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What Happened to Kathleen Collins

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Kathleen Collins’s groundbreaking 1982 movie Losing Ground opens on a black female philosophy professor (Seret Scott) talking Camus and Sartre to a roomful of students. It ends with that same professor, newly emboldened, symbolically vanquishing her philandering painter husband (Bill Gunn). In between, Collins presents the viewer with what seems, thirty-plus years on, like the seeds of an African-American cinema that never had the chance to grow. She grounds the movie in domestic scenes — the dance of a competitive marriage between two black people who maintain distinct creative pursuits, or even just the sight of a black woman in pajamas sitting cross-legged on her bed, grading papers — whose ordinariness underscores how rare and special it is to see such moments up there on the screen.

Collins, born in Jersey City in 1942, was a poetry prodigy as a teenager, class president at Skidmore College by 1959, a voter registration activist in the South in the early Sixties, and, ultimately, a professor of film history and philosophy at the City College of New York. After her life was cut short by breast cancer in 1988, Collins’s creative output — including Losing Ground, her only completed feature — was nearly relegated to the sidelines of history. Then, in February of 2015, after an exhaustive digital-remastering process spearheaded by Collins’s daughter, Nina, Losing Ground was included in the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s essential series “Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, 1968–1986.” Critics hailed this “lost masterwork,” and public interest in Collins’s legacy has been building ever since.

This December, Ecco Press deepens that legacy with the release of Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?, a never-before-published collection of short stories Collins wrote in the Seventies. There are sixteen in all, many running just a few fleet pages, each one magnifying themes explored in Losing Ground: the brutal battlefield of uneven relationships, the joys and paradoxes of black identity, the eternal struggle between mind and body. Collins’s ideas lose none of their force or vitality on the page; if anything, they have found an even more natural medium, given the novelistic sentiment she expressed to David Nicholson in the winter 1988–89 issue of Black Film Review: “If I favor anything, I probably always favor the internal resolution before the external resolution.”

This tension, and the creative interplay between literature and cinema, is on display from the outset. The collection’s first story, “Exteriors,” imposes a movie-set perspective on a love affair gone sour, offering lighting cues (“find a nice low level while they’re laying without speaking”) for each progressively depressive stage of the romance; the second, “Interiors,” tackles a crumbling marriage through a pair of conflicting monologues. Collins, who also wrote several plays in her lifetime, inserts medium-crossing devices like these throughout the book. True to its title, “Treatment for a Story” rides along on staccato, screenplay-terse sentences and casual jumps in time: “The taxi takes off. He carries her suitcases inside. They embrace.” Other stories use a filmic lens to explore the bleak reality of being black in America. “Documentary Style” is a terrifying hypothetical about the rage of an aspiring black director (“I could handhold a camera, pan, tilt, track, like a motherfuckin’ dancer”) who finds his professional ambitions blocked, no doubt a frustration lifted from Collins’s own life.

Losing Ground fans might be tempted to approach the stories — with their scenes of creative types walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, taking lunches near the Museum of Modern Art, or gossiping about “chic openings” and “brittle cocktail parties” — as sketches for urban character studies that Collins never had the chance to realize onscreen. But her writing is so satisfying, so dense with humor and hurt and feeling, that this thought never evolves beyond a passing, fanciful notion. She deploys light as a motif in stories that have nothing to do with moviemaking, using illumination as a barometer of her characters’ psychological states. In “Only Once,” a virginal girl’s first sexual encounter with her devil-may-care boyfriend is equated with daybreak (“Sunlight dazzled them awake”). And in the title story, set in 1963 among a cluster of young, politically active interracial couples, a black girl unsure of her place in the world retreats into her sunlight-free lodgings, only later realizing that “almost all her unhappiness stemmed from that dark and dusky corridor she called her room.”

In that same David Nicholson interview from 1988–89, Collins spoke — fatefully, given her own impending illness — of another of her guiding themes: the link between physical decay and mental and emotional activity. “My basic premise is that illness is psychic disconnection of some kind,” she said. This idea surfaces throughout the collection, with Collins probing a causal relationship between the interior burden of living with black skin and the onset of untimely bodily illness.

In the title story, the young black protagonist visits her ailing father in the hospital — “a stroke victim from an overdose of idealism.” In “The Uncle,” a beloved relative with a “brooding Brando-esque face” succumbs to depression, spending his nights crying aloud and his days in a deep, unrelenting sleep. The story concludes with a death scene in which an admiring niece glimpses an unexpected quality in this seemingly mournful tableau: triumph. “He utterly honored his sorrow,” she observes, “gave in to it with such deep and boundless weeping that it seemed as I stood there he was the bravest man I had ever known.” This is the magic of Collins’s voice: the firm belief that even the most private of metamorphoses sends out ripple effects far into the real world.

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