Friday, January 30, 2015

My Mentor, Kathleen Collins, Black Woman Filmmaker

"The movie [Losing Ground] is a nearly lost masterwork. It’s the only feature that Collins—who died in 1988, at the age of forty-six—made. Had it screened widely in its time, it would have marked film history....In Collins’s vision, the life of a black person—in particular, of a black woman—is a perilous existential adventure....Collins has made, in effect, a musical with no fantasy but plenty of imagination. “Losing Ground” plays like the record of a life revealed in real time."

Duane Jones and Seret Scott in Losing Ground, by Kathleen Collins
The above quote is an excerpt from The New Yorker on the late Kathleen Collin's great film, Losing Ground, which she produced along with her longtime collaborator, filmmaker Ronald K. Gray, who was the Director of Cinematography on the project. Click here for the whole New Yorker story. Kathy (1942-1988) was my film teacher and mentor when I attended the Picker Film Institute at City College of New York. I was a student production assistant on Losing Ground, which opens Friday, February 6 at the Lincoln Center Film Society's film series, "Tell it like it is: Black Independents in New York, 1968-1986"--click here for the schedule. I urge everyone to see this important film. Also, please go to Facebook and "Like" the page-- Losing Ground, a film by Kathleen Collins --there, you can find out more background on Kathy, and more photos, movie stills, and articles on the film.

Kathy was a prescient filmmaker, with an expansive vision that only now is receiving wider recognition. As a black woman making films, she was one of a very few of her generation able to do so. I was her student and, afterward, her friend. I remember writing to her as a young person (still a teen) still trying to articulate my own vision as a writer and filmmaker. I still have the letter that she wrote back to me that summer--it remains one of my most treasured possessions. Kathy was kind enough to give me some of her original stories for a literary magazine that some of my friends and I had started (it lasted one issue--lol).

Film students--I am 3rd from left--Kathy has her back turned.
I have more memories than I can even begin to enumerate--the time we went to see Whoopi Goldberg, who was starring on Broadway in her one-woman show at the time, the times that Kathy (who was psychic) gave me readings, and the time that she enlisted me to co-write a television situation comedy script with her (that was hysterical). 

While she was enduring her final illness (although I didn't know she was actually dying), her husband, Alfred Prettyman, hired me to transcribe into a computer file (from a typed manuscript) a novel that she had written. I learned a lot about Kathy's writing process during the course of that assignment. The novel (still unpublished) examined the themes that took up intellectual space in Kathy's mind at the time. When she died, I delivered a short eulogy on behalf of her students at her memorial service at the behest of her daughter, Nina--I don't remember what I said, but I know that my words could not begin to convey the deep sense of loss that her students felt at her passing.

Duane Jones in the original Night of the Living Dead.
It was on the Losing Ground film set that I met Duane Jones, one of the co-stars of the film. Duane is most famous, of course, for his leading role as Ben in the original version of Night of the Living Dead, by George Romero. Duane was such a nice man, and a very talented actor and director--as a personal favor to me, he later starred in my own senior thesis film, based on Ernest Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," which I had adapted and recast with African American actors. Duane died about a month before Kathy--the very last time I ever spoke to her was the day she called me to tell me that he had died. 

Kathy in 1987, a year before her death.
There is a lot more that I could say about the deep influence that Kathy had on me, my fellow filmmakers, and on everyone who entered her sphere. But I think her work, her writings, and the interviews that she conducted will speak for themselves. 

I am so glad to see Losing Ground finally receive its just due. Kathy was a brilliant artist, ahead of her time. It is good to see that the world has finally caught up with her vision. 



dhoward said...

Ahhh Kathy C.
Memories moving on. How lovely and touching.

bb said...

Injust saw a acreening tonight of Losing Ground at BAM. It was so moving and brought back so many loving and lovely memories of Kathleen. What a gift to have been her student. She is missed. Glad to read your beautiful words here, Rebecca.

Rebecca Williams said...

Today is the 30th anniversary of Kathy's departure. I miss her intellect and warmth...and corny jokes.