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North Star: Nina Lorez Collins on Her Mother Kathleen Collins’s Life and Legacy

Seret Scott and Bill Gunn in Losing Ground (courtesy of Losing Ground

“It is all about an urge, a powerful and overwhelming urge, to fulfill myself, to fulfill this life that is inside me, to fulfill it in every way, leaving nothing untapped. That is what it is all about: the excesses, the anxiety, the restlessness, the pain, carrying around in me this irrepressible need to fulfill myself in every way possible.”—Kathleen Collins 

If I were to attempt to choose one word to sum up Kathleen Collins’s work it would be interiority. The idea of leaving nothing untapped or laying it all bare is prevalent across her plays, screenplays, short stories and films, which have mostly been shared with us posthumously. The above quote from Notes from a Black Woman’s Diary feels to me like a declaration, some semblance of an artist’s statement—the perfect way to sum up Collins’s work.

In her first film, The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy (1980), three siblings take on the task of fixing up the house of an elderly woman in their town in scenic Rockland County. They are often visited by their father, a specter, who guides them as they navigate life without him.

Sara (Seret Scott), the protagonist of Collins’s second feature, Losing Ground (1982), is a Black woman in search of ecstatic experience. She’s a philosophy professor who maintains deep kinship with her students while navigating the rocky terrain of her marriage to her painter husband (Bill Gunn). They’re taking a house in the country for the summer to celebrate his recent acquisition. During this time, she begins research for a paper she’s working on and also agrees to be in a thesis film directed by one of her students, George (Gary Bolling).

It’s not hyperbole to say that when Losing Ground was rediscovered and released in 2015, it provided a shift not just in the history of cinema but in the lives of many Black women artists. We now had another north star to help us make sense of our own desires to tell the stories of our innermost lives with a care and complexity that foregrounds Collins’s body of work, which is still being explored and reanimated in various forms as I write this. Collins’s need to fulfill herself and explore “the excesses, the anxiety, the restlessness, the pain” took more than one form—she was also a prolific playwright and screenwriter. Her short story collections, Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? (2016) and Notes from A Black Woman’s Diary (2019), deepen our understanding not just of the artist but of the possibilities of how Black women can be rendered on the page.

The notion of discovery is always tricky, especially once someone has passed away: New to whom? First in what sense? Despite her hardships, Collins—with the help of her artistic community—was able to produce plays, make films and engage in interviews about her work while she was alive, just not to the extent of which she deserved. The excavation of hidden figures is difficult when they didn’t always receive the institutional support adequate to their immense talent in their lifetime. It’s a common occurrence recently, as the world deems itself now ready to reckon with their treatment of the work of Black artists for the sake of empty buzzwords like diversity and inclusion.

That isn’t the case here: Nina Lorez Collins, the daughter of Kathleen, has been the one to breathe life into her mother’s work once again and make it accessible to us all. It was so wonderful to speak with Nina and hear about that process, which feels matrilineal in nature. Transparency about the life one has lived as integral to being is an idea that has gone from mother to daughter, and now we’re all the better for it.

Filmmaker: I would love to begin by talking about your mother’s career, a broad overview of her life and what she did.

Collins: My mom was born in 1942 and grew up in Jersey City in a kind of conservative household. She always described her father, who died when I was two, as pretty strict. He was an undertaker—he actually embalmed bodies. They lived in a funeral home when my mom was little. Then, he went back to school, got a master’s in education and ended up becoming the principal of a middle school in Jersey City, which is still named after him, Frank R. Conwell Middle School.

At Skidmore, she was always kind of the brainy one. She got involved in student politics and activism and started writing for the paper. She was pretty involved with SNCC, went down south and was in jail for a couple weeks in the summer of ’62 in Georgia. She wrote for Martin Luther King, that’s for sure. Some people credit her—there are a couple of books that do, but I’ll never know the answer to this—she may have been one of the people working on the “I Have a Dream” speech. Once she graduated college, she went to Africa on a program called Crossroads in the summer of 1961. She came back and went through a real depression in her early twenties. She was in therapy in Boston and taught French at a private school there, then ended up deciding to go get her master’s at the Sorbonne.

When she went to Paris she met my father, who’s white. Well, she re-met my father—she had met my father at the Crossroads program. At the time, he was involved with someone else, and when she went to Paris she reached out to him, and they got involved. Paris is a city with a lot of cinephiles; my mom got really interested in films there. They came back to New York in ’67 or ’68, had me and got divorced.

After she started working in film as a film editor, she worked for Sesame Street and was doing some French translations of things for people. Eventually, she got a job at City College when I was four or five, like 1974. We moved to Piermont in Rockland County, which is where I mostly grew up. She got this job at City College, and it was great, a steady job with a paycheck and benefits. She had two little kids and was divorced and writing all the time, but this gave her a steady income.

Filmmaker: I know film programs were fairly new in the early ’70s in America, so in a lot of ways she was the architect of the film program at City College.

Collins: Yeah, it was super cool. I have a lot of memories as a kid of going with her to City College, and you know, it was City College. Her students were all Black and Hispanic, occasionally white, and they adored her! They ended up working on both films and spending a lot of time in our house; they were just great. When she started, she was teaching editing, then it kind of evolved into her teaching other stuff. I’m sure you’ve seen the Howard lecture.

It was at City that one of her students—Ronald Gray, who became her cinematographer—convinced her to make The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy, her first movie, which she didn’t write. She adapted it from a short story written by Henry Roth, who I always say was not the famous Henry Roth but another Henry Roth, who was also a white Jewish English professor at City who she actually had an affair with. He was married, [and] they lived near us in Rockland County. She and Henry got involved, and she ended up adapting this short story.

Filmmaker: It was a kind of a preliminary film to Losing Ground. I believe that she didn’t want to write anything, she wanted to adapt something to direct because she hadn’t been ready to write her own film or something to that extent?

Collins: I think that’s right. Interestingly, the short story collection I ended up publishing, Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?, which had been stuck in a drawer for like 20 years, was originally titled Losing Ground. She’d written that in the late ’60s, early ’70s, so clearly this title, this concept was ruminating in her for a long, long time. You know, all of her writing is about the same character and the same struggle, as is so often the case with artists. She had written some other scripts, like A Summer Diary and Women, Sisters, and Friends. A Summer Diary is the one that’s now been optioned by Issa Rae.

It’s kind of interesting because she was friends with Carole Cole. Most of the time, she wrote for Seret [Scott]; she wanted Seret to be her actress, but there was a lot of talk of Carole doing Women, Sisters, and Friends or A Summer Diary. I don’t know how she made the decision. It’s a good question, why she didn’t wanna make one of the other screenplays first. No one’s ever asked me, and I don’t know the answer anyway; I’m not actually sure when she wrote it in relation to these other earlier screenplays. But that was the one she decided to make. She was diagnosed with cancer for the first time right around when she completed Cruz Brothers and didn’t tell anyone. I was 11; she had to have a surgery, lied to my grandmother about it and sent us to be with her for Christmas. A year later, she went into pre-production on Losing Ground. 

Filmmaker: I recently rewatched Cruz Brothers, although when I originally saw it I had seen Losing Ground first. I noticed some thematic similarities. I was wondering if you could talk more about that. These ideas of karmic debt, of ghosts, of an interiority are all present. He’s talking into his tape recorder about his life, and that’s his diary. These personal interior thoughts are a really big throughline on all the things she’s worked on as well.

Collins: Also, in both those movies there’s an interesting parental relationship.

Filmmaker: I was also curious about your mother’s relationship to nature. I look at Cruz and see these really lush, beautiful landscapes, and that’s also there with the summer home and exteriors in Losing Ground. Even reading the screenplay for A Summer Diary, one of the earliest images are of the child, Christopher, shimmying up a tree and disappearing. I was wondering if you could speak more to that.

Collins: A lot of those stories [in Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?] are preoccupied with the idea of houses in the country. So yes, there was a real preoccupation with nature. It certainly comes up as a theme in her work. When I think of the lushness, though, in both those films—I could be wrong, but I credit Ronald with that. I feel like it’s the cinematography. He did such a great job. As a kid growing up, it wasn’t like she was a huge hiker or camper or gardener, any of those things. She grew up in Jersey City, then went to school at Skidmore, then we ended up living in the country or the suburbs for much of my life. So, I don’t know. I do know she was afraid of water, like the character Sara says in Losing Ground. She didn’t like to swim. It’s funny—I wouldn’t think of her as a hugely outdoorsy person, but you’re totally right. It’s a theme in all of her work, and definitely the whole theme of a house in the country shows up again and again. I don’t really know what that’s about, actually— no one’s ever really asked me about that. I mean, I think she liked solitude, for one thing. She liked to be left alone. That’s probably what it’s attached to.

There’s a great scene in Interracial Love. She tells this story based on a true moment—a lot of her stuff is based on things that happened—about when she and my father were together in the early years. They were in New York. At some point, they took a cabin up in Canada for the summer, and there was a fire. I think my mother was there alone, and it burnt off her eyebrows, but I don’t know; this is one of those stories that might be kind of made up. Sometimes, she was a little fabulist.

Filmmaker: What other themes have popped up in her work that may have helped lend clarity to your understanding of your mother as a child vs. as an adult? You know how you grow up, and sometimes things are a little more clear to you?

Collins: Um, no, it has not really become much more clear to me. (laughs) I would say you’re definitely right about ghosts and karmic debt—that shows up everywhere. She was super interested in the supernatural. When I grew up, it was astrology readings and tarot card readings and biofeedback and all that kind of stuff. Interiority almost defines her. As a mom, she was a little bit self-absorbed, ’cause she was very interested in… I think as a mother, she very much believed in our independence and separateness from her. She was interested in each person’s individuality in a big way. The idea of a parent not being reachable is very present in both those movies. I love those scenes in Losing Ground of her with her mom, where she’s wanting her mom and they’re not quite understanding each other, or she’s not quite getting what she wants. I think that’s very much what happened to her in her childhood, and very much what happened to me in my childhood. Her birth mom died when she was a baby, and she had a stepmother who she really loved, but she felt hungry for a certain kind of love that she didn’t get. Then, she was a pretty removed mother in certain ways with us, very preoccupied with her work.

Filmmaker: We talk a lot now about her contemporaries, Bill Gunn and Sam Waymon and such. What kind of memories do you have of your mother’s artistic community growing up?

Collins: My memories are mostly of her students. People like Julie Dash were around, and Bill and Sam were good friends. Ronald lived with us for a couple of years during the making of those movies. I know they had a brief affair, but it was not really a romantic relationship. It was very contentious in a lot of ways: They loved each other but fought a lot. She really didn’t have any money. It was hard getting those movies made, so there was a lot of stress and anger. In terms of the artistic community, I would really say it was mostly her students.

Filmmaker: Have you heard from her students since her work has been released, and what kind of things have you heard? I was surprised to hear Julie Dash was her student. That’s important to the legacy of Black women’s filmmaking. 

Collins: It’s amazing, yeah! Her students, a lot of them were in touch with me and came out for the Losing Ground screening in 2015. I mean, they adored her, they worshipped her. They really did, ’cause she was really funny. My mother was kind of crass and one of those irreverent, wacky teachers who talked about sex.

Filmmaker: I read an essay where you said she had editing equipment in your living room or in your dining room. So, I wanted to know what your understanding as a child was of what your mother did.

Collins: I knew she was totally badass. My sense was, she was very talented and unrecognized; I saw it fairly clearly. I saw Losing Ground when it came out when I was 12 or 13, and I saw some of her plays that were produced and knew she was always kind of… hustling wouldn’t really be the right word, but you know, trying to make the next thing happen. I remember when she got a National Endowment for the Arts grant—it was a big deal. She was so thrilled.

I knew she was talented. After she died, from when I was 19 to when I was 39 and started remastering the film—for those 20 years, I would say to my kids, “Your grandmother was really a genius and super, super talented, but no one ever really knew what she did.” I didn’t feel bitter about it. I didn’t really feel like she felt bitter about it. I just felt like it was what it was. She had made these films no one ever really saw. It’s weird now when I think about it: When I went to remaster the films, I was still only doing it for my family. I really thought only my kids would [see it], but I didn’t feel any sense of, like, she’d been wronged. I just felt like this is what it is. I think she was pissed that she didn’t get the recognition she wanted, but it wasn’t very victim-y.

Filmmaker: Yeah. She was making a way out of no way in a lot of ways. I think a lot of Black women can identify with that!

Collins: Yeah! That’s right!

Filmmaker: I wanted to ask you about the restoration process of Losing Ground: how you came across the print, and the technical aspect of what it’s like to restore a film, and also emotionally what that experience was like.

Collins: It was super intense. It started with those letters from DuArt [Media Services] around when I was getting divorced, so like 2007. I was 37, 38 and got some letter and ignored it. I literally didn’t know. It was like, we need you to pay back storage fees and take these films. And I was like, “What the…? What am I gonna do with a bunch of cans of film?” I may have called Ronald, then I just ignored it. I kept getting these letters. Around that time, I heard from Terri Francis, who was then an associate professor at Yale [and] had reached out to me to say, “I’m trying to find a better copy of Losing Ground. Is there one?” She had some old VHS, and I was like, “No.”

For these 20 years after my mom had died, my stepfather, Alfred Prettyman, and I were technically sharing the literary estate, but there was no estate ’cause no one cared about her work, and Alfred and I hated each other and never spoke. So, it was like no one was really doing anything. Alfred was ostensibly in charge for a long time, but he never really got anything done, and then I grew up. So, Terri somehow reached out to me, and I was like, “I’m sorry, there is no better copy. But funny you should ask, ’cause I’ve been getting these emails from DuArt.” And she was like, “Oh my God, we should remaster the films.” And I was like, “Well, what’s involved?” “Mostly money.” “Well, how much money?” 

So, I called DuArt and tried to figure it out. It was going to be $25,000 to remaster both films. I was like, “I don’t really know if I should do this.” Terri said to me, “When I show this film to Black female students, they cry because they have never seen themselves represented like this on film. You have to do this. If you can’t pay for it, I’ll help you raise money to do it.” At the time, I was getting divorced and selling a house, and I was like, “My mother managed to send me to a private school for high school. I should just do this.” 

The emotional part was hard. I have memories of going to DuArt when I was a kid, being in the empty hallways on Saturday mornings while she was in an editing suite, and I’d be bouncing a ball or entertaining my little brother while she was working all day long. So, going back there was really weird. Some of the people were the same! I spent three weeks going up there a few times a week and sitting in a screening room while they remixed the sound. They were mostly asking me questions about color and sound. It was sad, you know? I sat there crying, like “Why am I doing this? And who’s gonna care?” It felt like a big responsibility.

Then, we did it and got these DVDs. I asked a friend of mine, “What I should do?” He gave me two names, Milestone [Films] and Women Make Movies. I called both. The Women Make Movies people totally blew me off. The Milestone people were super nice and were like, “We’re interested, come out and talk to us.” I drove out to New Jersey, met with them, and they were like, “Sure, we’ll take it on.” I had been a literary agent for many years, so I had, I thought, a pretty realistic understanding. In literary circles, if someone showed up with a dead writer’s book that had never been published, nothing was ever gonna happen with that book. Someone might humor you and do a self-published version of it, but it was never gonna get any attention. So, that was really how I went into it: “Great. These people are willing to make this into a movie they’ll keep in their catalog. My family will be able to see it. It won’t die. I have done my job.” I had no fantasy at all that anything else would happen, even though they said, “We’ll try and get it in film festivals.” I was like, “Yeah, yeah, whatever.” Then, about two years later, they called me and said, “Lincoln Center wants to put it in this film festival, ’Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, 1968–1986.’” And I was like, “Cool. We’ll have this one really cool night, I’ll invite whatever friends and family are still alive, and any of the cast and crew I can find. My mother’s film will be shown at Lincoln Center and that’ll be unbelievable.” It felt like that was gonna be the big thing, and then no one would care.

A few days before that screening, I woke up one morning to a text from my oldest best friend: “Look at The New Yorker.” There was this rave review from The New Yorker on my phone. The same day, or the day after, the Times published this big review over the fold. Suddenly, there was all this attention, and the whole thing went from there. The booking at Lincoln Center got extended and was sold out, and we got lots and lots of attention. The next fall is when I thought, “If Losing Ground did so well, I can probably publish this collection of stories I found.” Because I had worked in publishing, I knew how to do that, so I was able to sell it to Ecco. A year later, I did a second, Notes from a Black Woman’s Diary. Then, I hired a lawyer to deal with my stepfather and took over the estate.

Filmmaker: You did have a big responsibility. Were there any kind of guiding principles or an internal checklist in terms of how you wanted to preserve your mother’s archive and what you wanted to share?

Collins: It was pretty easy, I have to say. I just followed my instinct. The only time I ever felt like I was using any real judgment, where I had to pause for a second, is when I was organizing the stories for Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? I had to choose the order, and I felt like, “Oh! I need to do this right!” But even that, it took me about 10 minutes. I was kinda like, OK, this is how it’s gonna go. And I had to choose a title for the book, and that was a responsibility. I almost chose Only Once, which was one of the stories I really loved, but then felt like Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? seemed the most commercial and sexy. And Notes from a Black Woman’s Diary was easy. That title just popped out.

Her letters are extraordinary, and there are tons of them. Sometimes, I think about doing a book of her letters. It would just be a big undertaking. Choosing the artwork for the cover of the books was a big deal. Honestly, the whole thing has been so weird because it’s been so truly organic. Like, sometimes people think, “Oh, you’re a great publicist.” It wasn’t that I did something so fantastic—I mean, it was work and responsibility, but the work speaks for itself. The time was ready for her work to be seen. It has felt like I was like a vessel and guided it. I knew how to do it. I’m very proud: I think the books are beautiful, the foreign editions are beautiful. Milestone has done an amazing job. There’s been nothing that has happened that has made me cringe or worry that she wouldn’t be happy with it.

Filmmaker: I know you’ve been doing Q&As and touring with Losing Ground. I’m sure you’ve seen it many times as well. What’s that experience like, having people talk about it with you in real time, and what’s your favorite scene from the film?

Collins: I do think I’ve seen it like 200 times at this point, but I have to say, I saw it recently. I did an interview with Radha Blank at the Paris Theater a month ago. That was the first screening where I was like, “She definitely breaks up with him at the end of the movie.” For a long time, I was like, “It’s not clear, and I’m not sure how to interpret it.” And that time I saw it, I was like, “Oh, that is such a fuck you. You’re done.” 

My favorite scene in some ways is when she’s screaming by the pool and says, “Don’t take your dick out like it’s a paintbrush.” That is such a moment between my parents. I love the scenes of her with her mother in her mother’s apartment. I think you see a vulnerability in her. In both cases, they’re my favorite scenes probably because of what they say to me about my own life, right? Like the scenes with her mother, to me, show her longing for her own mother—her pain and not quite being seen, her pain about being expected to carry a certain kind of burden for the family or to represent something, all of which really speaks to me as well. It makes me feel kind of understood by her in some way.

Filmmaker: So, A Summer Diary has been optioned by Issa Rae. Also, recently some of her plays were put up in New York City. What has it been like navigating new creatives breathing life into her work, which for so long you had been safeguarding?

Collins: It makes me happier all the time that I did it. The more distance I have from the process, I feel more rewarded by it, which is really cool. Like, talking to people like you is super awesome. The fact that there are these young Black academics who are doing stuff, it’s just so cool. The plays were ignored until last summer; Vinson Cunningham wrote a piece in The New Yorker about her plays, and now they’re getting attention. Seeing them reinterpreted by young Black actresses is really moving. I think it would make her so happy. A Summer Diary—who knows if it’ll ever happen, but Angela Flournoy, who wrote The Turner House, is writing the script, supposedly. So, honestly, it just gets better and better. I also feel less of a responsibility at this point. I handed the archive over to the Schomburg. I’ve published the books, the movies are out there, it’s all it’s out there. It’s done. I’m super happy about it.

Filmmaker: Have you learned anything new about your mother after sharing her with the world this way?

Collins: No, I don’t think I have. I think as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to forgive more. I relate to her differently, ’cause I’m now six or so years older than she was when she died, but I don’t think I learned anything new. I think there’s that way in which our children know us better than we know ourselves in so many ways. I don’t have to say something for my kids to know what kind of mood I’m in. So, even when parents keep secrets from us, we know them. There’s a way in which I just knew her, and nothing has really changed except being able to do this for her makes me feel more equal to her, more like a peer. Somehow, it changes my dynamic with her.

Throughout my twenties and thirties, I was so miserable. I was such a wreck and traumatized by her loss and my childhood. This process in my forties has really helped me. It’s given me a separation from my childhood in a way that’s really helpful. I feel like I did this amazing thing for her, and I can appreciate how much she did, how hard she worked, how talented she was. She wasn’t a perfect mother—I’m not a perfect mother, you know?

Filmmaker: I want to thank you so much for the work that you’re doing because you’ve in a lot of ways given Black filmmakers, but especially Black women filmmakers, a north star. So, thank you for making her work accessible to us all.

Collins: I’m so glad. I mean, that makes me wanna cry. She would be so thrilled to see us having this conversation. To be able to talk to you like that is such a gift. It makes me feel super happy that I did this.

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