“If you think about film in the bare sense it is nothing but space and light and the placement of people inside these two illusions.” Kathleen Collins said in a filmed lecture to Howard University film students in 1984. To listen to Collins speak is to learn a great many things about life from a person who recognized the white world’s limitations in seeing her. “Their ability to asses me is entirely dependent on the packaging. You see because I am a packaged person to them.” A few years earlier the American Playhouse had commissioned a play by Collins. She felt that as the only black woman among seven white women playwrights, they were inclined to stage her play if it fit their quota not because of how the play made them feel, think, respond. “It is important to understand one’s role in society but also one's emotional role. For the role of the insider to have the outsider to project their sins on. Black people in America are classic outsiders.”
Whatever obsessed Kathleen Collins, she wrote about. The breadth of her work is expansive but always resides “in ideas, in how human beings evolve which is true to how they are in the center of their being.” As a young playwright, she began with where people lived and what their habits were. Collins was born in New Jersey; her maternal family dates back 300 years to Gouldtown, a settlement begun by an interracial couple. She held a BA in philosophy and religion from Skidmore College, attended Harvard Graduate School and in 1965 won a scholarship to study in France at the Paris-Sorbonne University. Her first film class in Paris required her to watch a film 15 times and analyze its relationship to literature. In her 1984 lecture at Howard, Collins said, there is a “false assumption that if you do good work people are going to pat you on the back.” Collins’ work was beloved among her fellow black filmmakers and academics, but not seen by the broader American audience. Her second film Losing Ground in 1982 never had a theatrical release in the United States, though it did play once at the Museum of Modern Art in 1983 as part of their Cineprobe series. To see Collins on film speak at Howard is to see a person undefeated by a world encouraging inauthenticity because it is easier to sell. We learn from her that she walks a lot and reads a lot; she doesn’t eat meat or white flour. She runs to clear the mind, and she meditates. She writes everyday in her diary. “The two words you should have down on your paper if you are an academic are real and symbolic.” To Collins, real was the conscious mind and symbolic was the unconscious. Both must be worked not just for writing but for living.
In one of its non-theatrical screenings, Losing Ground was shown at a retirement home in Harlem and Collins remembers everyone was over 80. There was a man who wandered in off the street. Moved by what he saw he spoke back to the film. Losing Ground is the story of Sara, played by the exquisitely voiced Seret Scott, and Victor, played by boyishly good-looking Bill Gunn. They are two people in a marriage, Victor looking out and Sara looking in. Their places in the end finally switch with Victor seeing Sara not as a symbol of wife or a subject to be painted, but as the real woman he has missed. The film had not found distribution because in 1982 upon its release the distributors who saw it incredibly told Collins “black people don’t speak that way.”
“Is he someone who dreams a lot?” Collins asks at Howard of a student describing a character he is at work on. At 19, she read the philosophical novel The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky to understand why certain people were oppressed. “Why were we outsiders?” Collins asked. The influence on Collins at 25 of Jean-Paul Sartre opens Losing Ground and it is not the questions themselves but the act of questioning. Sara questions intellectually and Victor instinctually. Sara is for Collins “Real” and Victor “Symbolic.” Both have their mentors. For Sara it is the academic and philosophical books that she reads. For Victor it is Carlos a painter friend who is an abstractionist and paints from images in his mind. Victor believes Carlos is pure, though he himself paints the world around him. In one scene Victor draws us. Standing on a street in upstate New York. Framed by a sign with yellow arrows going in two ways. He looks into the camera and sketches. At Howard, three years before she would pass away at the age of 46 to cancer, Collins said “The pleasure of writing is imagining people laughing or being amused at your work.” She had an internal audience of all her literary and cinematic influences “those are the ones you really write to.” Collins was not a symbol of a black woman filmmaker but a real person and, if we are academics, humans, artists, interested in questioning the split in our society of outside versus in, we must internalize Collins as part of our audience and continue to write back to her.