. Collins’s characters aren’t props or hypersexualized punching bags. In plays like In The Midnight Hour (1981) and The Brothers (1982), and in films like The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy (1980) and Losing Ground (1982), her characters are free to experience and embrace the unbridled spectrum of human emotions.
Losing Ground, which tells the story of a Black woman philosophy professor and her discomfort in her marriage, is considered one of the first American feature-length dramas directed by a Black woman. Despite her considerably hefty body of work, Collins wasn’t a household name during the time she was alive. In 1988, at the young age of 46, the author died of breast cancer.
She is survived by her daughter, Nina Lorez Collins, who decided to publish her mother’s writing after her death, and those previously unreleased stories became Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?, published by HarperCollins in 2016. In an interview with Brooklyn Magazine following the release of the collection, Lorez Collins said, “I was just trying to preserve her legacy. I knew she was an important voice and a really smart and unusual woman. Her voice is speaking for itself.” The 16 short stories contemplate love in all its forms, not just romantic or sexual. The characters in the collections must deal with love as both refuge and poison, love that breaks down, resets, and breaks down again, and love that functions as release.
The short story collection was followed by the recently released Notes From a Black Woman’s Diary, a multi-genre collection that features short stories, one-act plays, diary entries, letters, and film scripts by Collins, including 1982’s Losing Ground.
“Her refusal to create Black characters defined by their despair and sorrow could have contributed to her limited audience.”
Not only does the collection provide insight into Collins as a literary figure and a person, but her words continue to showcase characters that aren’t afraid to live outside the rigid borders crafted by the patriarchy and upheld by white supremacy. Though her characters may not have found surefire methods of escaping racism and misogyny in their storylines, they still challenge the typical narrative embedded in pop culture. The website Shadow and Act, upon releasing video of the two-hour lecture that Collins gave at Howard University in 1984, said that her refusal to create Black characters defined by their despair and sorrow could have contributed to her limited audience. In the video, Collins says, “If any of you have seen my work, you’ll know that I’m only interested in telling stories.” Losing Ground never had a theatrical release, with the exception of a one-time only showing on a local New York PBS station, as reported by Shadow and Act.
Losing Ground chronicles the marriage of Sara, a Black woman professor, and Victor, her free-spirited painter husband, who is also Black. Sara, who is a philosophy professor, feels that she isn’t as open as Victor, who seems to see beauty and light everywhere. She asks her mother, “How did someone like you produce a child who thinks so very, very much.” Both a blessing and a burden, Sara’s reserved personality is challenged when Victor takes sudden interest in a young woman who begins to model for his paintings. In her short introductory note to the screenplay, Phyllis Rauch Klotman says, “According to Gray (cinematographer and co-producer), art houses wouldn’t take the film because they didn’t know what audience it would attract. Even in Europe…the audience—at least some—didn’t respond positively because there was no ghetto in the film, no ‘poor suffering Black folk.’”
Certainly, for audience members expecting poverty tourism or inescapable trauma, Losing Ground would not bend to their demands.
A diary entry from Notes from a Black Woman’s Diary finds Collins contemplating the cultural and societal demands placed upon Black women, namely the way in which vulnerability is a rare—if not impossible luxury—for women who look like her. She wrote, “There is no such thing as a helpless Black woman…There is no cultural conditioning, no unspoken expectation anywhere, that would allow me to believe I could afford to be helpless. The attitude of helplessness, of dependence, is foreign to me.”
If not saddled with the stereotype of the “Welfare Queen,” namely popularized by Ronald Reagan, Black women are expected to be Superwoman, able to shoulder the physical and psychological weight of racism and misogyny, and successfully transcend it. This viewpoint, somewhat reminiscent of the “Magical Negro,” turns Black women into near-mythological, extraordinary heroines expected to save everyone (except for themselves). Collins wasn’t interested in writing characters that could be mythologized and turned into superhumans; she wasn’t interested in mythologizing her own history. During her Howard University lecture, she said, “I refuse to create mythological characters…That is my obsession. That is my artistic stance… I am not interested in mythology. I am interested in ideas. I am interested in how human beings evolve—a consciousness which is true to who they are in the center of their being. And I am interested in telling stories that give pleasure to the psyche.”
To say that Collins’s work excluded instances suffering, grief, and heartache would be an oversight. But her work did not thrive on characters who were martyrs or sacrificial lambs. Their purpose was not tantamount to being vessels of pain. In a letter from August 3rd, 1962 archived in the book, Collins wrote to her only sister, Francine, who inspired the character Josephine in her short story, “Scapegoat Child.” At the time, 20-year-old Collins was living in Albany, Georgia, where she worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). She said, “All I want is to live my life as honestly as possible, giving what I can to other human beings—all kinds…because this is the way I want to live—never selling other people cheap.”
It was this commitment to showing the truth in all its ugly and beautiful entirety, rather than relying on the convenience of tropes, that molded Collins’s fictional narratives. In doing so, Collins ensured that her Black women characters were not only timeless, but undeniably vibrant, nuanced, and alive.